A few years back when I was single and I had the common affliction of always going for the wrong kind of guy, a well-meaning friend gave me a paperback called “The Complete Book of Rules: time tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr Right”.
It promised much: All a girl has to do is hold back and let the guy do the running. Make sure he knows you’re too busy to see him. Don’t call him and it will make him desire you more. I’ve now come to realise that while there’s a little bit of truth in this stuff, mostly it’s bollocks.
Yes, if you show that you’re confident, you don’t “need” somebody, you appear like you’ve got lots of options and so you must be a good catch. The trouble is though, if you pretend you’re not fussed about having someone there for you, you’re going to be an attractive bet for a guy that’s not that into commitment. Or in developmental psychology parlance, you’ll end up with someone who’s avoidantly attached. When you eventually choose to reveal that you would in fact quite like a nice intimate relationship, the man with an avoidant attachment style will be running for the hills.
Patterns of attachment were first studied by psychologists in infants rather than adults. The more secure a child is in his or her emotional bond with a parent, the more they are able to go out into the world with confidence and independence.
It turns out though that our attachment styles extend into adulthood and lead to predictable ways of behaving in romantic relationships. The most successful couplings are those where at least one partner is securely attached because secures aren’t afraid of commitment and they are good at communication and compromise. The rest of us are insecurely attached, either anxiously, meaning that we tend to obsess about our relationships, worrying about whether or not our partner loves us and constantly playing games to test the relationship. Or we can be avoidant, meaning that we worry about losing independence and we keep partners at arm’s length.
It makes perfect sense – we’re simply adjusting to what our relationships are telling us about how much we can trust others and we behave accordingly. If experience tells us we can’t rely on others to care about us, then we either try like crazy to make sure new prospects do care, or we withdraw and try to look after ourselves.
There is a bit of a sex difference, with insecure women being slightly more inclined to be anxiously attached while insecure men are more likely to be avoidant, which could explain the stereotype of clingy females trying to pin down commitment-phobe blokes.
“The trouble is, anxiously attached people have a habit of getting together with avoidants,” says Amir Levine, psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Colombia University in New York, and one of the authors of Attached: Identify your attachment style and find your perfect match.
This is exactly the wrong thing for them to do because avoidants just exacerbate their anxiety, and it happens partly because avoidants circle more quickly in the dating pool.
‘Like sharks’, I think. While securely attached people tend to stay for the long term in relationships, avoidants have shorter partnerships and become available again more quickly.
The thing about avoidant people is that although they do want relationships, they’re not comfortable with too much closeness, so they have a whole lot of what Levine calls ‘attachment deactivation strategies’, basically ways to maintain their distance: Like not saying ‘I love you’, being vague about the future, or walking a couple of steps ahead of their partner.
So how can people who are a bit anxious make better choices? It’s obvious who the secure people are, but they never seem quite so interesting.
That’s partly because they don’t play games and you don’t get the emotional rollercoaster, says Levine, but give them a chance and you get a very different, much more rewarding experience. You have to take your time:
“People who are anxious have a very reactive attachment system –they get attached very quickly, even after just one night.”
So, he says, the trick is to maintain a bit of distance when you first start seeing someone while you can make a judgement about whether they are right for you. Rule out avoidant types early on by checking out how interested prospective partners are in emotional intimacy – if they don’t like it when you ask what they want from a relationship, chuck ’em.
Once we’re armed with knowledge about attachment styles, says Levine, it’s not so much “is this person going to like me”, it turns out to be more like “has this person got what it takes to be in a relationship with me”.
So if I’m with someone who blows hot and cold, then it’s not me, it really is them. Excellent.
Happily we don’t have to be stuck with our attachment styles though, and the best way to change if you’re anxious or avoidant is to get involved with someone secure, or at least copy them.
“That’s because with a secure person you’ve got a built-in relationship coach that teaches you how to communicate effectively,” says Levine. “These people, and they account for over fifty percent of men and women, have an innate talent for being better partners.
He gives me an example: “Let’s say your partner is going to the airport to catch a flight. If you’re anxious you’ll be unsettled by the separation and want to hear from them,” he says. “If you’re with someone secure, they know about this and they’ll text you from the plane before they take off, and then again as soon as they land at the other end, so you never really get a chance to be anxious.”
But if your partner is avoidant it’s another matter. They’re not calling so you call them, and they get fed up that you always call them so they hit ignore. And you know they’re hitting ignore so that by the time you finally get to talk to them you’re really upset and angry and you have a huge fight. And it was completely avoidable; if only they’d just texted before they took off.
“That’s one of the things we tell avoidant people,” says Levine, “we say ‘if you understood that your partner’s wellbeing is your responsibility and you take care of it early on you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble and you’ll both be happier.”
Even avoidantly attached people can change and improve their relationships if they choose to. In the meantime, best to stick to secure types!
If you’d like to attend a workshop where you can discover your own attachment style, learn how to identify those of others, and find out about the implications for relationships (as well as lots of other cool stuff on the Science of Attraction & Relationships) see our Upcoming Workshops.