Adult Attachment

Today, I took a walk around a nearby public high school at midday. As I was approaching my return route, a couple crossed the street and I found myself walking behind them for a block or so.

They were cute – clearly happy to be with each other, and equally happy to be allowed off campus for lunch. To help you picture them: the girl had short cropped dark hair and was wearing a black cotton dress with a floral pattern and brown flats. The guy had jean shorts that fell below his knees, flat slip-on shoes, a t-shirt, broad rimmed baseball cap with red unkempt hair poking around the perimeter, and a slender skateboard in his arm. Both of them were wearing backpacks, holding hands, and walking with a tinge of awkwardness – in the somewhat shy but playful fashion of teenagers in love.

While moments like this often cause pause – “I remember when I was that age,” “I remember my first love,” “ahh, youth,” etc., it actually prompted me to think about how influential those early experiences can really be.

Dan and I recently read Attached written by Levine and Heller. The book explores how attachment theory can be used to explain, understand and improve adult romantic relationships (though the principles can certainly be applied to non-romantic relationships as well). For those familiar with Bowlby’s (and Ainsworth’s) original attachment research regarding children, this book basically brings the same theory forward into the adult realm.

To briefly recap attachment theory according to Bowlby, Ainsworth and the many child development researchers since, the premise is that children display one of four types of attachment to their care givers:

– secure: the child is able to perform activities with their caregiver as a stable base; the child is upset when the caregiver leaves but is able to be calmed when the caregiver returns and then resume their activities; the child can be consoled by a stranger but prefers the caregiver

– avoidant: the child shows little emotional change with or without the caregiver present; a stranger is often treated similarly to the caregiver; the child may ignore their caregiver

– ambivalent-resistant: the child shows constant distress over the proximity of their caregiver; the child is distraught when the caregiver leaves and is difficult to console; the child prefers their caregiver to strangers but when the caregiver returns the child may feel upset

– disorganized: the child shows a mix of behaviors (often leaning towards the ambivalent-resistant and avoidant categories); appears confused and has difficulty responding

These attachment categories can also be lumped more generally into secure and insecure attachment (with insecure encompassing avoidance, ambivalence and disorganized).

Adult attachment theory is very similar, but the categories used by Levine and Heller are: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious avoidant. Here are their descriptions of such attachment styles:

Anxious: You love to be very close to your romantic partners and have the capacity for great intimacy. You often fear, however, that your partner does not wish to be as close as you would like him/her to be. Relationships tend to consume a large part of your emotional energy. You tend to be very sensitive to small fluctuations in your partner’s moods and actions, and although your senses are often accurate, you take your partner’s behaviors overly personally. You experience a lot of negative emotions within the relationship and get easily upset. As a result you tend to act out and say things you later regret. If the other person provides a lot of security and reassurance, you are able to shed much of your preoccupation and feel contented (Levine & Heller).

Avoidant: It is very important for you to maintain your independence and self-sufficiency, and you often prefer autonomy to intimate relationships. Even though you do want to be close to others, you feel uncomfortable with too much closeness and tend to keep your partner at arm’s length. You don’t spend much time worrying about your romantic relationships or about being rejected. You tend not to open up to your partners and they often complain that you are emotionally distant. In relationships, you are often on high alert for any signs of control or impingement on your territory by your partner (Levine & Heller).

Secure: Being warm and loving in a relationship comes naturally to you. You enjoy being intimate without becoming overly worried about your relationships. You take things in stride when it comes to romance and don’t get easily upset over relationship matters. You effectively communicate your needs and feelings to your partner and are also strong at reading your partner’s emotional cues and responding to them. You share your successes and problems with your mate, and are able to be there for him or her in times of need (Levine & Heller).

Levine and Heller consider anxious-avoidant as a mixture of the anxious and avoidant categories described above.

So as you might guess, the premise of the book is how an awareness of adult attachment theory can help one find a partner, improve an existing relationship, or decide whether to stay within a relationship.

What’s interesting is that, while some psych researchers have focused on how attachment in childhood can influence adult attachment, Attached posits the case that adult attachment is actually somewhat separate from childhood attachment in that, one can grow up with a certain attachment style which can then be altered/changed throughout adult relational experiences. Also, certain societal expectations or trends, can influence how adults view attachment – for example the topic of codependency. According to the dictionary codependency is:

Excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one with an illness or addiction. (Merriam Webster)

And in today’s pop psych world, codependency is often used to describe the interactions between unhealthy folks (usually those with addictions or other maladaptive behaviors) and their partners. The two individuals, in essence, can feed off one another with one partner “enabling” the continuation of the unhealthy behaviors in the other, which then perpetuates an unhealthy reliance between the two.

Codependency, in my experience, is very real and very challenging to overcome. However, as Levine and Heller argue, it is really meant to describe the interactions of unhealthy individuals to those close to them – it is not intended as a reason for maintaining a constant amount of space or distance between healthy partners. In other words, it was never meant to make mutual, loving dependency between partners the enemy.

Now some of you may be thinking codependency is a bit of an extreme example – but what about the idea of being responsible for our own experiences, such as happiness, as I wrote about here? Well, there are always shades of gray, but truthfully, Levine and Heller did not fully discuss the concept of maintaining both an individual and joint identity within coupledom. I personally believe it’s healthier to have a simultaneous sense of self and a sense of oneness/we-ness, while in a partnership, and I think it’s unrealistic for each of us to expect our significant other to fulfill every single one of our needs (the major needs for certain, but not everything – that’s what I have friends and family for). However, those ideas should also not be reasons against fostering intimacy and healthy dependency within a relationship because at some point the relationship must morph from “you and I” to “we”. My partner should be able and allowed to contribute to my wholeness/completeness as a person – just not responsible for 100% (or even maybe the majority) of that wholeness/completeness. Balance, folks, balance.

But anyway, while societal trends can influence how adults view attachment (and in the case of codependency, such trends probably really shouldn’t), adult attachment can also be impacted by close relationship experiences. This Op-Ed piece called The Brain on Love by Diane Ackerman, provides additional support to this idea, as it discusses how experiencing (or not experiencing) love, actually influences our neurology. This is why Levine and Heller argue that as an adult one should “choose a romantic partner wisely” (and I’d extend that to other key relationships too- close friends, business partners), for a poor choice can influence attachment styles.

As you might have guessed (based on other postings I’ve written herein, or if you know me in person), I am squarely in the anxious attachment camp. And as you might have also guessed, I used to be more secure.

Had I, back when I was 15 like the couple I observed earlier today, been a bit more choosy in who I allowed into my inner circle (speaking mainly about former partners, but also about other relationships), I might be a lot more secure today. A lot more open to intimacy, a lot more understanding and supportive of my partner, and less emotionally volatile.

I can dwell on the past and rue my missteps, but rather than relive the past, I’d rather learn from it and start deliberately “rewiring” my brain for the benefit of me and those I’m close to. As Levine and Heller’s book discusses, being aware of your own adult attachment style is the first step, then it’s learning how to interpret and respond to both your own internal signals/behaviors and those of your partner, and then doing your best to become that which will make you a better partner (i.e., more secure). Dan and I have our work cut out for us, but it’s a joint project and I know we can do it.

So I thought about Attached when I saw the guy and girl walking happily hand in hand by the high school. I hope they’ll find themselves able to adopt (or nurture, if they already have) the traits of those securely attached. I think we all deserve to feel deeply close and emotionally contented by those we care about and love.

Thanks for reading, S


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About regulardaze

Hi, I'm Sarah. I enjoy photography, dancing, travel, theatre, delicious food, and learning (constantly, about almost everything imaginable). I currently live in Austin, TX. Thanks for sharing in my thoughts and adventures! :)

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