Character  &  Context

Anxious-Avoidant Duos: Walking on Thin Ice in Relationships and Physical Health

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By Jana Lembke, Fiona Ge, Paula Pietromonaco, and Sally Powers

While the Disney animated film “Frozen” is most famous for its lovable characters and award-winning song “Let it Go,” this kids’ movie can teach us a thing or two about attachment styles in close relationships and the important interplay between preferences for intimacy versus independence in relationships.  In “Frozen,” the relationship difficulties that can occur when attachment goals clash are most evident between the two protagonists, sisters Elsa and Anna.

 

Anxious Anna and Avoidant Elsa: Attachment in “Frozen”

Attachment style refers to the extent to which we perceive our relationships (usually romantic partnerships) as secure, capable of meeting our needs, and a source of comfort in times of distress.  People who are securely attached are comfortable depending on others as well as having others depend on them.  People who are insecurely attached, however, have negative expectations about their relationships.  Insecure attachment may take different forms.  For example, individuals with an anxious attachment style fear rejection and abandonment, yet their cravings for closeness may inadvertently drive others away.  In “Frozen,” Anna is anxiously attached.  Her parents’ death and her sister’s abandonment leave her alone and desperate for love – so desperate, in fact, that she almost married a man she just met (Prince Hans).  Whenever Elsa seeks distance in the movie, Anna continues to pursue her and ends up getting hurt in the process.  Anxiously attached people may engage in behavior like this because they over-rely on their close relationships for reassurance.

On the other hand, avoidant attachment is characterized by feeling uncomfortable with closeness in relationships and a desire to maintain emotional distance.  A person high in avoidant attachment would find it difficult to depend on others.  In “Frozen,” Elsa exemplifies avoidant attachment.  As a child, she was encouraged to “conceal, don’t feel” after her magical ability to create snow and ice accidentally injured Anna.  From that moment on, Elsa increasingly pulls away from her sister both physically and emotionally.  When Anna finally confronts Elsa about her habit of shutting everyone out, Elsa responds by lashing out with her powers and running away (self-protective strategies, such as defensiveness and withdrawal, are how avoidantly-attached people typically respond to relationship stressors; Overall, Simpson, & Struthers, 2013).  People high in avoidance also tend to underestimate others’ care and support for them.  For instance, even after Anna communicates her desire to help Elsa, Elsa rejects her sister’s support and insists on being alone.

It’s easy to see how an anxious-avoidant pairing could snowball into relationship dysfunction: in the face of an attachment threat, such as an argument or confrontation, anxious individuals are likely to pursue their attachment figure in an attempt to reestablish feelings of closeness, just as Anna did when she ventured out into the blizzard to chase after Elsa.  When the avoidant partner responds by pulling away – as Elsa did when she told Anna her intention of never returning home – the anxious person’s fears are reinforced and the relationship is likely to suffer (i.e., Anna feels abandoned yet clings to her hope of reconnecting with her sister; Elsa feels overwhelmed and inadvertently strikes her sister with a nearly-fatal blast of ice).  

 

Attachment and Physical Health

“Frozen” conveyed the disastrous consequences of an attachment style mismatch when Anna was physically injured after continually provoking Elsa.  But what are the effects of anxious-avoidant pairings in relationships in the real world?  Can being with a romantic partner who has conflicting attachment goals actually harm you?  A number of studies have found evidence that yes, insecure attachment styles are associated with physiological stress responses and lifestyle behaviors that put people at risk for health problems (e.g., Robles, Brooks, Kane, & Schetter, 2013; Stephens et al., 2013; see Pietromonaco, DeVito, Ge, & Lembke, 2015).  The idea is that attachment promotes different ways of perceiving and regulating stress.  Overreacting to and poorly coping with relationship stressors – a tendency observed in insecurely attached individuals – can eventually invite health problems by disrupting endocrine, immune, and autonomic system functioning and/or predisposing unhealthy life choices (e.g., substance abuse). The link between attachment insecurity and poor physiological functioning is observed as early as childhood; for instance, children who have experienced adversity are more likely to show dysregulated physiological responses (see Pietromonaco & Powers, 2015).

While being high in attachment avoidance or anxiety may predict worse health, newer work by Beck and colleagues (2013) suggests that it is the combination of attachment styles within a relationship that matter.  Specifically, the researchers explored whether a poor fit in attachment styles, such as an anxious-avoidant pair like Anna and Elsa, can potentially affect some aspects of physical health.  In the study, newlywed couples came into the lab and discussed an unresolved conflict in their relationship – a stress-inducing task designed to trigger people’s attachment insecurities.  The hormone cortisol, which is released during times of stress, was measured in participants’ saliva at several time points before and after the conflict discussion.

Consistent with the anxious-avoidant dynamics discussed above, couples with an anxious wife and an avoidant husband showed heightened stress reactivity in anticipation of the conflict; that is, their cortisol levels rose when being reminded of the upcoming relationship stressor.  Soon after, these individuals showed sharp declines in cortisol, suggesting that they were physiologically disengaging from the conflict before it even began.  Interestingly, this stress response pattern was mirrored by less constructive ways of soliciting and providing support during the conflict discussion: anxiously attached wives were less able to recognize their avoidant husbands’ distress, whereas avoidant husbands found it difficult to constructively express their needs to their anxious wives.

 

Advice for Anxious-Avoidant Couples

People high in attachment avoidance or anxiety tend to doubt others’ ability to meet their needs, which can reinforce maladaptive views of relationships and lead to unhappiness.  The study by Beck and colleagues suggests two pathways by which partners’ opposing attachment styles can erode physical health and relationship well-being.  First, anxious-avoidant pairings exhibited greater stress reactivity in anticipating a discussion of a disagreement in their relationship, a pattern that may disrupt other bodily processes and take a toll on health over time (e.g., by increasing one’s susceptibility to illness or risk factors for disease, such as high blood pressure or inflammation).  Second, anxious-avoidant pairs were less effective providers and recipients of support during relationship conflict.  This behavioral pattern is problematic because supportive, high-quality relationships are associated with better health (Robles, 2014).  A recent meta-analysis, for example, found that greater marital support and less marital strain were linked to having lower cardiovascular reactivity during conflict and a lower mortality rate (Robles, Slatcher, Trombello, & McGinn, 2014).  Consequently, the inability for anxious-avoidant couples to recognize each others’ distress and constructively convey their feelings may be diagnostic of future health risks.

If you recognize a troublesome anxious-avoidant dynamic in your relationship, know that it’s possible to “unfreeze” bad patterns.  After all, when Anna and Elsa finally empathized with each other and stopped letting their fears control them, they experienced self-growth and reconnection.  Communicating in ways that address a partner’s attachment needs can help during difficult interactions.  For example, when communicating with an avoidantly-attached partner, being sensitive to their need for autonomy and conveying the message that they are highly valued can mitigate their anger and withdrawal during conflicts (Overall, Simpson, & Struthers, 2013).  If Anna and Elsa can melt the ice and rekindle their bond, we may also be able to learn new ways of behaving in relationships that give hope for many more happy endings.


Jana Lembke is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Her research examines how positive romantic relationship processes such as recovery from conflict are connected to couples’ relationship functioning and emotional health.

Fiona Ge is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Her research examines links between spouses’ accuracy and bias in perceiving their partners and relationship functioning, as well as cultural differences in communication styles in romantic relationships.

Paula Pietromonaco is a Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Her research examines connections among close relationship processes, emotions, and health.

Sally Powers is a Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research focuses on the interaction of family relationships, physiological functioning, and psychopathology in adolescents.

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