Mr. Brightside 7 - Attachment Theory + Hot/Cold Relationships

We humans like to think we're very complex. I guess in some ways, we are, but in others, we're really not.

I've obviously spent some time reflecting on my relationship with Mr. Brightside and realized that while I was in it, all the nuances of our interactions seemed very mysterious. Now in hindsight, our relationship dynamic was so obvious that it's actually quite mundane because of how common it is.

It's based on adult attachment theory, and in this post I will only go into the anxious-avoidant style (hot/cold) since it's the one that's most commonly associated with dysfunctional and unfulfilling relationships, and since this is what Mr. Brightside and I were to one another.

Research on adult attachment is guided by the assumption that the same motivational system that gives rise to the close emotional bond between parents and their children is responsible for the bond that develops between adults in emotionally intimate relationships...

Attachment Theory (in a nutshell) says that if your parents or primary caregivers were around and available to meet your physical and emotional needs, then as an adult you develop a secure attachment style in relationships.

However, if for any reason your parents or primary caregiver were not available, or were erratically available, then as an adult you develop either an anxious style, an avoidant style, or a combination of anxious-avoidant.

When I look at my relationship with Mr. Brightside, I realize that we had opposing attachment styles, which unfortunately are generally attracted to one another; I have an anxious attachment style, and he had an avoidant attachment style.

This is actually the most common relationship pairing - like two pieces of a puzzle - an anxious partner chases the avoidant partner who emotionally and/or physically runs away.

Do a Google search for “toxic relationship” or “anxious-avoidant trap” and this is what comes up: one particular relational pattern that couples therapists see so often it can feel cliché—a pattern deceptively invisible when you’re in the midst of it.

Anxious Types:
  • Hyper-activates attachment needs, feelings, and behaviour
  • Insecure in intimate relationships; constantly worried about rejection and abandonment
  • Needy; requires ongoing reassurance
  • Overly sensitive to partner’s actions and moods; takes partner’s behaviour too personally
  • Poor personal boundaries
Draw attention. Repair connection. Find consistent security.
Partner’s disengagement, partner’s lack of energy/initiative, incongruities in communication (partner says “I love you” with a blank face), or general lack of partner communication.
Elicit positive attention and preserve external relationship.
Memory formation after conflict
Gathering positive evidence about the relationship to use as defense against abandonment.

Avoidant Types:
  • De-activates attachment needs and behaviour
  • Emotionally distant in intimate relationship; keeps partner at arm’s length
  • Equates intimacy with loss of independence; prefers autonomy to togetherness
  • Not able to depend on partner or allow a partner to “lean on” them; independence is a priority
  • Compulsively self-sufficient; narrow emotional range
  • Communication is intellectual; not comfortable talking about emotions
  • Avoids conflict, then explodes
Hide and conserve. Remain small and avoid punishment. Present as low-demand/low-need. Wait (with resignation and resentment) for freedom.
Any threat to limited resources—time, money, space. Also triggered by animal-level physical signals—angry or disapproving faces, voices, volume—as these threaten safety and autonomy.
Avoid negative attention and preserve internal agency.
Memory formation after conflict
Gathering negative evidence about the relationship to use as deflection when trapped.

Mr. Brightside and I were a very mundane toxic-relationship cliché - each playing out our roles to perfection. Every issue I had with him (and I'm certain every issue he had with me) can be explained in the four paragraphs above.

See? Complicated but not.

Mr. Brightside may actually have been anxious-avoidant. The one relationship he had where he felt that he really desired (and maybe loved) the woman he was with was one where she herself seemed to be avoidant. She was someone who realized early in their relationship that she didn't want to be in a relationship at all.

If they had both been avoidant, the relationship wouldn't have gone anywhere because two avoidants is a non-starter - they are both avoiding. But an avoidant (her) with an anxious-avoidant (him) means that because she put distance between them, it triggered his anxious side - and the associated fear of abandonment - which caused him to chase her, which triggered his feelings of "desire/love" for her.

HOT/COLD: If you want them the moment they don't want you, or they want you the moment you don't want them, this is dysfunction.

See? Complicated but not - because there's an easy explanation.

REMEMBER! Only unavailable men blow hot and cold. Yes, really!

There is, in such couplings, a constant game of push and pull. The anxiously attached party typically complains – more or less loudly – that their partner is not responsive enough: they accuse them of being emotionally distant, withholding, cold and perhaps physically uninterested too. The avoidant lover, for their part, stays relatively quiet but in their more fed-up moments, complains that the anxious party is far too demanding...and, as they put it pejoratively, ‘needy.’ One person seems to want far too much, the other far too little.

The unhappiness unfolds in a cycle. At the start, the anxious partner loves the avoidant one with great intensity – but, in time, also growing frustration. The dissatisfaction grows ever more intense until, eventually one day, fed up with so much seeming rejection, the anxious partner overcomes their fears, decides they need something better and tells their lover that they’re off.

At which point, the avoidant party undergoes a complete seachange. Their greatest fear, that of being engulfed in love, disappears at a stroke and reveals something that is normally utterly submerged in their character: a fear of being abandoned. Wholly liberated from the threat of being engulfed (the anxious one may by now have packed their bags), the avoidant one gives free reign to all their reserves of pent up romanticism and ardour – which feel utterly safe to bring out, now that there seems so little danger of reciprocation.

Despite their fury, the anxious person hears the honeyed words and forthright promises, and – after some initial doubts – can’t help but be won over. The formerly distant partner appears to have become, in the nick of time, as they’d always wanted them to be, a warm soul. There is no reason not to return: after all, it’s not that they didn’t love this person, it was the feeling they weren’t loved back that was making things impossible…

For a time, there is bliss – and it seems that the couple are headed for long-term happiness. Liberated from their anxiety around engulfment, the avoidant partner gives free expression to love; liberated from their fear of abandonment, the anxious one is left feeling secure and trusting.

But soon enough the problems return. Things become, as it were, too nice for the avoidant partner. It seems the anxious one isn’t going to leave them any more, they’re just going to stick around and seek ever greater closeness – and so the old fear of engulfment returns. They have no option but to start to pull away again and get distant, which gradually proves intolerable once again to the anxious partner. Within weeks or months, the pair are back in the same situation. Fierce arguments are back: the words needy and cold are once more in circulation. It’s time for another crisis and another threat of departure.

It may go on like this for years, or a lifetime… From the outside, it is almost funny. From the inside, it is hellish.

Being Cautious About New Openness a child becomes more of an individual, the emotionally immature parent's knee-jerk reaction is to do something that attempts to force the child back into an enmeshed pattern. If the child doesn't take the bait, such parents may ultimately start relating in a more genuine way.

I advise caution if your parents show uncharacteristic openness in response to your adoption of an observational and goal-directed approach. If they start treating you with more respect or open up a bit, you could be vulnerable to getting sucked back into your old healing fantasy (They're finally going to give me what I need). Be careful! Your inner child will always hope that your parents will finally change and offer what you've always longed for. But your job is to keep your adult outlook and continue relating to them as a separate, independent adult. 

At this point, you're looking for an adult relationship with them, not a re-creation of parent-child dynamics, right? If you allow yourself to slip back into those old childhood hopes, your parents' increased openness is likely to evaporate instantly because you'll no longer feel safe to them.

Remember, your parents are probably emotionally phobic and unable to handle genuine intimacy. If you become more open, they'll react by pulling back, trying to get you off balance and back under their control. This is the only way such people know to protect themselves from the vulnerability of too much closeness. In the end, the overall dynamic remains the same. Your parents will be emotionally available to you in inverse proportion to how much you feel the need for them. Only if you operate from your adult, objective mind will you feel safe to your parents. It's unfortunate, but the reality is, they are simply too terrified to handle your inner child's emotional needs.

The anxious-avoidant relationship is a dynamic that occurs as a result of growing up with emotionally immature parents.

It's just a repetition of the same pattern, with different people.

My relationship with Mr. Brightside had the same dynamic as the relationship with my parents.

See? Complicated but not - because there's an easy explanation.

Some people find the attachment trauma was in fact the only thing they had in common, that they needed to come together to heal each other, that they feel at peace with the idea of parting ways and sending love.

Some view it as a lesson they needed to learn or a new version of self that they had to “hurt into.”

From a natural-growth perspective, the parts of us that seek out this pattern do so for a reason. If we have been unable to “be with” our pain—if we have inherited or developed “adult” identities that abandon or attack the parts of self that hurt—then the continual reenactment of relational patterns forces us back into opportunities to meet the pain, to meet the child in us, to finally witness it with different eyes, and to understand what that difference really means.

It’s as if the child in us is saying, "This! Right here! This feeling right here—the emotions, the sensations in your body, the instinct to panic or disappear: THIS IS WHAT I FELT! For years! This was real. This happened. Nobody noticed. See me. Be with me. Meet me the way I’ve wanted to be met.

My relationship with Mr. Brightside was an opportunity to meet, see, get to know, heal, take care of and unconditionally love my inner child.

It needed to happen so I'm glad that it did; the end justifies the means.


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