In my psychotherapy work (primarily with gay men) over the last four decades probably the most common question I’ve been asked is “How can I find a partner?” Many people struggle with an inability to find satisfying relationships, but too often their strategies for change are superficial (such as joining a gym in the hopes that bigger muscles will attract true love.) But I believe that the insights contained in a developmental theory known as Attachment Theory can provide a deeper understanding of the issues, and important guidance in resolving them.
According to Attachment Theory, human beings have three distinct “styles’ for bonding to other people, and these styles evolve out of our earliest experiences with caregivers. The “secure attachment style”, as the name implies, is the least problematic of the styles. Secure types usually had relationships with their parents in which they felt safe and protected, and which gave them a secure base to go out and explore the world. In adulthood, they don’t smother their partners, but respect their independence, while also knowing when, and how, to set boundaries, as well as to be honest, close, and supportive. About half of the population have secure attachment styles: the rest are about evenly divided between two insecure styles: anxious and avoidant.
Anxious types, by contrast (and as a direct consequence of childhood deprivation), live with a more or less constant sense of emotional hunger. Their deepest fear is that they’re unlovable, and they long for the perfect romantic relationship that will disconfirm that fear; and also rescue, heal, and complete them. Their excessive expectations of romantic relationships is why they’re often seen as “love addicts.”
Although they look for a sense of safety and security by clinging to their partners, their tragedy is that they behave in ways that push them away. When they feel unsure of their partner’s feelings and unsafe in their relationships, they can become clingy, demanding and possessive. They may interpret a partner’s independent actions as abandonment. They often attempt to alleviate their anxiety by playing games or manipulating to get attention – acting out, trying to make their partner jealous, withdrawing and not answering texts or calls, etc. Tragically, their very desperation to hang onto their bond is what breaks it. But the greatest mistake anxious types make is in their choice of partners. For a number of reasons, they are drawn to partners who increase rather than decrease their anxiety – partners with avoidant attachment styles.
Avoidant types typically grow up with parents who are emotionally unavailable or unresponsive to them most of the time. In response, they develop a pseudo-independent orientation to life based on the illusion that they don’t need other people. As adults, they may enjoy spending time with people, and may form partnerships, but become uncomfortable if the relationship gets too close; and may abruptly end it if their partners are “needy” or become “dependent.” Avoidant people often impress others as insensitive and self-preoccupied because they’re overly focused on themselves and largely disregard the feelings and needs of other people. They also find it difficult to disclose their feelings and needs to their partners. Their typical response to an argument or conflict is to become distant and aloof. They often have an overly positive view of themselves and a critical attitude toward other people, although this high self-esteem is usually only skin deep. It’s a stance that protects a fragile self that is easily hurt by slights and rejections. Beneath this exterior, avoidant types are often plagued by feelings of self-hatred. People with avoidant attachment styles want intimacy as much as everyone else, but they ward it off because they believe that it’s fraught with dangers.
If you’re having difficulty finding or sustaining a long-term relationship, it could be that a core issue is that you have either an anxious or an avoidant attachment style. While our styles form in early childhood and are deeply ingrained, the good news is that they aren’t immutable. Armed with sufficient understanding of how you attach to others, it is possible, over time, to make meaningful changes and to learn to pursue effective strategies to be more successful in relationships. Those strategies will be my theme in the next two columns.
Next time: Emerging from an Anxious Attachment Style