Relationships are one of the most gratifying aspects of human existence. They are our safe harbour in the stormy seas. Our guiding stars in the moonless nights. The bringer of immense satisfaction and joy. We, humans, are capable of giving up on everything that we hold dear for the sake of our relationships. And yet, these relationships can also be the cause of immense misery and sorrow. They can torment and ruin us. The irony is such that what may burn us, can also cause light. That is why we cannot leave our relationships on chance. My father always tells me that a good marriage is like winning the lottery. And if you are someone like me who can’t sit on his bum after buying a lottery ticket, then this book is for you. Since this is not a work of magic but only a book. It will not guarantee that you win the lottery but it will demystify the process for you. It would never be a boy meets girl form now. Rather it would be an anxious boy meeting an avoidant girl. You’ll being to understand the shape of all romantic stories, that I can say with confidence.
I first heard of attachment theory while reading How to Not Die Alone. A whacky title isn’t it? It was a book on relationships that I had read at the beginning of the year. The idea that we have different attachment styles stung me. I found myself gravitating to know more, and maybe to know all about it. Soon I found myself in possession of the Attached by Amir Levine. It was one of the popular books on attachment theory. It promised to help me understand the nature of adult love.
The basic assertion of the theory is that our need to be in a close relationship is encoded in our genes. We single out a few specific individuals in our lives and make them precious to us. Evolution plays its course such that in our dependence our true independence lies. We need to depend to be free. A paradoxical idea indeed. But what about my independence and her clinginess? Why would you want to cage me? he’ll say. Why can’t you spend more time with me? she’ll say. People, it turned out, are only as needy as their unmet needs. When their emotional needs meet they usually turn their attention outward. And that’s the dependency paradox in attachment lingo. The more effectively we are dependent on one another, the more independent and daring we become. Humans are heterogeneous. We are the same but not alike. Our needs are different, even emotional ones. And that’s where attachment theory marks its dent on me. By defuncting these three misconceptions which I’ll enumerate below from the book:
1. The first misconception is that everyone has the same capacity for intimacy. We have been raised to believe that every person can deeply love. It’s tempting to forget that people have very different capacities for intimacy. And when one person’s need for closeness is met with another person’s need for independence and distance, a lot of unhappiness ensues.
2. The second misconception we fell victim to is that marriage is the be-all and end-all. We don’t like to admit that people might enter marriage without the goals of true closeness and emotional partnership in mind, let alone the ability to achieve them. Mismatched attachment styles can lead to a great deal of unhappiness in marriage, even for people who love each other greatly.
3. The third hard-to-shed misconception we fell for is that we alone are responsible for our emotional needs; they are not our partner’s responsibility. Again, we must constantly remind ourselves: In a true partnership, both partners view it as their responsibility to ensure the other’s emotional well-being.
We have different capacities for intimacy. Most of us are not even aware of it. We enter social contracts like marriage without knowing what are we getting ourselves into. We carry this load on our shoulders that we and only we are responsible for our emotional needs. An infant is not told: “Stop crying over her. There are plenty of parents in the world. Like there are plenty of fishes in the sea. When you’ll be ready, you can always find a better parent”. We have a responsibility towards the emotional needs of our loved ones. And so do our loved ones have a responsibility towards our emotional needs. The question reduces to how much we need, and how much can we stretch to give. All good relationships are about finding the common ground. A place where both partners can meet each other. This is explained through how we get attached to other human beings to form a relationship. The attachment style is formed in our childhood, it’s a mix of our nurture and nature. The good news is that it’s possible to change the attachment style. On average, one in four people does so over a four-year period. It’s doable but it’s hard work. Good things in life rarely come easy anyway.
According to the theory, there are three types (well actually four types) of attachment styles: anxious, secure, and avoidant. The avoidant attachment style is further divided into dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. So, that makes a total of four kinds of attachment styles.
These styles differentiated on the axis of anxiety and avoidance (opposite of intimacy).
Those who exhibit low avoidance and low anxiety are secure. Those who exhibit low avoidance but high anxiety are anxious or anxious-preoccupied. Those who exhibit high avoidance and low anxiety are dismissive-avoidant. Those who exhibit high avoidance but low anxiety are fearful-avoidant.
The word avoidance denotes avoidance towards intimacy. Thus someone having low avoidance means that they seek intimacy. I have already written a blog post (What kind of baby are you?) to understand attachment styles better. This is the best quiz to assess your attachment style.
These described attachment styles differ in:
• their view of intimacy and togetherness
• the way they deal with conflict
• their attitude toward sex
• their ability to communicate their wishes and needs
• their expectations from their partner and the relationship
People who are secure in their relationships are comfortable depending on others and having the other person depend on them. Moreover, they are relatively unconcerned about whether the other person truly cares about them.
• Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving.
• Parents of secure people were sensitive, available, and responsive.
• Know how to communicate their own expectations and respond to their partner’s needs effectively without having to resort to protest behaviour.
• They find it relatively easy to get close to others and are comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. They don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to them.
People who are preoccupied with their relationships are worried that the other person is not or will not be available when needed. They would like to depend on the other person and have that person depend on them, but feel that such dependence is not reciprocal.
• Anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.
• Parents of anxious people were inconsistently responsive.
• They find that others are reluctant to get as close as they would like. They often worry that their partner doesn’t really love them or won’t want to stay with them. They want to merge completely with another person and this desire sometimes scares people away.
1. Wants a lot of closeness in the relationship
2. Expresses insecurities—worries about rejection
3. Unhappy when not in a relationship
4. Plays games to keep your attention/interest
5. Has difficulty explaining what’s bothering him/her. Expects you to guess.
6. Acts out—instead of trying to resolve the problem between you
7. Has a hard time not making things about themselves in the relationship
8. Let you set the tone of the relationship so as not to get hurt.
9. Is preoccupied with the relationship
10. Fears that small acts will ruin the relationship, believes s/he must work hard to keep your interest.
11. Suspicious that you may be unfaithful
People who are fearfully avoidant in their relationships are uncomfortable depending on others and serving as an ‘attachment figure.’ Moreover, they worry that others may not be there emotionally when they are most needed (high anxiety, high avoidance).
People who are dismissing in their relationships are also not comfortable opening up to others and depending on or having others depend on them. In addition, they are not concerned with the question of whether the other person truly cares about them (low anxiety, high avoidance).
• Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness.
• Parents of avoidant people were distant, rigid, and unresponsive.
• They are somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; They find it difficult to trust others completely, difficult to allow themselves to depend on them. They are nervous when anyone gets too close.
1. Sends mixed signals
2. Values his/her independence greatly
3. Devalues you
4. Use distancing strategies—emotional or physical
5. Emphasizes boundaries in the relationship
6. Mistrustful—fears being taken advantage of by a partner
7. Has rigid views of relationships and uncompromising rules
8. During a disagreement needs to get away or “explode”
9. Leaves you guessing their feelings
10. Has difficulty talking about what’s going on between you
There are two goals of this information dump. The first goal is to realize your own attachment style. And the second goal is to realize the attachment style of the partner you have or seek. It’s a no-brainer that a secure attachment style is an ideal that we are after—that’s where we head. But until then, we must recognize the blind spots of where we are.
As anxiously attached people we have to come up with ways to cope with our anxieties. We have to learn to identify the times when our attachment system gets activated. One idea to keep in mind is to let the steam settle before you respond. Try to be with those secure folks who can take care of our emotional needs. As an anxiously attached person, you should stay away from avoidantly attached people. Else, you may fall spiralling into the anxious-avoidant trap.
As avoidantly attached people we have to learn about our deactivating strategies. The stories we tell ourselves to keep people at bay are at best just stories. We need to find those strategies and become conscious of their application. We have to learn to trust and be comfortable with being vulnerable. Again as an avoidantly attached person, look for someone securely attached.
Although the majority of people are securely attached (50%). But they seldom appear in the dating pool. Secure people can look boring because they never activate your attachment system. If there is one thing that you can take home from this book, then it’s that an activated attachment system is not love. Anxiety is not love. Butterflies in the stomach is not love. Love is peaceful. If you are out of love right now, I hope that you find love that is peaceful soon. I hope you hold onto it, not uncaringly, nor too tightly, but gently enough so that love stays. And in turn, love will take care of you.