A love heart drawn on a foggy window

Mastering Love: Understanding Attachment Theory

Over glasses of beer several months ago, my dear friend Jack gave our table of friends collective and individual lessons on attachment theory based on the book they were reading. It is an area they had been working on with their therapist for many months at the time. Several instances throughout the course of 2021, Jack probed me about attachment theory, specifically, if I had come across it in my classes yet and each time, I wagged my head no. I recall Jack sliding me the book that day, sternly locking his big eyes with mine -which have more white than most of us- and telling me I really ought to read it. I remember the way I lazily flicked through and told them I’d collect a copy of my own on my way home and the subsequent way I did not do this. Now, here I am today in the same way Jack sat opposite me at drinks, sliding this book across to you, imploring you to read it.

As I said, I didn’t read the book immediately after that conversation. It took several more months, a relationship ending and a conversation with several colleagues for me to finally pluck it off the shelf. At the time of the conversation, it had been one month since I asked to be apart from my partner. We hadn’t been together long -six months- though I expressed to my colleagues the abscess this person had left in my body. What was relief at first quickly gave way to an unpleasant pain and longing that pressed against me everywhere I went.

My colleagues asked me a series of questions and, with my permission, bestowed me their professional opinion, which referenced words not at all dissimilar to those used by Jack that day. One month later, the feelings persisted and suggested they were not going anywhere, so I opened the book, devoured it in three sittings and came out the other side of it with my world, as I had known it, upturned.

Adult attachment theory will subvert everything you thought you knew about romantic relationships

Browsing online, other readers of Levine and Heller’s book Attached liken the experience to watching Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island when the plot subverts and you must ask is Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) really the smart detective sent to the psychiatric prison island for work, or is he someone else entirely? It’s a similar realisation, however, the plot twist that the audience of attachment theory experiences is very much real and very much concerns you.

It is a psychological theory that challenges everything you thought you knew about yourself, relationships with others -both romantic and platonic- as well as the entire premise of love itself.

There is a lot to summarise, and I will try to be as succinct as I can, however, please accept my apologies in advance as I will inevitably leave a lot of important aspects out. Though, realise in this lies another reason for you to read the book yourself.

Our behaviours are a product of our experience with primary caregivers and ex-partners

Attachment theory was first developed by John Bowlby (1907-1990) and Mary Ainsworth (1913 – 1999). Their original research on behavioural attachment systems paved the way for the adult attachment theory described in Attached. Bowbly and Ainsworth investigated individual’s relationships with what they call a ‘primary attachment figure’, which is someone who provides care, support, and protection. The two derived that a child’s attachment style (the way they feel and behave towards their parental figures) is informed by the caregiving the child receives in their initial years of life. That is, those who receive love and support are likely to be secure whereas those who receive inconsistent attention and affection are likely to feel anxious in their relationship with their caregiver.

It is important to note that nobody is immune to these attachment systems as Bowlby identifies the motivational behaviours being an evolutionary mechanism fundamental to our survival. Our attachment behaviours can be understood as ‘instinctive responses to the perceived threat of losing the survival advantages that accompany being cared for and attended to by the primary caregiver’.

There are four main ways we form emotional attachments in romantic relationships

These insights into child-parent relationships provided the foundations for adult attachment theory where researchers today believe that adult attachment styles in romantic relationships mirror the very dynamics we once experienced with our caregivers as young children. (Note: our experience with an ex-partner can inform or shift our attachment styles). Hazen and Shafer (1987) were the first to research behavioural attachment systems in the context of adult, romantic relationships. They noted the following similarities between the parent/infant relationship dynamic and adult romantic relationship dynamic:

  • both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
  • both engage in close, intimate, bodily contact
  • both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
  • both share discoveries with one another
  • both play with one another’s facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another

Today experts prefer to approach adult attachment styles dimensionally rather than categorically to account for individual differences and experiences. This means experts assume our attachment styles vary in their degree rather than their kind. We can therefore have a combination of a few attachment styles in varying proportions rather than a single attachment style.

Further, experts agree on four main attachment styles, which is to say there are four main ways we emotionally respond, behave, and interact with others based on our upbringing and experience with caregivers and past lovers. The four main styles are as follows: anxious, avoidant, fearful-avoidant and secure where the former three are considered customs of insecure attachment.

Anxious Attachment (estimated 20-25% of the population)

Anxious attachment is an insecure style relating to a profound fear of abandonment. While you desire intimacy and harmony with your partner, you usually feel insecure about your relationship and go out of your way to satisfy your partner’s needs, often leaving yours unmet. You are preoccupied with the relationship where you doubt your partner’s interest in you and are often seeking validation.

For those who are anxious, you tend to ruminate and feel especially anxious or, as the experts say, ‘activated’, when your partner doesn’t reply to you fast enough, shower you with explicit love and attention or directs their attention away from you.  Your pre-occupation may manifest internally or become quite explicit and aggressive. Though, ultimately, you take minor things very personally and your fear of abandonment inhibits your ability to rationalise and access feelings of security.

Avoidant Attachment (estimated 20% of the population)

Another form of insecure attachment relating to a fear of intimacy. You find it difficult to trust and let another person into your life. It is for this reason you can find relationships claustrophobic and you turn away from your partner for air. We avoidants tend to be emotionally unavailable, pride ourselves on self-sufficiency and prioritise our own independence over the relationship.

Those of us with avoidant attachment styles like to protect our freedom by appeasing commitment. Interestingly, once committed, we naturally identify flaws and dissatisfaction in the relationship to create distance between ourselves and our partners. We then intuitively find our partners needy and demanding as they try to close this distance with intimacy.

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment (AKA disorganised) (estimated <5% population)

A combination of the aforementioned styles: you are complex in that you long for intimacy and affection but at the same time avoid it. You are resistant to intimate relationships, revealing your true self and expressing love but, paradoxically, desire the opposite.

This is also known as a disorganised attachment style and the nuanced complexity of it makes it rare and therefore less researched. It is, however, associated with many risks like confused and heightened sexual interaction, tendency for violence and emotional regulation difficulties.

Secure Attachment (estimated 50% of the population)

You, the fortunate majority, possess the capacity to form secure and loving relationships. You have no issue when it comes to trust, self-expression, and intimacy. You don’t flinch when someone gets close or self-blame when someone expresses their need for space. You achieve the sweet spot of depending on others without becoming completely dependent. You don’t overreact or irrationalise minor details or necessary flaws in your relationship, nor do you entertain games or rely on manipulation.

To be romantically involved is to be somewhat responsible for someone else’s wellbeing

If a driver’s license -representing hours of dedicated training and practice- is required to operate a vehicle, I wholeheartedly believe Attached (otherwise therapeutic dialogue about attachment theory or familiarising oneself with online webpages) ought to be a pre-requisite for romantic relationships.

I have no idea how one might mandate this level of self-awareness in our society other than advocating it be encorporated in educational curriculums. Perhaps in a class titled ‘Finding contentment’ or ‘How to be Kind to Yourself and Others’.

I believe in this because it has elucidated the way I have wronged past partners and self-sabotaged my own happiness.

To feel deeply or love another, even if it’s only for a little bit, only six months, is to be somewhat responsible for someone else’s wellbeing. We must be cognisant of our feelings and actions in these settings and be held accountable regarding our potential to affect. ‘When we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.’ This passage from Attached points to the biological roots of adult romantic attachment, and undermines the argument for independence and differentiation, which is a popular presentation in contemporary western news media and pop-psychology.

‘Dependency is not a bad word’

In writing this, I revisited my bent, underlined, and annotated copy of Attached to find many salient passages still as profound as when I first encountered them. There is one line, which I have highlighted in red and annotated saying hah this is you to a T. The line reads:

‘we live in a culture that seems to scorn basic needs for intimacy, closeness and especially dependency while exalting independence’ (1).

For the remainder of the chapter titled ‘Dependency is Not a Bad Word’, Levine and Heller go on to deny my view of long-term, monogamous relationships as weak, lazy, time consuming and uninspiring. Attachment theory subverts these naïve beliefs by proposing most individuals are ‘only as needy as their unmet needs’ and, when one’s emotional needs are satisfied with clear communication, overt affection and consistent care, people are much more inclined to direct their attention away from their partner and out into the world. In the literature this is called the ‘dependency paradox’ where the more effectually the members of the relationship turn to and rely one another, the more confident and independent they become in the broader scope of the world.

Happy reading.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also enjoy No Shame in Relationship Anxiety and How to Cope with Insecurity in Relationships.