Snog, marry or avoid? Improve Your Love Life By Knowing Your Attachment Style.
"I just don't like who I become when I'm in a relationship."
Consider it a major red flag if you're ever receiving this message in the early stages of dating.
It often implies a thin-veiled warning your lover is thinking of going through your WhatsApp messages while you're showering off the post-coital bliss. Or they've ghosted so many exes that even an Ouija board won't go near them.
Finding out your attachment style
Both behaviours – stalking and ghosting – take place on the extreme ends of what is known as attachment theory, a psychological model that describes how people respond to being hurt or taken away from their loved ones.
Although the theory was developed to explain children's attachment to their primary caregivers, elements of it apply to our adult dating lives too.
John Bowlby, the British psychologist who first coined attachment theory, identified three main styles of relating – secure, anxious, and avoidant. Psychologists Amir Levine and Rachel Heller then built on this theory and applied these concepts to adult romantic relationships.
In their 2010 bestseller Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, they discuss how a better understanding of attachment theory can be helpful in lining up more suitable potential partners or improving your existing relationship(s). In that sense, getting to grips with attachment styles means you can educate yourself and those around you about some typical relationship traps.
Below, I'll briefly summarise the book and its key concepts. Remember of course that human relationships are often a hell of a lot more complex than the simple categorisations offered in many self-help books.
Needy boyfriend seeks needy girlfriend
Levine and Hellers's research shows that roughly twenty-five per cent of the population has an anxious attachment style.
If you fall into this category, you will likely have an above-average craving for intimacy and closeness. You often dread the idea of not being in a relationship, and you may have a genuine desire for someone to complete you or fulfil you.
While you're often wonderfully loving and sensitive to your partner's moods and needs, you're also delicate regarding any perceived danger that threatens the romantic picture you've painted in your mind.
Your panic radar is stuck in an extremely sensitive setting. So, even if you're not a particularly jealous person, the slightest whiff of ambiguity can trigger paranoia that your partner may be falling out of love with you.
As a result, you require very regular verbal, physical and emotional reassurance that your partner is still committed to you.
Your friends might describe you as emotional, romantic and passionate. Your exes would probably settle for clingy, paranoid and codependent.
Mr Lova Love-avoidant
On the opposite end of the attachment scale, you'll find the love avoidants – making up about 25 per cent of the population.
If you're a love avoidant, you'll probably bring a lot of initial variety and excitement into a relationship, although possibly not a huge amount of emotional depth.
It's not that you lack depth. It's just that you prefer to avoid the hassle of dealing with all the 'drama' that comes with relationships.
That is why many love avoidants take a rather dismissive approach to love – resenting anyone who dares to impede their emotional self-sufficiency. Indeed, if you're a love avoidant, you'll likely feel uncomfortable depending on anyone else but yourself.
Your impulse to flee gets triggered as soon as you feel yourself getting close to someone. You'll then seek to distance yourself from your partner by casually bringing your incredible ex-boyfriend up in conversation, getting sarcastic with your boo, or burying yourself in work.
While you might fancy yourself as super strong and independent, at the root of your frosty behaviour lies an often-touching backstory from the past. It's a story that's led you to fear the exact same thing that sends your anxious lovers into a tailspin – abandonment.
Secure attachment rules the roost
Then there's the fifty per cent of lucky ones with a secure attachment style.
Generally, you have a reasonably positive outlook on yourself and your relationships. You're okay with others depending on you, and you're equally comfortable depending on others.
Research also shows that most people with a secure attachment style have pretty high self-esteem, are good at seeking out social support, find enjoyment in intimate relationships, and are pretty adequate at sharing feelings with others.
Your emotional prowess has the potential to 'heal' the relationship patterns of lovers on both ends of the spectrum.
Indeed, when you're with an anxious partner, you take care of their neediness by making them feel safe and secure. And when you're with an avoidant partner, you give them the space and sense of independence they crave.
While by no means 24/7 fairy tales, relationships with secure lovers tend to be relatively equal, honest and open – with both parties feeling independent yet loving towards each other.
Indeed, your ability to communicate and tune in to what your partner wants and needs has turned you into genuine relationship gold.
Suppose you have an anxious or avoidant attachment style. In that case, you might have read the above description of secure attachers thinking: 'Sounds lovely but dull'.
That highlights a common problem. If secure lovers are such a catch, why are so many anxious lovers falling for avoidants – and vice versa?
Partly because romance is a numbers game. Secure lovers – aka 'all the good ones' – are out there having stable relationships, mostly with one another. Meanwhile, the dating pool replenishes itself with anxious and avoidant lovers who continuously repeat their increasingly bruised and battered romantic patterns among themselves.
Opposites do attract because avoidance acts like a red rag on anxious lovers – and vice versa. They simply can't resist each other.
There's logic to this. If you have an anxious attachment style, you experience the highs and the lows that come from dating a free-spirited charismatic avoidant much more strongly than anyone else.
You'll happily accept the dreadful lows simply because the rest of the ride is so damn exhilarating. But once that rollercoaster becomes a relationship pattern, you'll crave that 'passion' with every new potential mate.
When a secure match finally walks into your life – with all their predictability, attentiveness and open communication – you get bored within a month because Goodie-Two-Shoes isn't providing you with the drama and intensity fix you've started to crave.
Before you know it, you're back to dating those hot, brooding fellas who'll take you to a fetish club on your first date but subsequently respond with ever-lasting silence to your increasingly desperate 'are we still one for Friday?'.
Avoidants seek out anxious lovers for the same reason. They also secretly love the drama and get a thrill from seeing anxious lovers validating the avoidant's self-perception that they're somehow stronger and more independent than everybody else. The same fear of abandonment lies at the root here, but it's more a matter of jump before you get pushed.
Test your attachment style
Are mixed attachment styles therefore doomed from the start? No, but they do require a strong sense of grounding and a lot of communication – skills neither anxious nor avoidant lovers are typically good at.
That means getting familiar with your own attachment style can be very helpful.
Spend some time taking a closer look at your relationship history and writing down your triggers and emotional patterns in each of them. Do the test here and find out where you fit in.
If you're anxious, be honest with yourself about what your relationship needs are. Rather than hoping things will improve over time, move on quickly if your love interest is unwilling to meet those needs.
If you're an avoidant, realise that being strong and autonomous is sexy, but so is vulnerability. Not everyone is out to clip your wings, and a balanced relationship with the right person will massively increase your sense of self-worth and your capacity for intimacy.
Give yourself permission to explore the safety of a relationship with a secure lover. The good news is that attachment styles are fluid and not set in stone. Or, as Amir Levine says: 'Being in a relationship with a secure person is like having a coach built into the relationship. They're so good at it. They walk you through many potential pitfalls and teach you to become more secure.'
If you happen to be a secure lover reading this, please use your healing powers wisely. Most of us anxious and avoidant lovers look forward to being welcomed into your stable arms sometime soon.
If those arms ever become single again, of course.