There is one scientific theory that can determine if your romantic relationship stands any chance in hell. It’s called Attachment Theory, and it explains the concept of attachment styles.
The theory is based on the insecurities our parents unknowingly implanted in our early childhood, rendering us uniquely unlovable. But you need to get beyond the parental blame game to understand Attachment Theory and, ultimately, your attachment style.
Attachment Theory shifts all your relationships – wins and losses – from one-off, baffling mysteries into a pattern of predictable outcomes. In some cases, you can overlay your attachment style to a past relationship and see a play-by-play of exactly how it unfolded.
Are you single? Use your attachment style to save yourself time before swiping right. If you’re in a couple, you can use attachment theory to prevent repetitive arguments and spend less time in the doghouse. Let’s begin.
What do we mean by ‘Attachment Styles’?
We are the only species born solely dependent on others to survive. British Psychologist John Bowlby (1907-1990) did extensive research on our innate biological drive to form an attachment with our caregivers. And how it could play out if that bond was severed.
He coined it the Theory of Attachment.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded upon Bowlby’s work in a 1970’s experiment that separated babies from their caregivers. Ainsworth observed three consistent responses in their behaviour, and labelled them Attachment Styles;
- Secure Attachment
- Avoidant Attachment
- Anxious Attachment
In 1986 researchers Main and Solomon added one more into the mix;
- a combination of Anxious & Avoidant
Have we lost you? Here’s the gist.
Our bond with our caregivers from ages 0-3 provides us with the confidence we need to explore the big wide world. If they’re not dependable, we develop behaviours to mitigate the hurt they’ve caused. The behaviour can have massive long term implications on how we feel, expect, receive and show love for the rest of our lives.
How does your Attachment Style affect you long-term?
Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel Heller applied Attachment Theory to romantic relationships in their joint book Attached. They concluded, “Adults show patterns of attachment to their romantic partners, similar to the patterns of attachment of children with their parents.”
Basically, we unknowingly walk all of our unresolved mummy and daddy issues, fears and insecurities into all our future hookups. We also handle any resulting conflict in the same learned ways from our childhoods.
To every parent hoping to avoid inflicting emotional damage on their children before their third birthday; God speed.
To everyone else, there are ways to stop enabling partners to hurt you in the same ways your parents did. And here’s where you should start.
How to identify your attachment style
There’s actually a multiple-choice quiz to determine your attachment style. Some quizzes are shorter, others are more in-depth.
You will present as one of Ainsworth’s three main attachment styles below. Only a small and highly messed up subset of the population fall into the combination anxious/ avoidant group, so fear not.
Babies with avoidant attachment styles showed no distress during caregiver separation and ignored them upon their return. They grew up to feel suffocated by intimacy and equate relationships with giving up their independence. If you are avoidant you:
- Need space and keep your partner at an arm’s length
- Have difficulty trusting a partner
- Don’t pick up on hints and check out in arguments
- Hesitate to commit
- Idealise a “phantom ex,” and compare everyone to them
Pros: You are independent, charming and can develop a deep connection by way of not rushing into relationships easily.
Cons: You give mixed signals, like pulling away when things are going well and you are quick to run from the slightest relationship hurdle.
Babies with anxious attachment styles were distressed upon separation, then acted out upon their caregiver’s return. They grew up to crave relationships and get completely consumed by them quite easily. If you are anxious you:
- Need a lot of reassurance and validation, in almost every love language
- Are hypersensitive to fluctuations in your partner’s mood
- Fear your partner will leave you
- Hate being alone and derive your value from being in a couple
- Blame yourself for anything that goes wrong
Pros: You are extremely loyal, dedicated and helpful to any of your partner’s needs.
Cons: You can be clingy and obsessive, have difficulty expressing what you want and merge being in a couple with your own sense of worth.
Babies with a secure attachment style were distressed upon separation, then settled completely upon their return. They grew up to feel comfortable with intimacy and have clear boundaries. If you are secure you:
- Function just as well being together and apart
- Find it easy to leave at any sign of disrespect
- Have high self-worth and confidence
- Communicate well and are happy to compromise
- Feel comfortable introducing partners to your circles
You only have pros! Your parents nailed the goldilocks sweet spot of pre-childhood trauma, congratulations.
You have a go-to, but your attachment style is flexible (and fixable)
If you’re curious to know where you stand, the population breaks down into the below:
- Secure (50%)
- Avoidant (25%)
- Anxious (20%), and
- Combination Anxious/ Avoidant (5%)
However, most people aren’t truthful in the quizzes. And giving a rational response on paper is very different to acting out in the heat of the moment.
But at least 50% of us comprehend that secure behaviour should be aspired to. It’s important you recognise your default pattern and be blatantly honest about it.
Despite a default response, your attachment style can still change. Toxic partners and life experiences can turn you from secure one minute to masochistic and self-destructive the next. If you’re fresh out of a relationship you can act avoidant to protect yourself from getting hurt again. Therefore it’s equally as important to revisit your attachment style often.
What you can do to resolve your attachment issues
Sorting out your own subconscious baggage is a great way to start. In fact, it is unavoidable. The only constant in all your relationships is you. It is a massive win to label your own issues and commit to making better decisions moving forward.
The book, Attached, is a great resource. Use it to identify your own triggers and detect red flags you can’t ever unsee, or unlearn. Don’t get put off by “customers who bought this also bought…” It is science-backed and absolutely not self-help.
So what is your perfect match in a relationship?
Since we can be influenced by our partner’s attachment style, you can cheat a bit on the personal development work. Start on the front foot by choosing a partner whose insecurities don’t trigger your own.
Avoidant – Avoidant:
No dice. Avoidants don’t mix. They keep each other at an arm’s length until they eventually get bored of each other. Anyone single and dating will frequently encounter avoidants because they struggle to commit and regularly end up back in the dating pool.
Avoidant – Anxious:
Most relationship games are a byproduct of the magnetism of this terrible mismatch. An anxious partner will quickly push away an avoidant with obsessive clinginess. The avoidant will enjoy distancing them, while the anxious will become triggered and feverishly claw their way back in. The horrendous cycle repeats.
Secure – all other styles.
Secure partners are rarely in the dating pool because they are high quality and in high demand. They get scooped up quickly and stay off the market in long-term pairings. A secure partner can balance out every other attachment style.
Where to from here?
If you are currently single, choose wisely before jumping into your next relationship. You’ll be surprised by how much information people give up about their emotional insecurities in the early days.
If you’re currently in a relationship, you can mitigate further clashes, only if you are aware of them. Get your partner to do the quiz, guess their style and research yourself, or ask a trained therapist for the best strategies to balance your styles.
Now, check out A Modern Man’s Guide To The Five ‘Love Languages’.