The book referred to in this article, Attached, features in this list of 34 Life Changing Self-Development Books to Read ASAP. Attachment theory also features in my new book.
Single or attached, long-time married or newly dating, you definitely want to know what attachment theory is all about.
Attachment theory was the product of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s research. Bowlby was looking at the distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. The resulting theory was later on extrapolated to adults, to account for the various ways we form relationships with others – friends and romantic partners.
This is useful stuff, if you want to understand why you behave the way you do in romantic relationships.
Our attachment style is predictable as it is based on that early model. The nature of our attachment to our parents or primary caretakers, and how well it’s fostered and cared for, determines what our dominant style will be. Other factors, such as significant adult relationships and even genetics, can change your dominant type. More on that below.
Knowing your type (there are three main ones) can help improve your relationship satisfaction, help you select a partner if you happen to be single, and improve your understanding of your partner’s actions if you find yourself in a relationship with one of the two insecure types (which is around 40% of the population, according to this research).
Attachment theory is just a really cool thing to be aware of in general. It makes for excellent dinner party conversation, for example, although perhaps not something you want to raise during your first dates.
Here are 14 things to know about it:
The three types – anxious, avoidant and secure
1. The three main attachment types most of us adopt are secure, anxious and avoidant. There is also a fourth, anxious-avoidant, but this is less common. (To determine your type, I highly recommend that you read and use the tool in the brilliant book Attached, by Amir Levie and Rachel Heller. Or you could take this quiz. Or this one. If you don’t want to read the book and take the test, you can probably recognise yourself from the descriptions below.)
2. Secure is pretty much what it sounds. Those with a secure style feel equally okay with displaying interest and affection, and being alone and independent. They can cope with rejection and are less prone to obsessing over their relationships. Unsurprisingly perhaps, those with a secure attachment style report being happiest and most fulfilled in relationships. They are also better at filtering out unworthy partners because they aren’t interested in being treated badly by people.
3. Those with an anxious attachment style, which is apparently around 20% of the population, need plenty of reassurance from their partners. They have difficulty in being single compared with the other two styles, and because of that are more likely to succumb to unhealthy relationships. There are likely also to be trust issues with this style. But if those with an anxious style learn to communicate their needs effectively, and if they learn to choose secure partners rather than those with an anvoidant style, then they can start to resemble the secure style. Achieving fulfillment in relationships with avoidants is less likely to be possible.
4. Avoidant attachment types (around 25% of the population) are independent, self-referencing and usually uncomfortable with intimacy. They may avoid commitment and/or construct their lifestyle in such a way to avoid too much contact with their partners i.e. by keeping a full schedule. Avoidants probably have the most difficult time of all in relationships, just because satisfaction is so elusive.
Anxious-avoidant, also known as chaotic
5. The fourth type, anxious-avoidant attachment style, are relatively rare. It is a style best characterized by conflicting desires: to be close but to also push people away. There may be evidence of low psychological health in other areas of their life, for example, there may be issues with substance abuse and depression.
The dating pool
6. Fun fact: Among singles, statistically there are more avoidants, since people with a secure attachment are more likely to be in a relationship. Unlike avoidants, they aren’t searching for an ideal, so when a relationship ends, they aren’t single too long.
Who dates who? Configurations
7. Secure types can deal with dating both anxious and avoidant types. They’re comfortable enough with themselves to give anxious types all of the reassurance they need, and to give avoidant types the space they need without feeling threatened themselves. That said, secure types might seem boring for avoidants and anxious types. That’s because there is no drama, which is sometimes interpreted as no ‘spark’ or ‘chemistry’. It would take an anxious or avoidant with enough self-awareness to distinguish that lack of drama correctly.
8. Anxious and avoidants end up together more often than they end up in relationships with their own types. The reason becomes obvious when you think about it as a pair of avoidants will lack ‘glue’, and two anxious people would be highly volatile. Avoidant and anxious styles provide validation for one another. As I have written about, we do tend to use people to validate our beliefs about ourselves.
Can we change type?
9. We can change type – and specifically we can cultivate a more secure style – but it could be a long and slow process. Research shows that an anxious or avoidant who enters a long-term relationship with a secure, can be ‘raised up’ to the level of the secure over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, an anxious or avoidant is also capable of ‘bringing down’ a secure to their level of insecurity if they’re not careful. This is something to keep an eye on if you are a secure.
10. Alternatively, you could make a conscious effort to move yourself to a more secure style. This takes building your self-knowledge. Therapy is an option, too. Those with an anxious style may need to work on self esteem. For avoidants, the project is more compassion and connection. Both the insecure types want to work on their relationships with fear.
11. On average, around 70-75% of adults remain consistently in the same attachment category at different points in their lives, with the remaining percentage reporting a change to attachment style. Researchers attribute the change to romantic relationships in adulthood that are so powerful, that they revise our most basic beliefs towards connectedness.
Self-awareness exercises for each type
12. Learn how to communicate your needs. Not only will this guarantee less anxiety for you, but it will help you to filter out inappropriate partners (how your date responds to effective communication is extremely telling). Effective communication is the tool of the secure attachment style. Practice surfacing your feelings and seeing how your date reacts. This is a scary prospect for an anxious attachment style, but on the other side of that fear is a lot more of a stable experience in your romantic attachments.
13. Avoidants should start to become aware of where they use deactivating strategies (any behaviour or thought that is used to squelch intimacy). Such strategies include saying you’re not ready to commit, but staying together anyway; focusing on small imperfections in your partner; pining after ‘the phantom ex’; pulling away when things are going well; forming relationships with an impossible future; avoiding physical closeness, for e.g. pacing ahead when walking with your partner. When they happen, remind yourself that the picture is skewed and that you need intimacy despite your discomfort with it.
Other goals for avoidants are: de-emphasize self-reliance and focus on mutual support; choose a secure partner (rather than anxious) if possible; be conscious of your tendency to misinterpret behaviors and think negatively about your partner; make a relationships gratitude list; forget about finding ‘the one’ – choose to make the person you are with, your soulmate; adopt ‘the distraction strategy’ (says you are more able to foster closeness with your partner when you can focus on other things).
14. Be aware of giving someone too much the benefit of the doubt, or staying in a relationship just because you can tolerate it.
Summary – Attachment theory might change your romantic fortunes
Our attachment style probably explains a great deal of why our relationships have succeeded/failed in the manner they have, why we’re attracted to the people that we are, and the nature of the relationship problems that come up again and again for us.
I’m not saying that attachment theory is the root cause everytime we are romantically ‘rejected’ or experiencing issues. It’s just one useful lens that can empower us to make better decisions, help us to understand and empathize with people – and not take things so personally.