Why Attachment Style Might Be The Deciding Factor In Relationship Success
Illustration by Ms Joey Yu
When it comes to love, most of us think that if we can just find someone who also likes devilled eggs, kayaking and Hawkwind, we will live happily ever after. But research has shown that a very important indicator of the nature of a relationship is not political affiliations or the mythical spark, but our attachment styles. Despite this, a quick poll of your friends and family will likely reveal that only a minority understand how attachment styles affects us.
Attachment theory was first considered by Dr John Bowlby in the 1950s. It is a model for understanding how early interactions between caregivers and children affect how we relate to others for the rest of our life. Secure? You’re pretty chill about everything because your parents were present and soothing. Avoidant? You likely pull away from relationships because intimacy is scary. Anxious? You need constant closeness and reassurance from a partner.
So how do we use attachment styles to improve our relationship patterns? Can we stop dating people who disappear after the third date? How can we accept our anxiety and find someone who reassures us? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, who founded Harley Therapy, and Dr Amir Levine, who wrote the best-seller Attached: The New Science Of Adult Attachment, to explain.
First, educate yourself
“John Bowlby was the originator of this [theory],” says Dr Jacobson. “His book The Making And Breaking Of Affectional Bonds is where it was expanded. You can google attachment styles [to find your own]. It just boils down to secure and insecure. The latter is not bad necessarily, but it can be trickier.”
The theory suggests that “our early experience with caregivers has a lasting impact in the way that we are as adults – our thoughts, behaviours and our relationships with other people. So, it is a cornerstone for how we mature into adulthood,” she expands. “The attachment style is the core feature of how the relationship will turn out. We can almost predict the longevity of a relationship.”
“Attachment is a basic need like food or water,” adds Dr Levine. “But the way we express that need is different.”
Then, rethink what you seek in a partner
It can be beneficial to set aside some of the misleading ideas we have about potential partners and take a more thoughtful approach. “We go into romantic relationships headfirst,” says Dr Jacobson. “There is an unconscious attraction – physical features and behavioural traits. Often, I find that people are drawn to characteristics of their caregivers, or they go for the opposite.”
Dr Levine agrees. And he has a succinct phrase for this idea. “Attraction is necessary, but not sufficient,” he says. “People pay more attention to things that are prudent biologically at the beginning of a relationship. But then we might let the wrong person in.
“Some people think that their partner must have the same hobbies or interests. But I don’t know if it’s the most important thing. Science backs this up. The thing that helps long-term relationship satisfaction most is compatibility with attachment styles. Research on conflict in relationships shows that attachment styles are more important than belief systems. When you have a fight with someone – how they respond, by reassuring or yelling, has nothing to do with, say, political affiliations. These behaviours reflect thousands of interactions that make or break relationships. If someone isn’t there for you, who cares whether they have a bachelor’s degree or not?”
Understand how attachment styles work together
If you’re avoidant or anxious, you need not despair. You are among anywhere between 35 and 50 per cent of the population. Nor should you necessarily avoid these types of attachment styles. But, for dating success, we should try to understand them.
“It’s not to say insecurely attached people can’t form a lasting relationship,” says Dr Jacobson. “But it might be more burdensome. The more nourishing and healthy relationships are between two people who had secure attachment experiences growing up and therefore have secure ways of relating to people. They are more trusting and at ease with themselves. They want to share their emotional world with people. These are the characteristics of good relationships.”
Dr Levine expands on the benefits of seeking someone who is secure. “Secure attachment style is like blood type O – they match with everyone. They can sometimes help anxious or avoidant people become more secure. They can coach you.”
And he is emphatic about which attachment style combinations are less successful. “The anxious and avoidants don’t go well together. One wants to distance; the other is sensitive to distance. If there’s enough interest, I’ve seen avoidants work well. The anxious/anxious combination is a problem – when there's conflict it’s like there’s no adult in the room to calm things down.”
Dr Jacobson is more hopeful for the potential anxious and avoidant partnerships out there. “Someone who is anxious might need more reassurance, they have more problems with worry and fear. If someone is avoidant, the issue is a problem with intimacy. But [the push/pull interaction] can be a dance to find [a happy] medium. Many relationships can endure that. There might be one person who is more caring, and the other person can learn.”
Learn to see the signs
If you wish to find out someone’s attachment style, it may be perfectly acceptable to come out and ask on a first date. But perhaps that isn’t your style. If so, Dr Jacobson has some suggestions.
“We can look for the indicators. How do they speak of others? What’s their relationship with their parents? How do they treat strangers? Will they have faith that people will return or are they more controlling? How closed are they? Do they talk about their feelings? To what extent can you detect that that person is confident in themselves without bragging?”
Dr Levine adds: “Secure people are consistent in their availability. If you spend a weekend with someone, but then you don’t hear from them, that’s a red flag – they may be avoidant and they’ve had enough of closeness. Anxious people, if they don’t hear from you, might ask lots of questions. They are more easily threatened in a relationship.”
Work with your style
Regardless of your own attachment style, understanding how to manage it can spell success for any relationship. “Research shows that just knowing about these terms helps you become more secure,” says Dr Levine. “Don’t feel bad about your biology – none of it is unhealthy, it’s just variations.”
He has some quick tips. “People who are avoidant – learn to pace yourself more. It’s the closeness that’s the problem. Communicate this so you don’t feel suffocated. You are not respecting your biology and your needs.”
Dr Jacobson stresses the need to work on yourself before you date, so you have a more secure foundation to work from. “Get to know your style of relating to others. We should nurture a secure attachment style in ourselves. Get to a level of security and then you will find that you mix with securely attached individuals. Are you OK if someone doesn’t call you back? Can you hold onto it rather than think negatively? If you’re anxiously attached, can you develop self-soothing abilities?
“Be more open. Trust people. Take leaps of faith,” she says. “If you’re avoidant, welcome the intimacy and connection when it's there. Make advances towards greater connection. Stay the course in difficult, uncomfortable conversations. Share your feelings.”