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How Learning My Attachment Style Changed How I Think About Dating

As I saunter into my thirties, I, in some ways, feel younger than I ever have before. The mix of ambition and confusion of my twenties made me exhausted in every way possible, and the proverbial pedestal I placed all my desires on made it impossible for me to see what was right in front of my face: the present moment. Since youth is famously wasted on the young, I chose to not personalize it, but rather, draw a conclusion that makes me feel a semblance of peace instead. I have come to believe the classic adage that timing really is, in fact, everything. It’s clear when the right thing is showing up in our lives at the right time because it just, well, feels right. With this belief as a key component to how I navigate the world, I’ve also found that the right books, bands and films have found their way into my life just when I needed to learn from them most.

Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help you Find and Keep Love was one of those books for me. Written by psychologist and neuroscientist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel S.F. Heller, it introduces the concept of three distinct attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, and secure. Attachment styles are a way to indicate differing psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions in relation to attaching to others. This can mean many kinds of attachment including romantic partnerships, work relationships, family or friendships.

According to Levine and Heller, attachment styles are formed in infancy because the caregiver-infant relationship is the template from which we build relationships. Generally speaking, anxiously attached people are often worried that the object of their desire will leave them at any moment, often because they experienced an unpredictable caretaking model during infancy. This creates a preoccupation that distracts them from enjoying their lives and constantly wondering everything is OK. Avoidant attachment types typically think of intimacy as a loss of independence and will seek relief by pushing any bid for connection away from them. This can be brought on by a caretaker who had a lot of needs from their child, which can be very overwhelming. “Any need overwhelms that person. A way to fend off that overwhelm is to withdraw into their own world,” says psychotherapist, Raina Murphy, LCSW (she/they). 

And finally, there’s securely attached people. These are those magical unicorns you meet once in a blue moon who feel comfortable getting close to others without too much of a cat and mouse game. “What that means is that somebody is able to be in connection with someone and feel self-regulated, calm and secure in that connection, and also continue to feel secure in that connection when they go out in the world. This is the ideal,” Raina says.

If learning about these attachment styles makes you a bit stressed out or confused, don’t worry. You’re totally not alone. Personally, between work, intimate relationships and friends, I have seen myself experience each of these attachment styles at different times. Some therapists call this disorganized attachment which can also be a response to relationship trauma. “It’s an insecure world, so we all have attachment issues.” Raina says. “We all have different parts of ourselves where our anxious attachment and avoidant attachment get activated. Part of being able to create a secure attachment with one’s self is being able to tolerate uncomfortable moments, tolerate shame, tolerate embarrassment, anger and anxiety and not collapsing around them.”

My biggest takeaway from this book was that having needs doesn’t have to feel embarrassing or overwhelming when you’re in the right relationship. In a modern world that sometimes promotes hyper-individualism, it can feel uncomfortable admitting to needs without calling ourselves “needy.” This book taught me that it’s an evolutionary skill to be able to rely on a person and also to be able to grow from whatever comes up when they inevitably fall short of perfection. This opens up a relationship rather than collapsing it. Effectively communicating in an honest way has saved me a lot of time and energy in dating and work dynamics. If keeping it real with someone pushes them away, it's better to know sooner than later. Conversely, if someone requires more than I’m willing to give them, it’s better to know off the bat than down the line. 

If you’re curious how and where you can practice communicating effectively, Raina suggests that a therapist’s office is a good place to start practicing secure attachment. Let’s say your therapist says something that doesn’t sit right with you. Letting them know how you feel is a great way to safely practice becoming secure in yourself. “It is a great place to practice, and it will trickle. It can actively repair attachment wounds.”

Wherever you land on the attachment spectrum, peace of mind is a priceless reward as we navigate relating to ourselves and one another with more understanding and compassion.