The way we were raised affects our ability to maintain healthy relationships. This particular can of worms is addressed in all kinds of self-help and mental health practices, but what you’ve probably heard most of lately is something called “attachment theory.”
Attachment theory is not new, but has gained attention in recent years to analyze and define relationships. in the a column For the Washington Post solo series, writer Jenna Birch says she recently looked at the book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love after a failed relationship and it has done wonders in the way she thinks about dating.
Authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller based their book on the idea that all infants are born with an innate desire to bond with someone, and how that desire is supported or thwarted by our parents helps determine how we try ( or avoid) becoming attached to other adults. It’s clear why these theories are popular: because they can make a test that will tell you about you.
Attached assumes four main categories of attachment outcomes. The idea is that whoever you fall into could help explain how you approach close relationships. The investment styles are structured as follows:
- To back up: Fortunately, safe people should make up around 50 percent of the population. If they didn’t, humanity could end. Generally speaking, if you’re safe, it suggests that you’ve had responsive caregivers who made the breakup seem less scary. These people don’t avoid intimacy and are less concerned about relationships, probably because they haven’t had as many bad experiences with them. Happy.
- Scared: According to Affiliated, anxious people make up about 20 percent of the population. Fearful people are very comfortable with intimacy – so comfortable in fact that when you pull away to reach for the remote, they’ll basically sit on your lap wondering if you’ve fallen in love with them. They need a lot of security because they likely had caregivers who were unable to meet their needs. They are also extremely sensitive and overconscious when problems arise.
- Avoidance: Avoidant people reportedly respond to a “freestanding caregiver” who becomes incredibly independent and generally uncomfortable with intimacy. Enclosed says they make up roughly 25 percent of the population and you dated them all in college.
- “Disorganized”: Sometimes referred to as “fearful” or “fearful and avoidant,” about five percent of the population is said to have some kind of exciting mix of attachment styles. A real roller coaster of love.
Limitations of Attachment Theory
There is a lot of criticism of attachment theory as four categories hardly seem enough to cover all of humanity’s many weaknesses. In 2016, psychologist and sex therapist Michael Aaron wrote For psychology today, this attachment theory is too simple:
… Attachment theory seems to have assumed that attachment is a kind of monolithic relational mind map that applies globally, but recent research shows that individuals can be attached to different people in different ways. Indeed, the child may have a secure bond with his mother, but an avoidant bond with his father and a fearful bond with an aunt, etc.
He also suggests that the theory be used to induce people to conform to a certain idea of ”normal” relationships, saying that it imposes “arbitrary, moralistic societal standards for relational and sexual desires”.
It’s an interesting point: for example, is the only kind of healthy relationship monogamous? Is there something wrong with you if you don’t want to settle down the “normal” way? Attachment theory seems to imply that there is one single way we should all try and if we don’t, it is more due to a flaw in our upbringing than to being more open about love and relationships.
Anger is an ironic state, and in a fit of frustration or anger, the last thing you want to say to someone is to “calm down”. If someone is seething, this is the worst advice, even if it is the only thing they have to do to process things more clearly.
How attachment theory can help
Still, having a basic idea of your tendencies could be a potentially helpful guide, even if you don’t like where you fall on the axis of attachment. First, most people are a mix of different behaviors, and you should try not to view any of the categories as inherently negative. For example, an anxious person may be more sensitive to problems early on and therefore address them. An avoidant may be good at finding a way out of difficult problems and will not be too demanding. What really matters is what type of person your particular traits work best with.
Realizing she was a fearful person, Birch realized that she needed to be with someone who was safe and who didn’t respond to her need for affection with more distance or disdain. While two people can date each other with insecurities, sometimes it can be safer to be in a relationship with a safe person because you are practicing being with someone who is more reliable. Even if it doesn’t work out, these are lessons you will have learned for your next relationship.
Journalist and author of The Attachment Effect: Exploring the Powerful Paths Our earliest attachment shapes our relationships and our livesPeter Lovenheim also told Birch that figuring out this material might clarify why certain relationships didn’t work out and others:
Learning your attachment style can be empowering. It’s hard when you go through life anxiously and don’t know it. For example, you will not understand the conflicts and frustrations in your relationships. When you learn attachment, you may think, “Oh, that’s my style of attachment,” when something triggers you. You may even think, “I don’t have to react like this” and change your behavior.
Basically, Lovenheim and the attachment theory movement still seem to encourage people to think about their behavior and what they can change, regardless of what happened in the past.
This story was originally published in August 2018 and was updated on February 26, 2021 to be in line with Lifehacker style guidelines.