The ways we were raised have an effect on our abilities to maintain healthy relationships. That particular can of worms is addressed in all manner of self help and mental health practices, but as of late, you’ve likely been hearing about most in relation to something called “attachment theory.”
Attachment theory isn’t new, but it’s gained attention over the past several years as a way to analyse and define relationships. In a column for the Washington Post’s Solo-ish series, writer Jenna Birch says that she recently delved into the book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — And Keep — Love after a failed relationship, and it’s done wonders for how she thinks about dating.
Authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller based their book around the idea that all infants are born with an innate desire to attach to someone, and how that desire is supported or thwarted by our parents helps determine how we try (or avoid) attaching to others as adults. It’s clear why these theories are popular: because you can take a test that will tell you about yourself.
Attached posits four main categories of attachment outcomes, the idea being that the one you fall into might help explain how you approach close relationships. The attachment styles break down as follows:
- Secure: Secure people are said to make up about 50 per cent of the population, thank goodness. If they didn’t, the human race might end. If you’re Secure, it generally suggests you had responsive caregivers who made separation seem less frightening. These people don’t avoid intimacy, and they’re less anxious about relationships, probably because they haven’t had as many bad experiences with them. Lucky.
- Anxious: According to Attached, Anxious people make up about 20 per cent of the population. Anxious people are very comfortable with intimacy — so comfortable, in fact, that they’ll basically sit in your lap and wonder if you’ve fallen out of love with them if you move away to reach for the remote. They need a lot of reassurance, because they likely had caregivers who were unable to meet their needs. They’re extremely sensitive, too, and hyper-aware of any problems coming up.
- Avoidant: Avoidant people are supposedly responding to a “detached caregiver,” becomingly incredibly independent and generally uncomfortable with intimacy. Attached says that they make up about 25 per cent of the population and you dated them all in college.
- “Disorganized”: Sometimes called “fearful” or “anxious and avoidant,” about five per cent of the population is said to have a kind of exciting mix of the attachment styles. A real roller coaster of love.
Limitations of attachment theory
There is plenty of criticism of attachment theory, since four categories hardly seems like enough to cover all of humanity’s many foibles. In 2016, psychologist and sex therapist Michael Aaron wrote for Psychology Today that attachment theory is too simplistic:
…Attachment theory seems to have posited that attachment is some kind of a monolithic relational mind map that applies globally, but recent research shows that individuals can be attached in different ways to different people. Indeed the child can have a secure attachment to its mother, but an avoidant attachment to its father, and an anxious attachment to an aunt, etc.
He also suggests that the theory is used as a way to push people to conform to a specific idea of “normal” relationships, saying it imposes “arbitrary, moralistic societal standards on relational and sexual desires.”
It’s an interesting point: is the only kind of healthy relationship a monogamous one, for example? Is there something wrong with you if you don’t want to settle down the “normal” way? Attachment theory does seem to imply there’s a single path we should all be trying to walk on, and if we’re not, it’s because of some fault in our upbringing rather than just having a more open approach to love and relationships.
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How attachment theory can help
Still, having a baseline idea of your tendencies could be a potentially helpful guide, even if you don’t like where you fall on the axis of attachment. First of all, most people are a mix of different behaviours and you should try not to think of any of the categories as inherently negative. For example, an Anxious person might be more sensitive to issues early, and thus able to address them. An Avoidant person could be good at finding a way out of difficult problems and won’t be too demanding. What it really comes down to is what kind of person your particular traits work best with.
For Birch, realising she was an anxious person made her realise she needed to be with someone secure, who wouldn’t react to her need for affection with more distance or disdain. While two people with insecurities can date, sometimes being in a relationship with a secure person can potentially make you more secure, because you’re practicing being with someone more reliable. Even if it doesn’t work out, those are lessons learned for your next relationship.
Journalist and author of The Attachment Effect: Exploring the Powerful Ways Our Earliest Bond Shapes Our Relationships and Lives, Peter Lovenheim, also told Birch that figuring this stuff out might clear up why certain relationships haven’t worked out and others have:
Learning your attachment style can be empowering. It’s hard if you’re going through life anxious and don’t know it; for example, you won’t understand the conflicts and frustrations in your relationships. When you learn attachment, you can think, ‘Oh, that’s my attachment style speaking’ when you’re triggered by something. You can even think, ‘I don’t need to respond that way’ and change your behaviours.
Basically, Lovenheim and the attachment theory movement still seem to encourage people to reflect on their behaviour and what they can change, no matter what’s happened in the past.
This story was originally published in August 2018 and was updated on February 26, 2021 to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.