Hey, Single Friends! I Read the Book on Attachment Theory So You Don’t Have To

Dating is complicated. How can we make sense of the way we behave in relationships if it’s different from our normal perception of ourselves? As someone who’s currently single, I often wonder how I can date intentionally with the hope of finding the kind of relationship I want. Enter: attachment theory and the book that changed my life, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller.

 

What is Attachment Theory?

From the book: “Attachment theory is based on the assertion that the need to be in a close relationship is embedded in our genes.” Evolutionarily, it was advantageous to have someone we could depend on for support. Throughout history, those who were attached were more likely to produce offspring, passing on the “preference to form intimate bonds.” How we form and maintain these bonds is regulated in our bodies: “the brain has a biological mechanism, called the attachment system,” that controls these behaviours and feelings. It ensures that we “remain safe and protected by staying close to our loved ones.” There are three types of attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant.

 

Secure Attachment Style and the Good News

People with a secure attachment style are comfortable with intimacy and communicating their needs in a relationship. They aren’t “easily upset,” don’t send mixed signals and can handle conflict without belittling their partner. In a secure attachment both partners feel able to work on their own goals, confident that their partner will be there in “times of need.”

Sounds great, right? Well, people with a secure attachment style actually make up about 50% of the population! However, they enter the dating pool less often as their relationships tend to last longer. The good news is that while attachment styles are often formed in childhood based on upbringing, we can shift our attachment styles, and if we’re anxious or avoidant we can change our behaviours to become more secure. To do this, Levine and Heller offer three suggestions: first, be available and responsive to your partner. Second, don’t interfere, provide “behind-the-scenes” support rather than taking over the situation. Third, encourage your partner’s personal goals. Until we can “tap into the secure mind-set,” it’s also important to understand the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. 

 

Anxious Attachment Style

While people with this attachment style have a large capacity for intimacy, they also spend a lot of time fixating on the relationship. People with this style can perceive small shifts in the way a partner feels, but this can also lead to the “experience [of] a lot of negative emotions within the relationship.” There’s a need for a lot of reassurance from a partner when you have this attachment style.

People with an anxious attachment style have a “super-sensitive attachment system,” which is set off when there is a sense that there’s a threat to the relationship. A perceived threat can be as small as a partner not texting you back for a day. Once your attachment system is activated, it becomes difficult to “calm down until you get a clear indication from your partner that the relationship is safe.” This could look like feeling anxious and fixating on the relationship, taking “excessive” measures to try to establish contact, withdrawing, acting hostile or manipulation. None of these behaviours are healthy patterns to fall into and understanding that they’re a biological reaction to certain situations can help you avoid them.

How can you find the kind of relationships that are less likely to activate your attachment system? Firstly, Levine and Heller recommend finding someone with a secure attachment style whose behaviour is less likely to trigger your attachment system. People with a secure attachment style won’t “try to push you away,” in the way someone with an avoidant style might. It’s also helpful to accept what you truly need from a relationship, and break down the myth that some people are “too needy” and they should feel bad about it. It’s ok to want “intimacy, availability, and security in a relationship.” Accepting that your needs are valid is an important step towards finding the kind of relationship you want. The authors also recommend dating a lot of people so you can evaluate dating prospects more objectively and not fixate on just one person. This isn’t a COVID-safe strategy, but I’ve been doing this by talking with people on dating apps, only meeting one person at a time once it’s clear they’re what I’m looking for.

 

Avoidant Attachment Style

Avoidant people value independence and they often “prefer autonomy to intimate relationships.” Though they may want to be close to a partner “they feel uncomfortable with too much closeness and tend to keep a partner at arm’s length.” Rather than their attachment system being activated, people with an avoidant style disengage their attachment system with “thoughts or behaviours that [are] used to squelch intimacy.” This can look like fixating on a partner’s flaws, putting an ex on a pedestal and devaluing their current partner, building unrealistic visions of a soul mate, not feeling ready to commit but staying with someone anyways, flirting with others, pulling away from a partner when things are going well and avoiding physical closeness.

If all this resonates with you and you still want a partner, what can you do? Levine and Heller recommend: finding a secure partner, de-emphasizing self-reliance and focusing on mutual support, making a relationship gratitude list, focusing on the positives within the relationship, and learning to identify deactivating strategies that disengage the attachment system to better combat them. They also recommend the “distraction strategy,” noting that for people with this attachment style “it’s easier to get close to your partner if there’s a distraction,” because the distraction makes it easier to lower your defenses and get in touch with the love you feel for your partner.   

 

I hope you find this information helpful in your dating adventures! I would definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in learning more about attachment theory and how you can use it to find the kind of relationship you’re looking for.