Attachment Styles and Projective Identification

Last updated: 23-06-2024

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In the intricate world of romantic relationships, the pairing of an anxiously attached individual with an avoidantly attached partner often stands out for its intensity and complexity. To understand why this combination is both common and challenging, we need to delve into the powerful psychological defense mechanism known as projective identification.

Understanding Attachment Styles

Before we explore projective identification, let's briefly review the main attachment styles:

1. Anxious Attachment: Individuals with this style crave intimacy and often worry about their partner's availability and commitment.
2. Avoidant Attachment: These individuals value independence and may feel uncomfortable with too much closeness.
3. Secure Attachment: People with secure attachment are comfortable with both intimacy and independence.

While secure attachment is generally considered the healthiest, anxious and avoidant styles are common, especially among those who've experienced challenging early relationships.

Projective Identification: More Than Just Projection

Projective identification is a complex defense mechanism that goes beyond simple projection. In this process, a person unconsciously disowns parts of themselves that they find threatening or unacceptable. They then not only project these parts onto another person but also behave in ways that induce the other person to embody these projected qualities.

This mechanism serves several purposes:

- It allows the individual to distance themselves from aspects of their psyche that cause anxiety.
- It provides a sense of control over these disowned parts by locating them in another person.
- It creates a familiar dynamic that, while potentially distressing, feels safer than the unknown.

The Anxious Partner's Experience

For the anxiously attached individual, their capacity for independence and self-reliance often feels threatening. Their early experiences likely involved intense episodes where caregivers were unavailable or inconsistent. In these formative moments, their attempts at independence may have been met with abandonment or increased distress.

As a result, they've learned to equate independence with danger. To protect themselves, they unconsciously disown their capacity for self-reliance and project it onto their partner. They then interact with their partner as if all the independence and self-sufficiency in the relationship belongs to them.

This projection serves to:

- Distance themselves from the "dangerous" quality of independence.
- Create a dynamic where they can focus on connection and dependency, which feels safer.
- Justify their anxious behaviours, as they perceive their partner as not needing them.

The Avoidant Partner's Experience

Conversely, the avoidantly attached person has likely experienced situations where their desire for intimacy and connection led to pain or overwhelming emotions. Perhaps their early attempts at closeness were rebuffed, or they were burdened with excessive emotional responsibilities beyond their capacity.

As a defense, they've learned to suppress their need for intimacy, perceiving it as a threat to their emotional safety. Through projective identification, they unconsciously disown their desire for closeness and project it onto their partner. They then interact with their partner as if all the need for intimacy in the relationship belongs to them.

This projection allows them to:

- Distance themselves from their own "dangerous" longing for connection.
- Maintain a sense of independence and emotional safety.
- Justify their distancing behaviours, as they perceive their partner as overly needy.

The Self-Reinforcing Cycle

As each partner takes on these projected aspects, it intensifies the degree to which the other person projects. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle:

The more the anxious partner sees their avoidant partner as independent, the more they may cling and seek reassurance, further suppressing their own capacity for independence. Simultaneously, the more the avoidant partner perceives their anxious partner as demanding closeness, the more they may withdraw to protect their autonomy, further denying their own need for intimacy.

This withdrawal confirms the anxious partner's fears, intensifying their anxious behaviours. The intensified anxious behaviours further overwhelm the avoidant partner, causing more withdrawal. And so the cycle continues, with each partner's behaviour reinforcing the other's projections and attachment style.

The Attraction of the Familiar

This dynamic can be intensely compelling for both partners. For the anxiously attached individual, the avoidant partner represents a familiar challenge - the elusive intimacy they've often experienced in past relationships. For the avoidant partner, the anxious individual's intense desire for closeness may paradoxically feel safe, as it allows them to maintain their role as the distant one.

Moreover, at an unconscious level, each partner is drawn to the other because they represent the disowned parts of themselves. The anxious partner is attracted to the independence they've suppressed, while the avoidant partner is drawn to the capacity for intimacy they've denied.

Breaking the Cycle

Understanding this dynamic is the first step towards changing it. Here are some strategies that can help:

1. Self-Awareness: Both partners need to become aware of their attachment styles and the parts of themselves they've disowned and projected.
2. Reclaiming Projections: Each partner can work on recognising and integrating the aspects they've projected onto the other. The anxious partner can cultivate independence, while the avoidant partner can acknowledge their need for connection.
3. Clear Communication: Instead of acting out attachment needs, partners can learn to express them clearly and directly.
4. Challenging Assumptions: Both partners can work on challenging their assumptions about the other's behaviour and motivations.
5. Creating New Experiences: Couples can consciously create experiences that contradict their usual dynamic, allowing for new patterns to emerge.
6. Compassionate Understanding: Recognising that these patterns stem from past hurts can foster empathy and patience in the healing process.


The anxious-avoidant relationship, with its complex interplay of projection and identification, can be challenging. However, it also offers a unique opportunity for growth. By understanding the underlying dynamics and the defensive nature of projective identification, both partners have the chance to reclaim disowned parts of themselves and develop more secure attachment styles.

Remember, while attachment styles are influenced by our early experiences, they're not set in stone. With awareness, effort, and often the help of a skilled therapist, it's possible to develop a more secure attachment style and create healthier relationship dynamics.

In the end, the goal isn't to eliminate all anxiety or need for independence - both are normal parts of human relationships. Instead, the aim is to find a balance where both partners feel secure enough to be authentically themselves, creating a relationship that supports both connection and individual growth.

By recognising projective identification as a defense mechanism rooted in past experiences, we can approach these relationship dynamics with greater compassion and understanding, paving the way for deeper connection and personal growth.