I found an interesting, breezy, and practical read about the concept of attachment – and it’s impact on our relationships – especially the romantic ones.
It was called Attached: Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How the science of adult attachment can help you find – and keep – love by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.
Having taught Psychology – and the Attachment Module in particular – most of the research and ideas were familiar to me. Attachment is one of those concepts that a lot of people kind of know about, but are unaware of its importance.
It’s even more interesting (and potentially important) whilst dating and finding a good man.
What is attachment?
Answering this questions needs a little bit of history and science. Ready?
Attachment is the psychological term for the close bond between caregiver and child. It was first proposed by Psychologist John Bowlby who’s the father of attachment theory (ha – see what I did there?) He said that humans are born to form attachments with their caregivers – it’s innate – and it has evolutionary value.
Think about it – when early humans evolved on the savannah, unless their newborn babies stuck close to their mothers, they would become food for another animal pretty quickly. This makes a lot of sense now when bringing up children.
However, until Bowlby’s ideas began to gain acceptance, parents maintained a proper distance between themselves and their children. Children were to develop resilience by being by themselves. There was a thing called ‘too much mother love‘.
It was only when a psychologist Harry Harlow did a bunch of horrifying experiments with orphaned monkeys in the 1950s, that we realised the importance of contact comfort. That is – babies being held by their mothers and being responsive to their needs.
OK but how does this relate to finding a good man?
It comes down to understanding your particular “attachment style”.
After Harlow and Bowlby, attachment research became a major area. Mary Ainsworth was an American Psychologist who studied with Bowlby. Her big contribution to attachment was creating an experiment to identify different attachment styles. Her experiment called ‘the strange situation’ allowed her to do this. She examined a baby’s behaviour in different scenarios with its mother and analysed some key aspects of a baby’s behaviour, namely how they react to: being by themselves, strangers, and reunion with the mother.
In the experiment, she recorded observed specific actions from the babies (e.g. crying, exploring, being happy to see mummy etc.) in each scenario and started to see patterns and repeated behaviours. She grouped these together to propose the following attachment “styles” (along with slightly humorous simplified explanation):
- Secure = I’m ok with mummy, scared when she’s not there, and I know she’s there to support me
- Insecure resistant = I need mummy now, she better not go, OMG WHERE IS SHE? Oh ok she’s back. Phew.
- Insecure avoidant = I couldn’t care less about mummy, whatever, I’ll be ok
- Disorganised = how I feel about mummy is all over the place
In the book Attached, they simplify it to:
- Secure: I’m OK; Mummy and Daddy are OK; you’re OK
- Anxious: I’m OK as long as Mummy and Daddy are here; you’re OK as long as you don’t leave me
- Avoidant: I tell myself I’m OK on my own, but actually I’m angry with Mummy and Daddy; you’re OK as long as I have my space and you don’t get too close
You can think about attachment in using this diagram:
Is the impact on dating and relationships really that significant?
Well yes – in the sense that it’s one way of understanding repeated behaviours.
Bowlby suggested that the first attachment we form as babies (usually with our mother) is our first example of a relationship. It becomes our template for future relationships. He called this our ‘internal working model’. The idea is that if you had a normal, functioning relationship with your mother, you’re most likely to have a secure attachment style and be able to create your own relationship successfully.
More psychological research – namely Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver (yes real names!) found that romantic relationships had similar patterns of attachment to those of children and their parents.
Therefore – you can see where this is going – if someone’s finding it hard to meet and create a great romantic relationship – it could mean that they have an anxious or avoidant attachment style.
This is the basic assumption at the core of the book Attached. Your attachment style will predict your success in future romantic relationships.
It’s also useful for examining other relationships – think about work colleagues, friends, or immediate family.
So if I have an anxious or avoidant style, it’s all doom and gloom?
Attachments aren’t set in stone. In the words of Levine and Heller, “attachment styles are stable but plastic”. By this they mean the patterns form when we’re young, and are relatively stable, but can change as we get older. The key to all of this – as with most personal development – is self-awareness. It’s not that one style is better than another. It’s more like – when you know your attachment style, you have a choice. In their book, Levine and Heller give lots of examples of this:
In dating situations, your thinking will shift from “Does he or she like me?” to “Is this someone I should invest in emotionally? Is he or she capable of giving me what I need?” Going forward with a relationship will become about choices you have to make. You’ll start asking yourself questions like: “How much is this person capable of intimacy? Is he sending mixed messages or is he genuinely interested in being close?Levine and heller
One useful perspective I got from reading the book is that the attachment styles had evolutionary value. Our variety as a species allowed us to survive in a range of environments. In a dangerous environment, putting all our time and energy into forming a close bond may be wasted – we don’t know how long our caregiver will be around (an avoidant style). In contrast, another response would be to become hyper-vigilant to signs of danger and ready to react (an anxious style). In a more stable environment, investing in close bonds is more useful for the individual and offspring (a secure style).
This is the thing to keep in mind – it’s useful to have a range of ways to understand things – but no one model is necessarily better than another. Attachment theory has been criticised. For example Hazan and Shaver’s research was questioned because it relied on adults self-reporting about their childhood experience. This can be unreliable.
Another article here from fatherly.com argues that Bowlby’s ideas had very little research, suggesting that a child’s temperament and environment (upbringing, social class etc.) had more to do with success in relationships, and the research that has been completed mostly used western participants.
Remember – attachment styles are a theory. They’re a useful framework. They are not the truth about you. Some of the things that make scientific theories useful are their explanatory value and their predictive value. In this case – can I explain someone’s behaviour using this framework? Can I used it to predict someone else’s behaviour (or even better – MY reactions?)
How can I apply this to meet a good man?
There are a ton of resources about attachment styles. One place to start is identifying your own attachment style. I suggest the following:
- Levine and Heller’s questionnaire here. (It includes a compatibility quiz too!)
- Dr. Chris Fraley’s fully validated adult attachment questionnaire here.
Keep in mind – the point of doing a questionnaire is not to pigeon-hole yourself and get resigned about the results. It’s about self-awareness and observing your reactions.
For example if you get really upset when a guy says he’ll text you the next day, and he doesn’t – that’s worth examining. Could you apply your understanding of attachment to this situation?
Overall – I recommend the book – but remember it’s your journey, your commitment, and you’re responsible for finding that good man.
As Bruce Lee said:
Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.
And that’s pretty much every self-development book ever!
Is understanding attachment useful or is it up to you to make it happen?
Note – I use affiliate links for the books I recommend
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