Attachment Style in Romantic Attraction

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My phone has a digital clock set to some master satellite that can’t be wrong. This device is the wheel on which my own attachment style spins. If I am hugely sexually attracted to a guy, my stomach enacts a roller coaster ride of highs and lows — highs when I feel connected and lows when I cling to old feelings of loss. When he calls, I am at the top. Giddy. Empowered. Invincibly happy. But the second I hang up the phone, I feel my stomach lurch in another direction and begin the slow descent down a spiral loop into a tunnel of loneliness. Then I morph into both a vigilant clock watcher and a determined bullet biter. I will hang on now matter how long it takes. Until the phone rings again and I feel the butterflies in my stomach as that roller coaster soars upward again. I’m describing the old Wendy, of course. The one before seven years of therapy and reparative bonding experience with two healthfully attached children. Today, when I am hugely sexually attracted to a guy it is an indication that he will live out my worst fears, so I walk away. Most of the time.

If I could self-diagnose, I would say that my own attachment style leans toward the anxious category. Of course, I cannot prove this. I can’t take an attachment survey. Because I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I know how to beat the test.

My friend Ben is more on the avoidant side. His marriage, which is stable and loyal, has few threats of intimacy. That means, no heated battles. Sometimes I wonder what life would be like without great make-up sex. But he seems to be doing fine without it. His marriage is one of two happy roommates living together, sharing common areas but keeping personal business behind some closed doors in their minds.

 

I know a guy named Matt, who has the poorest impulse control of any guy I’ve ever met. He falls in love faster than the Eurostar gets your butt from London to Paris. This guy is quick to bed, quick to wed — twice already and he’s only 34. He just gets so fused so quickly that the only thing that can stop him, are avoidant women who play his heart and his fiddle, and then run for the hills.

Then there’s Ally the worrier. She emails me once in a while with a long, long list of questions. She is anxiously debating and anaylysing every detail of her boyfriend’s behaviors. She wants to know what this means, what that indicates, what he could be feeling. I tell her all I know. That she worries too much. And I’m not telepathic when it comes to her boyfriend. What else can I say?

Here’s what you should know, while I am making light of all this heartbreak. Attachment injuries can hurt. They can hurt bad. Sometimes more than a physical wound because no one can see you bleeding. But all the people I’ve mentioned are living out a kind of romantic attachment style. And once I explain, the range of styles out there, you’ll begin to see how one’s internal attachment organization can be a convenient blueprint for whether you prefer hook-ups, dating, or relationships that might even lead to marriage.

Romantic Attachment Four Categories That Bleed Onto Each Other

It wasn’t until the 1980’s, after developmental psychologists had spent twenty-five years studying the mental health of babies, children and adolescents using a lens of attachment theory, that the idea of it’s link to adult romantic attachment began to become clear. The early leaders in this area were Americans, Dr. Cindy Hazen and Dr. Phillip Shaver. They designed the first way to classify adults in their romantic attachment. Their four categories are: Secure, Anxious-Preoccupied, Dismissive-Avoidant, and Fearful-Avoidant. Much erarlier, researchers had established a similar set of categories for babies and children. And here was the important leap made by Hazen and Shaver: They believed that love and attachment in adults in many ways mirror the bonds children had with their primary caregiver. In other words, our style of caregiving, care receiving, affection (including sexuality,) and communication are directly linked to what was done — on not done — to us as infants and children. Now here are the categories. And, remember, these are “loose” categories. No fits one single description for all their various relationships. Now, drum roll please….

SECURE:

We’ve met those securely attached people a few paragraphs back. These people feel genuinely positive about themselves and their partners. The like to be emotionally close and also feel comfortable being independent. Fortunate souls. Come out. Come out. Wherever you are.

ANXIOUS-PREOCCUPIED:

These folks are intimacy junkies because they seek high levels of approval from their partners. They may get quite clingy. They also tend to have somewhat low self esteem and have trouble trusting their partners. They may worry a lot, be drama queens or kings about minor things, and make quick decisions based on emotional reactions.

DISMISSIVE-AVOIDANT:

These people desire a high level of independence. Sometimes they avoid emotional attachment altogether. They really think of themselves as self-sufficient and are proud that they are not needy. They may make a vow to stay single. They hide their feelings (sometimes even from themselves) and deal with rejection by creating distance. They also have a low view of their partners.

FEARFUL-AVOIDANT:

These are what I call the come-closer-then-go-away partners. They both crave and fear emotional intimacy. They have somewhat low self-esteem and don’t trust their partners. Even though they crave intimacy, they often hide their feelings in close relationships.

Do any of these descriptions sound familiar? Basically, attachment researchers look at two main reactions to intimacy — anxiety and avoidance. Each of the categories shows various proportions of these two qualities. There are plenty of quizzes and surveys out there that help determine one’s romantic attachment style, and I’ve included a well-known one at the end of this chapter. Most of these questionnaires  tend to be pretty accurate, with one exception. Some avoidant people obtain a “false-positive” and score a “secure” category. The explanation is that they are so distanced from their feelings that, of course they don’t feel anxious, pre-occupied, or fearful. That’s because they don’t feel much at all. It’s buried so deep.

Researchers have used these simple categories for decades to study attachment and it’s relation to just about every personality trait out there. Truly. The wonderful thing about attachment theory is that it can be quantified and turned into neat little mathematical equasions. Researchers love this type of data. So Attachment Theory’s use in research on human behavior has been enormous. Attachment has been studied in relation to anger, pleasure seeking, self-esteem, altruism, fear of dying, information processing ability, stalking, and religious change, to name a few.  Yes, there’s a study called “God as a Substitute Attachment Figure.” My own dissertation looked at a woman’s romantic attachment style and her ability to breast feed her child.

In recent years, the four traditional attachment categories have been further detailed and synthesized on a continuum, using the two underlying drivers of attachment — Anxiety and Avoidance. Since most people do not fit neatly into one “type” of attachment, psychologists have found it much more accurate to use scales that pin-point a region in the two-dimensional space of anxiety and avoidance.

 

6 thoughts on “Attachment Style in Romantic Attraction

  1. Eye-opening, fascinating, n just straight fun because of ur light-hearted, conversational tone. Now I’m even more curious about how this theory was built n how it operates. Also curious about ur dissertation focus n wonder what u thesis was.

  2. I’m a fearful-avoidant female who dated a dismissive-avoidant male, he was the first person I ever opened myself up to, then he left me after 2 years of hellish dating, which has further wrecked me up more.

  3. Good summaries. I’ve been reading about avoidant attachment these past few weeks after doing a random google search on “fear in relationships” following a six-weeks-ago breakup. Attachment theory was completely new to me at the time. She apparently was the first avoidant I’ve dated, and I was constantly scratching my head at her behavior. She wanted it and clearly voiced her desire to fall in love, but she couldn’t show up on an emotional level–or a lot of levels, really, like simply going away for a romantic weekend. Thinking it was my holding back that was tripping us up, I invested more and more emotional energy, and she pulled back even more, which thoroughly confused me. From the surprisingly early and superficial sex (followed by going home), which made me uneasy from the start, to the on-again-off-again nature of the longer-term relationship, to her idealizing a past relationship, it appears she fits quite neatly into the fearful-avoidant category.

    On some level, I suppose that understanding all of this helps me get over her, while I simultaneously wish there was something I could do (i.e., I’m still heartbroken and want her back). But the more I read the more I realize that I’d prefer to date someone who’s got their head on straighter to begin with.

    It’s an important area of study, anyway, and perhaps all I can do is wish her well while moving forward with my new-found knowledge.

  4. Is it possible to be a securely attached person, but in the presence of an attractive dismissive-avoidant turn into an anxious-preoccupied?? But then realize the mess you are sliding into and get yourself together and return to a “healthy” place of confidence and self-nurturance. I am happily married to a secure mate, and I feel secure, too. Its wonderful. But in the past I dated an avoidant and it seemed to trigger this addictive side of me, not good. I’m glad I married a secure mate. Please inform me! Thanks 🙂

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