January 7, 2021

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Alyssa Ashenfarb

What Is Attachment Theory And Why Is It Ruining My Dating Life?

You enter a new relationship and somehow it quickly fails. You’ve tried to embrace new habits and perspectives, yet you keep getting sucked into the same cycles of anxiety, fear, jealousy, avoidance, or a totally different stressful response to dating. So, what is happening here? And what does it mean for you and your relationships? These are great questions. Let’s answer them from an attachment perspective.

Not too long ago you came to a realization: the same situations keep repeating themselves in your relationships— almost a recycling of experiences.

You enter a new relationship and somehow it quickly fails. You’ve tried to embrace new habits and perspectives, yet you keep getting sucked into the same cycles of anxiety, fear, jealousy, avoidance, or a totally different stressful response to dating.

So, what is happening here? And what does it mean for you and your relationships?

These are great questions. Let’s answer them from an attachment perspective.

Your Biology + Your Past = Your Attachment Style

Now we’ll talk about something called attachment theory.

In its simplest terms, attachment theory holds that there is a foundational blueprint to relationships that is created between birth and the age of three. John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst, developed this theory in the mid-20th century while studying humans’ inherent interest in and need to form attachments with others. Bowlby described attachment as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings,” (Bowlby, 1958)  

One interesting fact about attachment theory is that it regards relationships as being necessary for physical and emotional safety. This gives considerable context to the reason why at a young age a lot of us feel extremely connected to our caregivers. It is because, according to attachment theory, attachment to caregivers helps babies and children avoid the fear of life without food, shelter, and love.

In other words, a secure attachment to a caregiver allows a baby to feel safe. With a secure attachment, when the caregiver inevitably makes a mistake (like waiting too long to change a diaper), the baby is easily soothed because she knows that the caregiver will eventually respond with the correct solution (in this case, changing the diaper). Further, when a baby feels secure, she is more inclined to explore her curiousity, expand her cognitive development, and learn to trust others who feel safe to her.

On the other hand, an insecure attachment happens when a baby and a caregiver are consistently out of sync. It is normal for a caregiver and the baby being cared for to have different needs; however, when the caregiver is preoccupied and has a hard time tuning into/responding to what the baby wants, a misattunement takes place. When this happens too much, the baby begins to realize that they may be living in a world where their needs just will not be met. This, unfortunately, is a sign that she has started to disconnect from the distress of being ignored or receiving improper responses to her needs.

Now, if the caregiver does finally attune and respond to the baby, the baby will likely not trust that the caregiver will remain present because their attention and care have been so sporadic in the past. As a result, the baby will either cry harder or shut down altogether.

The reality is that there are a plethora of reasons why a caregiver may become misattuned with a child. He or she may be: occupied with mental illness (anxiety, depression, etc.), suffering from their own insecure attachment, battling substance use, dealing with a difficult marriage, or juggling a career that requires too much of their time and energy, to name a few. In other cases, there’s the possibility that the caregiver is a temperamental mismatch with the baby they are caring for.

The point here is that an insecure attachment does not automatically mean you had a “bad” caregiver when you were younger. Your caregiver may have loved you to the moon and back and even had the best of intentions, and still you can have an insecure attachment.

An insecure attachment means that, like the rest of us, your caregiver is only human and is flawed, and was potentially too preoccupied with other things to consistently attune to you. As a result, you may have learned alternative ways to get your needs met (through anxiety, controlling behaviors, etc.), or you learned to be extra independent (avoiding close connection).

Unfortunately, we know that the way babies respond to their caregiver’s misattunement can in fact wind up exacerbating the misattunement. This chronic feeling of being out of sync is how the insecure attachment begins to develop. An understanding of relationships is born in this dynamic.

Who You Are Now

Now we need to talk about the patterns you will start to exhibit in your 20s and 30s. I will tell you this much: the way you are responding to others makes sense based on your history. You are not crazy. You are not broken. Now, this isn’t saying that your responses are helpful or even healthy, just that they are totally understandable.  

Maybe you have difficulty being vulnerable or are quick to shut down. Or maybe, when you start dating, you’re super preoccupied and fixated on the other person. In relationships, we typically seek and find what is familiar (that goes for experiences, feelings, and all the stuff in between). So somehow, even with your best efforts to avoid this, the insecure attachment patterns present themselves again and again. Thank you, unconscious—*rolls eyes*.

While you know on a conscious level that the situation isn’t a matter of life or death, there is a part of you from when you were little that kind of feels like it is. And what’s one of the most intimidating things that can happen when something is already scary? Lack of predictability—which, of course, is the nature of dating.

A quick recap on attachment...

The brilliant minds responsible for developing and expanding upon the patterns and basic concepts that underpin attachment theory—John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, later followed by Mary Main and Judith Solomon—studied infants and discovered a secure attachment and three types of insecure attachment, namely anxious ambivalent, anxious avoidant, and disorganized.

In studies conducted on these attachment styles, researchers found that, typically, caregivers of children with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style felt unpredictable and inconsistent to their children’s needs. As a result, the child was not able to trust their caregiver even when they were present, which caused inconsolable anxiety.

Children with an anxious-avoidant attachment style generally assumed their caregivers would be unresponsive due to consistent misattunements. These children are said to become overly independent because they do not believe their caregivers will be there for them.

Caregivers of children with a disorganized attachment style simultaneously serve as their child’s source of safety and fear. This is usually a result of abuse. These children become disorganized in their response because the person who is supposed to keep them safe is the same person who harms them.

Children with a secure attachment believe their caregivers will be available if something goes wrong. They know their caregivers will make mistakes, but they know that, when push comes to shove, the caregiver will be there to fix the problem.

Attachment Theory and How It Pops Up in Dating

These early attachment styles have implications for how we relate to others in life.

Below are some examples of how each can manifest in dating. Keep in mind that, just like the above recap is a simplified, black-and-white version of caregiver-child interactions, the below is also a simplified version of how people respond in dating.

Understand that there are not only four categories of people. You may find that you have behaviors in each category, which is  normal. These behaviors exist on a spectrum, and you may have different patterns of attachment with different people.

Secure:

●     Communication

●     Vulnerability

●     Ability to develop trust

●     Ability to balance relationship with other aspects of life

●     Feelings expression

●     Disagreements are safe

●     Boundaries are respected

Anxious Ambivalent:

●     Self-blame

●     A desire to text or speak constantly (and if you don’t, you feel unbearable anxiety)

●     Preoccupied thoughts of the other person and what they’re doing

●     Difficulty feeling soothed after an argument

●     Avoidance of conflict

●     Minimizing your own needs

●     Fears of them being mad at you

●     Acceptance of unacceptable flaws (such as abusive behavior)

●     Ignoring potential red flags to maintain the “safety” of feeling loved

●     Jealousy

●     Controlling behavior

Anxious Avoidant:

●     Avoidance of intimacy

●     Excessive independence

●     Dismissive of feelings (of self and others)

●     Difficulty with trusting others

●     Superficial relationships

●     Lying

●     Blaming others for being “clingy” or “crazy”

Disorganized:

●     Intense fear of abandonment or rejection

●     Suicidal thoughts/behaviors

●     Both want to be close and want to avoid connection

●     Erratic behavior

●     Confusing responses

What can I do to stop the cycle?

There are a number of healthy practices you can adopt to help you stop the cycle. Below are five of them:

Play detective.

Pay attention to your thoughts, your feelings, and your behavior. Notice what is happening around you to make you feel the way you do. When something happens, ask yourself the following questions:

1.    What am I feeling?

2.    Is that a feeling based in the past, or in the present?

3.    If it is based in my past, why? What is my body remembering?

4.    What would a response based in my attachment history sound like?

5.    What would a response based on solely the present dynamic sound like?

6.    How are these different, and which is appropriate?

Educate yourself.

You’re off to a great start! Read more about attachment patterns, why they’re there, and how they appear later in life. Notice which ones you identify with and why.

Learn more about the spectrum of attachment and get used to the idea that it is not a black or white concept. Read about how you can feel more secure, reasons why you have the attachment you have, and ways to prevent these patterns in yourself and in future generations.

Use your environment as a resource.

If they feel safe, talk to your friends or family. Ask them what they notice about the people you date, and about the way you respond to others. Do they see the same patterns you see?

Hold yourself accountable.

Write down the red flags you notice in the people you date. You don’t have to do anything about them immediately (after all, all people have “red flags”), but keep them in your pocket so you can pay attention to all the information at once. What you’ll realize is that by doing it this way, it’ll be difficult to ignore things that might seem painful. For example, maybe the person you’re seeing is super sweet and funny, but they also get really mean when they’re drunk. It is easy to explain away this behavior, so for now, just pay attention to how often you’re excusing this behavior and why. Are you fearful they’ll leave if you stand up for yourself? Ask yourself what makes you want to keep this person around.

Go to therapy.

Deeply exploring your own patterns and cycles is the most effective way to break them. Get a better understanding of what you expect from your environment and from the people around you. Where did these expectations come from? Why? What else is going on for you outside of your attachment patterns, and how does it all come together?

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About the author

Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW, is a psychotherapist seeing clients virtually from her home base in Manhattan. Alyssa provides attachment focused, psychodynamic therapy to her clients, who mainly struggle with anxiety, relationship stress, and family issues. Alyssa works with adults who want to feel empowered to move past their symptoms and know themselves deeper. Please contact Alyssa at [email protected], or visit her website at www.aapsychotherapy.com.

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