Attachment theory is a heavyweight psychological theory explaining the nature of the emotional attachments we form with our fellow man and woman.
It’s compelling stuff.
Useful too, if you want to understand why you behave the way you do in romantic relationships.
Psychologists believe our attachment type is set when we are children – which makes a lot of sense, when you think about it.
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, later on when it comes to our romantic endeavors. (Other factors, such as significant adult relationships and even genetics, can change your dominant type. More on that below.)
Knowing your type (there are 3 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).
Look, attachment theory is just a really cool thing to be aware of in general. It makes great dinner party conversation, for example: everyone sitting around, judging and analyzing eachother. Fun times.
Here’s what yours truly would say everyone needs to know:
The three types – anxious, avoidant and secure
- The 3 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.)
- Secure is what it sounds. Secures are cool with displaying interest and affection but also comfortable being alone and independent. Secures don’t obsess over their relationships. Secures can also handle rejection. Secures aren’t superior to the other types (!) – but it’s fair to say that they probably make the most well equipped romantic partners, family members and friends. Secures also report being happiest and most fulfilled in relationships. Secures are also programmed to expect loving behaviour, so if someone sends out vibes that aren’t in line with that, they automatically lose interest.
- Anxious attachment types (around 20% of the population) need plenty of reassurance and affection from their partner. They have trouble being alone or single. They might succumb to unhealthy or abusive relationships, and have mega issues with trusting people. Their behavior can be irrational, sporadic, and overly-emotional. This is the guy that accuses all women of being cold and heartless, and the girl that you have had 21 missed calls from when you go AWOL for the evening. Anxious types can get to a level of relationship fulfillment on a par with secure types, once they learn to communicate their needs for reassurance effectively, and assuming they select secure partners (more on that below). Fulfillment in relationships with avoidants, however, is unlikely as these are difficult rollercoasters of highs and lows.
- Avoidant attachment types (around 25% of the population) are extremely independent, self-directed, and often uncomfortable with intimacy. They’re commitment-phobes and experts at rationalizing their way out of any intimate situation. In every relationship, they always (like, always) have an exit strategy. And they often construct their lifestyle in such a way to avoid commitment or too much intimate contact. This is the guy that busies up his schedule so as to limit your time together, or the girl that dates loads of guys telling them all the same thing; ‘nothing serious please’. Avoidants probably have the most difficult time of all in relationships, just because satisfaction is so elusive.
- The fourth type, anxious-avoidant attachment style, are pretty rare. Embodying the worst of both worlds, they typically have a multitude of other emotional problems in other areas of their life (for e.g. substance abuse and depression). There is much inner conflict: they desire but simultaneously resist intimacy, push people away, are suspicious of others’ intentions and fear annihilation in intimacy scenarios.
The dating pool
- 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
- Although obviously not ideal, 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.
- Anxious and avoidants end up together more often than they end up in relationships with their own types. Think about it: avoidant-avoidant will lack ‘glue’, and anxious-anxious is highly volatile. In fact, in a weird way, anxious and avoidant work: avoidant types are so adept at putting people off that it’s only the anxious types who are willing to stick around and put in the extra effort to get them to open up. In fact, avoidant can wind up validated by anxious, as they provide him with the reassurance he needs that he can behave independently and anxious will wait around. Secure on the other hand, would simply accept rejection from avoidant, and disappear.
Can we change type?
- Yes – but it could be a long, slow and painful 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.
- Alternatively, you could make a conscious effort to move yourself to a more secure style. This takes a capacity to look inwards and be radically honest with yourself. Therapy is an option, too. Anxious wants 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.
- 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
- 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 (so it helps to have a role model: someone close to you, or even an ex partner, who you think had a 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.
- 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).
- 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 is a useful lens, and might even be a game-changer for you
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.