Dating and Relationship Books that Don’t Suck, Episode 2: Attached

THE BOOK: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, by Amir Levine, M.D., and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: Two big reasons.

Reason 1: The American culture of romantic relationships lives in an uneasy tension between the “You complete me” of Jerry Maguire and the “Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping/Stand together yet not too near together” of Kahlil Gibran. Either we’re incomplete without a partner or we’re two sturdy oaks who happen to share a lawn. The “We’re two independent people who take care of ourselves and don’t need each other” lie was an overcorrection for the 1950s pop song “I can’t live without you” lie, but they’re both lies.

Attached calls out the Gibran/independence lie. Any social scientist can tell you that we’re not independent—we’re sustained and constituted by connections with other people from before birth till after death. We’re social creatures. Attached focuses in on romantic pairs, drawing on biopsychological evidence to make it clear that when two people become each other’s main person, they become an interdependent unit at a fundamental level, and that’s a good thing. We’re wired for attachment; the care and nurture of relationships is important, valuable, and a worthwhile focus of attention; we need to be able to depend on each other emotionally; and we need to take responsibility for safeguarding and promoting each other’s well-being—especially our well-being in the relationship, our well-being in relation to each other.

Attached is a big YES to attachment, connection, relationships, bonds, interdependence, closeness, intimacy, and love.

Reason 2: I first learned about attachment styles in college, but it was kind of a multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank understanding of them. I learned enough to guess that I probably had an anxious attachment style, but then it was “Oh well, that’s the breaks.” Not even my fancy liberal arts college, with its noble mission of educating the whole person, broke the intellectual mold to help us learn to do things like live and be happy.

Attached makes the psychology of attachment personally relevant and helpful. It outlines the three main attachment styles, and the best way to think of these, in my view, is as patterns in what stresses you out in relationships and what feelings and behaviors those stresses trigger in you.

Some of us are sensitive to signals that our significant other is withdrawing, doesn’t value us, or isn’t that into us. We might react in a variety of patterned ways: pursuing the person by calling a lot and trying to keep them close; withdrawing in turn as if to say “you can’t take me for granted”; swallowing our own needs and feelings and letting the other person lead the relationship and determine the amount of closeness; exploding in accusations, anger, or tears; obsessing about the relationship; or panicking. This is the anxious attachment style, and people with this style are susceptible to insecurity in their relationships: they tend to see good matches as few and far between and good relationships as rare and precarious. They fear that conflict will mean the end of the relationship and that if they express their feelings and needs their partner will decide they’re not worth the effort and walk away. These folks tend to blame themselves for relationship problems and see their intimacy needs as invalid, supported by a culture that valorizes independence.

Others of us get triggered by intimacy itself, fearing that closeness means sacrificing our independence and self-sufficiency. Intimacy feels like an encroachment, so we respond by distancing: maybe we criticize our partner, go silent, avoid learning about how our partner sees the world, avoid sex or try to keep it unemotional, or physically withdraw. We might express ambivalence about the relationship, going hot and cold, alternating between presence and absence. Or we might aim for a “this close and no closer” stasis, trying to keep our partner exactly at arm’s length—far enough to feel safe and unaffected but close enough to keep them from drifting away. This is the avoidant attachment style, and people with this style are susceptible to exactly what the anxious person fears—walking away in the face of conflict and disregarding their partner’s relationship needs as invalid. People who lean avoidant sometimes ground their self-esteem in the sense of being more independent than others and for this reason are often drawn to partners with an anxious style. People who lean avoidant are only about 25% of the population but are overrepresented in the dating pool, especially at older ages.

And then there’s the secure attachment style. The secure among us are just confident when it comes to attachment. We feel good about intimacy and closeness and seek it out but also have an innate sense that it’s a normal part of life. We assume that we can express our full range of feelings and needs in our relationship, and we do so; we assume that we can count on our partner to care about our feelings and needs and to be responsive when we express them; and we assume responsibility for meeting our partner’s expressed needs, too. We don’t especially fear either losing our independence or losing the relationship, short of some natural disaster, and we take responsibility for helping keep the relationship strong. For people with a secure attachment style, closeness breeds more closeness in an easy and natural kind of way, rather than in a cycle of withdrawal or possessiveness. People who lean secure tend to stay in their relationships and sometimes stay in unhealthy relationships too long because of their sense of responsibility for the other person and the relationship. That means they’re underrepresented in the dating pool, but the good news, if you’re looking to date one, is that the majority of the population does lean secure, so they’re out there.

The glory of the book and its purpose is that it helps people who lean anxious or avoidant become more secure, and it helps people in the dating world screen for people who can meet their needs for intimacy and independence. Anxious-avoidant relationships are both common and not ideal, because each partner can trigger the other into a cartoon-like version of its own attachment style. But it only takes one secure partner to make a secure relationship: when someone who leans anxious or avoidant gets into a relationship with someone who’s secure, the insecure partner becomes more secure, and everyone’s happier.

The book has whole chapters about anxious-avoidant relationships and about effective communication of feelings, wants, and needs, which secure people are good at and both anxious and avoidant people can have trouble with but can learn and get a lot better at with the help of models and examples like the ones in this book.

What I got out of it: I studied this book. I read it quickly, then I read it again slowly; I did the exercises; I took notes; I had thoughts; and I took notes on my thoughts. There’s a lot here, and if you lean anxious or avoidant, it’s worth reading, rereading, and highlighting.

I found that my college intuition was right—I do lean anxious—but also that I’m a lot more secure than I realized and that I’ve become more secure as I’ve aged. In fact, it takes pretty particular circumstances to trigger my anxiety. Conveniently(?), I was in the middle of just such a circumstance when I first read this book. I applied the principles and tips, and…. it worked! Things smoothed out; I felt better; the relationship stayed healthy.

Attached gives me a feeling of hope because it presents secure attachment in such a natural, concrete way that it feels attainable, as if that healthy relationship is out there just waiting for me. This feeling dwindled somewhat when I realized that attachment issues probably aren’t my main obstacle to finding a good relationship, at least at this point in my life—it really is, first and foremost, about the challenge of needing to meet a lot of people to find a good match, because, as Attached confirms, there are many more bad matches out there than good ones, especially as you age. But Attached also argues that there are a lot of good matches out there, and that’s why you have to date a whole lot of people—to find the good ones. So in the midst of the second-job-like effort of dating, I’m still comforted—and now I have new tools not just for dating, and not even just for romantic relationships, but for all my relationships.

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