The theory of attachment is one that has been studied and utilized by psychology researchers and psychotherapists for decades. More recently, the concept has gained mainstream attention and is growing in popularity all the time. As a psychologist, looking at attachment informed my understanding of my clients’ struggles. It told me a bit about how they grew up and how those historical factors influenced current belief systems, behaviors and emotional experience and, of course, symptoms of mental illness. In psychotherapy, attachment between the client and therapist is explored and used as a tool to shift patterns that may not serve the client well. The consideration of attachment in my work as a dating coach, offers all the same benefits as with my therapy clients, and also serves as a useful guidepost when navigating the world of partner selection. So, here's the scoop.
As humans, we are mammals. The fundamental purpose of mammals is to procreate. But we can't procreate if we don't live long enough, so our number one priority as living beings is always, first and foremost, to survive. When our survival is threatened, we know it because we feel unsafe. The drive to feel safe is primitive, instinctual and all-powerful. We will give up a lot to establish a sense of safety and security. Until we do, nothing else can happen. We won’t explore, play, create or do much of anything until we feel safe.
One of the primary ways we establish a sense of safety is by attaching ourselves to other mammals. From the beginning of time, survival of the species depended on being part of a pack. You know, safety in numbers. Getting separated from the pack left us vulnerable to the elements as well as natural predators. Evolutionarily speaking, being alone is dangerous. So, it makes sense that survival and attachment are hardwired together in our brains.
That’s the “nature” part of the discussion. Here’s where “nurture” comes in. From the beginning of our existence, we are biologically designed to attach to others, primarily a major caregiver in infancy. Our caregivers come to the table with their own history and their own attachment styles. As infants, we develop our attachment style in relation to the attachment behavior of our caregivers. For most, that leads us to the first category of attachment style; Secure Attachment.
If you are securely attached, you seek intimacy and connection with others and don’t find yourself being overly preoccupied with your relationships. You are able to express your own feelings fairly easily, as well as comfortably hear your partner express their feelings. You trust that your relationships are generally stable and reliable. Securely attached people are comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. They can also tolerate being alone and allowing their partner to enjoy activities independent from the relationship. Those who are securely attached generally feel safe in the world without much thought about it.
The second type of attachment style is Anxious Attachment. You may relate to this style if you find yourself thinking at great length about your relationships. You may micromanage your behavior for fear that the slightest wrong move will ruin your chances at a future with someone. You may interpret any lack of attentiveness in your partner as a sign that they are losing interest and pulling away. Anxiously attached people will often increase their attachment-seeking behavior when they feel insecure in relationships. This is an attempt to re-establish that sense of safety in the world.
Avoidant attachment is the third style which is characterized by a pattern of words and behaviors that create distance in relationships. You may be avoidant if you tend not to want or seek emotional connection with others or feel uncomfortable with intimacy. You may deflect discussions about your partner’s needs or feelings or respond in a way that diminishes or demeans them. You value your independence above all else and fear being tied down or restricted by the needs of a partner. You may prevent a partner from getting too close by avoiding letting them know you better. Avoidantly attached people will often idealize what they are looking for in love to the extent that they prevent the possibility of finding a match with anyone. Their sense of safety comes from creating distance.
The fourth category of attachment, called Disorganized Attachment, is a combination of Anxious and Avoidant styles and is relatively rare. It often stems from a chaotic and/or abusive environment growing up. It is characterized by confusion and reactivity. There is a longing for connection at the same time there is a fear of it. People with this attachment style are uncomfortable in most relational situations because they can neither tolerate connection nor lack of connection. They need soothing and reassurance at the same time they need distance and independence. It is very difficult for those who attach in a disorganized manner to establish a consistent sense of safety.
From these descriptions, you might have a sense of what your attachment style is. You may also have ideas about others you have dated or are currently in relationship with. I recommend you explore it further as understanding it truly gives you the ability to effectively navigate needs and feelings in relationships. Being able to manage your sense of safety effectively opens the door to all of the good things in life that we can't attend to when we feel unsafe. We can play, laugh, create and explore. In short, we can enjoy life and relationships.
There are lots of resources out there about the topic. So, go. Explore. Learn. Then date armed with this new knowledge and see the difference it can make.
If you are so inclined, feel free to share your experience on the Evolve Dating Facebook page.
Working in the mental health field, it doesn't take long to realize that so much of what brings people into therapy boils down to relationships. If you've had good ones from the start, you are fairly well-equipped to deal with most of what life can throw at you. If not, well...
Granted, this is a bit simplistic. But even if early relational dysfunction isn't solely to blame for the issues that bring people into therapy, it is often a significant contributing factor. And one that tends to self-perpetuate. We learn how to "do" relationships by being in relationships. If our role models were sub-par, our interpersonal patterns are going to reflect that. Those patterns tend to follow us into adulthood leading to discontent in our adult relationship experiences.
I've been a practicing psychologist for 18 years. I have spent countless hours helping people unlearn and relearn how to do relationships in a way that leads to symptom-reduction and life satisfaction. About ten years ago, I began to notice patterns emerging in my work with single clients who felt stalled out on the dating scene. They just couldn't seem to get their relationship life off the ground and they all seemed to be telling the same story. From difficulty “selling” themselves on dating profiles to over-personalizing unsuccessful dating encounters, I heard the same frustrations, questions and insecurities coming up over and over again. I could see how the structure of modern dating was influencing dating behaviors and belief systems and leading people away from their authentic selves. "Dating-By-Drop-Down-Menu" and an abundance of simplistic, all-purpose online advice was shaping (or more accurately misshaping) people's perceptions of what goes into finding a good partner.
As a psychologist who understands how deeply complex and nuanced humans and human behavior can be, I wanted to pull my hair out at how dating culture was reducing beautifully rich and complicated individuals into one-dimensional categories for easy consumption. It occurred to me that something more reality-based and human-driven was needed to help this subset of clients keep their perspective and date more authentically. The seeds of an idea started to sprout about how I might fill the need for that something more.
In addition to offering individual therapy, I am also a group therapist. The group setting is an enormously powerful tool in bringing about change. So naturally, I began to wonder what would happen if I got a handful of singles in a room together to share their experiences and possibly gain a new perspective. One fall day in 2012, I sat down and outlined the format of a five-week workshop that was a balance of organic interpersonal interaction, structured feedback and experiential exercises that would bring heady concepts to life. The following February, the first Dating Boot Camp (DBC) was held.
Over the next 5 years, I ran many DBC workshops and I loved it! I loved watching my clients take in peer feedback that allowed them to see themselves in a new light. I loved watching the "aha!" moments as group members would recognize a limiting pattern in their behavior. I loved watching the members support each other in taking risks that opened up whole new possibilities in their relationship lives. And I learned so much about the "front line" experience of dating that, as someone who has been married for nearly 20 years, I could not have known otherwise.
Through my continued work with individual clients along with DBC, I developed a clear point of view about what I believe is most and least helpful on the dating scene. Each time I shared my ideas with people, I could see the light bulbs of new awareness going off. I realized I might just have something here and I wanted to share it with more people. That was my inspiration to become a dating coach and just before Valentine's Day of 2018, Evolve Dating launched.
Evolve Dating is a coaching program offering packages that are short-term, focused on highly personalized goals and geared toward changing-by-doing. In addition to individual coaching, I kept the group concept as well as added complimentary services. Dating Boot Camp has gained an additional week and is now called Engage Dating Workshop. I created a private Facebook page called The Dating Loop as an extension of the workshop idea so even more daters can get support and ask for feedback. I send out a weekly newsletter called Dating Matters with helpful insights, tips and encouragement. And I'm a regular poster on social media (what??). My favorite thing in all of this, is that I get to help people date more effectively using an approach that is informed by each client's own personal history and the psychology of attraction and attachment; not appearance, commonality and generic data sets. Watching people evolve their interpersonal patterns to create less stressful, more effective and joyful dating experiences is the highlight of my week.
Evolve Dating has a lot of exciting things in store for 2019. I will be putting together a webinar for therapists working with single clients, collaborating to create makeover packages for those getting back into dating after a divorce, expanding my social media presence, offering video courses on all things dating and completing my book. Well, two books. No aiming low here. Dating culture isn't going to revolutionize itself!
To stay informed about what's coming up, please sign up for Dating Matters and like and follow me on:
Did you know that Facebook is getting into the dating game? According to a September article by Louise Matsakis on Wired.com, Facebook has launched their version of a matching app called Dating. It is currently only live in Columbia but Facebook plans to offer the feature in other countries in the future. I don't know about you, but I was quite excited upon hearing this news. Facebook is the undisputed leader in connecting people with other people. It only makes sense that they would offer a service designed to match people looking for love. I couldn't wait to see how this innovation giant used is massive store of brilliant minds and limitless resources to improve upon existing dating apps. I. Could. Not. Wait.
Guess what. It doesn't seem all that different than apps that are already out there. There are some things unique about Facebook's Dating, but the foundation of the app's approach is the same; matching people based on commonality. According to Matsakis, after creating a profile, Facebook's "unique algorithm" will create matches "based on factors like things you have in common and mutual friends." That's not unique! That's the same tired formula we've always had. Maybe the innovation happens in the profile construction, I thought. Nope. Like every other platform out there, you can facilitate the match process by specifying "your height, religion, job title, where you work, where you went to school, and whether you have children." Sigh.
Think about the last person you connected with; I mean really clicked with. Can you honestly say that spark was because the other person was your preferred height or because you liked the same music? Don't get me wrong. Starting from some kind of common ground isn't bad in and of itself. Because it is so prominent in the structure of dating today, however, it has taken on an air of importance in the match process that I'm not sure it deserves. As I think through the list of the closest non-family people in my life, I wouldn't have matched with any of them based on what we have in common; including my husband of 20 years. The differences are significant enough, in fact, that on paper, I'm pretty sure none of us would have clicked, winked or swiped to meet. But these people mean everything to me and I wouldn't trade any of them. We get along fabulously at the same time we marvel at how different we all are. The difference adds depth and richness. We are never bored with each other and we are always deeply comfortable. These are feed-my-soul relationships and they have nothing to do with commonality. At least not the kind the dating world suggests is the holy grail of match-making.
Connecting with someone happens on a deep, felt-sense level. It can be hard to describe why you feel drawn to someone. You just are. There may be commonalities that contribute to this "click" but they are much less overt and much more dynamic, meaning that there will be a shared developmental/emotional/relational experience that resonates almost unconsciously as familiarity or comfort.
This is what dating apps are missing. No one has yet to develop the algorithm that taps into that knowing on a deep level that leads to compatibility. So, we continue to use language and concepts that are familiar and quantifiable to try to create good dating matches. And sometimes it works. But I know a lot more people than not who are frustrated on the apps and have a hard time finding meaningful connection. They feel like they are wasting their time and often must take breaks from engaging in the process altogether.
This is why I encourage my clients to avoid seeking what's comfortable before you even leave the starting block. Starting with what feels like the safest bet eases your anxiety but dramatically limits your options. Why would you hem yourself in based on a very constrained set of information that doesn't tell you much about what kind of partner someone would be? Step outside of the app-defined box of familiarity. Proceed by feel, not by facts. Take a risk and reach out to different and more people than you normally would.
Related to this last point, Facebook's new app does offer a feature I do like. Dating uses an "opt-in" format to highlight their focus on intentionality that may not appeal to the hook-up crowd. Everyone is a "yes" unless you tap "Not Interested". This organically creates the potential for a broader pool of dating partners because you don't lose a match by being passive in your choosing.
Another aspect of Dating that is like most apps, but which holds promise for something more meaningful, is in the creation of the profile. Matsakis points out that "you can round out your profile with up to nine photos or ice-breaker questions provided by Facebook." This is where there the app can offer its users the opportunity to go for depth versus commonality. It is yet to be seen what the pool of questions looks like and whether they will deliver more complexity or stay on the surface. As Joshua Pompey, an expert in profile creation and management, says in the article, Facebook should "make sure that [users] have an opportunity to create fully developed profiles that tap into a lot of different aspects of the person's personality." He's right. Personality, interpersonal style and attachment patterns matter so much more than how you like to spend your Friday night. An investment in learning about how these factors impact your dating and relationship life will pay off in spades; far more than an investment in one more dating app.
You can read the full Wired article on Dating here:
We are just over half way through the six group meetings of Engage. We have explored the impact of first impressions, shared personal feedback with each other, set individual goals for the workshop, reviewed dating profiles and supported each other in taking risks, inside and outside of group. Members have been learning about themselves and each other in relationship and are trying out different approaches to their interpersonal styles. Each participant has challenged themselves to do something a bit differently as they navigate their dating landscape and we are continually reminded how important it is to celebrate even tiny movements forward. Everything counts! I look forward to the last two weeks with this brave group of daters as we wind down the session by exploring how we choose a partner and how to determine the goodness of fit between two people. Stay tuned.....
If you think about it, we are always hearing how relationships take work. It’s not exactly untrue but it is a little misleading. Relationships do indeed take work…..sometimes. Every couple runs into life circumstances or stumbles into personal issues that challenge one or both partners' ability to cope well. At times like these, couples may find their issues from the past getting activated. Rationality will seem to have abandoned otherwise level heads. There may be heated conversations and unsettling conflicts leading to distress about the relationship. But in healthy partnerships, couples are usually able to right the ship without too much turmoil. They tend to lean into the strengths of each partner and of the relationship to navigate difficult terrain. The rest of the time, outside of these rough spots, things run along pretty smoothly.
If you find yourself working really hard on the relationship on a regular basis, especially early on, you might consider re-evaluating if this is the right fit for you. Does the amount of time, effort and resources you are putting into it pay off in any measurable way? Are you overvaluing some of the positive aspects and minimizing the things that don't work well? Are you in it because of what it offers you now or because of what you hope it might offer you in the future? Or maybe you're in it just because you are afraid NOT to be in it.
When people have been single for a long time or past the age when they thought they would be forever-attached, they tend to be willing to make bigger compromises when someone half-decent does come along. The hope of what is in front of them outweighs.... well, almost everything else. While I always err on the side of taking risks and having a curious and experimental attitude when it comes to relationships, a square peg is never going to fit into a round hole. Knowing when to stick with something either because it has the potential to go somewhere or because it's the kind of practice we need, and knowing when to pull the plug on something that isn't working, is one of the most valuable judgment calls we can learn to make.
If you are questioning whether the effort is worth it, ask the Evolve community for feedback. See if others think it's worth sticking with or, if not, how they can support you in letting go. When we only bounce things off the inside of our own skulls, we get the same tired feedback. Treat yourself to a fresh perspective because this stuff is hard and we can all use a little support. Visit the Evolve Dating Facebook page @IWantToEvolve or see my services page to join.
Except there's really no escaping it. Every store display, every social media post, every TV commercial, every friend who is happily partnered; they are all uncomfortable reminders that you are still alone. And if you're on the interwebs looking up how to survive Valentine's Day as a single (still cringe at that term), you'll get lots of good advice about how to throw a singles-themed party or pamper yourself so you don't feel so bad on this day that celebrates the thing you don't yet have.
But let me make a different kind of suggestion. It will run counter to most of what comes at you in popular culture and certainly contradicts the messages of corporate America which profits immensely on our wish to avoid pain.
What if you didn't work so hard to stop feeling sad or lonely. What's that you say?? Allow myself to feel negative emotion when there are so many very convenient and accessible ways to get away from it? Yep. And here's why.
We are all designed with the exact same set of emotions. Each one prompts us toward some kind of action. If you’re afraid, you move away from the danger to stay safe. Anger motivates defensive action which prompts us to stand up for ourselves or others. Sadness points us to a loss that needs to be grieved so we can let go and move on. Guilt...well, I wouldn't want to live in a world where people didn't feel guilt, would you?
Loneliness is a bit of a different animal. Loneliness is one of the hardest human emotions to tolerate. Why would that be?
Think about what action loneliness would prompt us to take? Feeling alone in the world encourages us to connect with others. It is so intense because connection with others is directly linked to our survival. As mammals, we are born attaching to our caregivers however well or poorly they do the job of taking care of us. That's because, even in less than optimal circumstances, being left alone as a small child is a bigger threat to survival than being harmed in the context of attachment. We have a strong instinctive, survival-of-the-species kind of drive to connect to other people. That's why loneliness is so hard to live with.
Being alone as an adult on Valentine's Day, or any other day for that matter, may not be a threat to your survival but it certainly is a threat to happiness and the quality of the life you live. So you could spend this Valentine's Day pretending you don't really wish you were paired up or doing all positive things to distract you from feeling lonely (And, hey, no judgment. Really.) Or you could tap into the loneliness; not to sit in it forever, but to let it do it's job. Let it motivate the action to connect.
Here is the point where so many of you feel stuck. You may not know what action to take to connect. Fear could jump in here and paralyze your ability to even think about what you would do. You may be worn down by all of the efforts you have already made to no avail. Maybe there's an inner critic that tells you there isn't anyone out there for you anyway.
Here's where our biology can be helpful. Because of our innate need to attach, your instinct is making being alone feel painful. It's your feelings and thoughts that often serve as obstacles to taking the action your biology recommends. Let your instincts guide you. They aren't wrong. Now, that doesn't mean you won't get hurt in the process but, believe it or not, you actually need the failures too. But that's a blog post for another day.
So this Valentine's Day, you can wallow, you can distract, you can ignore. Or you can let your bad feelings move you to take action. Dare to write that dating profile you've been dreading. Swipe on or wink at people you might normally find a reason to pass up. Find a way - any way - to say hi to that cutie in your building. You don't have to be profound or cool. You just have to be sincere. Give yourself permission to not do it so perfectly. Just follow your gut and do it.