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.