Your love life was probably a mess at some point. Maybe it still is.
That’s something we all struggle with. When you Google “love life”, this is what comes up:
It’s safe to say Google knows a thing or two about us.
But why do we find relationships difficult, often getting stuck in the same patterns over and over?
To a good extent, it comes down to our attachment style: the template we use to bond with a partner 一 something we develop as children, and recycle to form relationships as adults. As the pioneer of attachment theory John Bowlby said: “Attachment behavior characterizes human beings from the cradle to the grave."
The good news is that we can learn to recognize our attachment style, and we’re able to change it to achieve deeper, more fulfilling relationships. If that’s something you want, read ahead!
Before we begin, we must clear attachment's bad reputation. Due to Western society's individualistic nature, many believe that needing someone by your side is a sign of weakness 一 a distraction on the path to achieving your goals, or a commitment that would drain your energy.
After all, you can support and soothe yourself through anything, right?
While self-love and self-confidence are positive qualities, we shouldn't ignore our evolutionary wiring. As researchers Amir Levine and Rachel Heller point out in the book Attached, humans need healthy attachments in order to thrive. Biologically speaking, being attached does not limit our individual growth 一 it’s the cornerstone that supports it.
Our goal should not be to be emotionally independent, but to build healthy attachments with the right people. Paradoxically, the more effectively we depend on others the more independent and daring we become.
The OG John Bowlby, said this himself: “Human beings of all ages are happiest and able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise.”
So the question is: how do we build healthy attachments?
To answer that, we must first go all the way back to infancy, where attachment is born.
Attachment begins from a child’s dependency on its parents: infants can’t survive on their own, so they need someone to care for them. More interesting is how babies attach to their caregivers 一 according to Bowlby’s research, a baby’s bond with the caregiver is based on three things:
A healthy adult attachment is based upon the same things, though, unlike the parent and child, both partners can and should share the roles of caregiver and care receiver.
At the end of the day, you still want to:
An ideal attachment would meet these three qualities perfectly all the time, but real life ain’t perfect. Even the ultimate caregiver will sometimes screw up, and babies can easily overreact to the smallest things.
Overall, based on the frequency and quality of responsiveness in the care they receive, babies will develop an attachment style. This will then determine how they see themselves within that relationship, and what kind of affection or care “they think they deserve”. Research has shown that these inner models persist into adulthood, where we tend to confirm our expectations about how we should be loved 一 even if they’re negative.
But before you blame your messy love life on your childhood, consider what the authors of Attached say:
“Even if there is a correlation between attachment style in childhood and in adulthood, it is weak at best. [..] An entire mosaic of factors comes together to create this attachment pattern: our early connection with our parents, our genes, and also something else—our romantic experiences as adults.”
Ultimately, where and how exactly you formed your attachment style doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you can learn to recognize it, work on it, and change it to have better relationships.
There are three main types of attachment: secure, anxious, and avoidant. We don’t fall completely into a single style, but rather into different ones, to different degrees, at different times.
As Scott Kaufman writes in his book Transcend, “There is no such thing as a completely securely attached person (have you ever met one? 😉) all of us are at least a little bit anxious and avoidant when stress rears its head in our relationships.”
There is also a fourth attachment style 一 the anxious-avoidant (or disorganized) 一 where the person is both craving affection and dismissing it when they receive it. Since it’s apparently less common, I won’t cover it in this post (you can learn more about it here.)
Let’s briefly describe each style, starting with the holy grail: the secure attachment. For more details on each of them, you can read my notes from the book Attached.
In a secure attachment style the partners feel that they can count on each other for support during stressful times, or when taking on new challenges. They are happily committed to one another, communicate their needs clearly, and make decisions together. Overall, the relationship is a source of balance and strength, as opposed to conflict and stress.
This is the North Star to keep in mind, as you make progress in your journey.
Then we have the other two opposite styles, anxious and avoidant, which are formed when a child receives (or perceives to receive) love and care with unpredictable sufficiency.
People with anxious attachments are often worried about their romantic partner’s responsiveness, seeing them as insufficiently attentive and reluctant to commit.
They tend to over-idealize both the romantic relationship and the partner, spending lots of energy trying to please them and keep them happy. They tend to be clingy and ask for lots of closeness.
Overall, anxious people feel entitled to be loved because they never learned how to take care of themselves.
People with an avoidant attachment style don’t trust that their significant other can meet their needs, so they avoid too much intimacy or letting anyone get too close.
They downplay the need for an intimate relationship and avoid getting emotionally involved, finding people who self-disclose or ask too much of them ‘repulsive’. Since they have negative expectations about relationships, they don’t invest too much energy in it.
Overall, avoidant people feel ineligible to be loved because they always had to take care of themselves.
As you probably noticed, anxious and avoidant people mirror each other's styles, often ending up together to reinforce their own beliefs.
On one hand, by being attracted to emotionally unavailable people, the anxious confirm that they’re not worthy of being cared for. On the other hand, by being attracted to emotionally immature people, the avoidants confirm that they can’t trust others to take care of them.
One could say that the anxious relies too much on the partner, while the avoidant too much on themselves, but ultimately they are equally scared of being let down. They use opposite strategies to cope with the same fear of abandonment.
Whatever style you relate to the most, the goal is to balance it out to form ever more secure attachments. If you’re too anxious and needy, you should probably learn how to become more independent. If you’re too avoidant and self-reliant, you should probably learn how to become more dependent.
There is no single path to make your attachment style more secure, but it’ll certainly involve becoming more conscious of your patterns.
The first step to change your style, is to stop entering relationships like life is a Hollywood movie 一 it’s not! Sure, there’s magic and serendipity, but love is also very much practical. I often joke that, for me, things started to get better when I approached my romantic life as if it was “a scientific project” 一 I put on my researcher hat and started to collect data.
I took each romantic exchange as an opportunity to learn something more about myself, and I started to deconstruct my attachment style by asking myself:
This process requires self-awareness and introspection, and also the courage to accept the truths you’ll encounter. Most likely, you’ll uncover self-limiting beliefs as the root cause of your struggle 一 like not feeling worthy of affection.
On top of that, it’s important to continuously learn about this topic (e.g. through books and podcasts) to better connect the dots and make sense of your direct experience. Once you become more aware of your attachment style and how you want to improve it, it’s time to actually change it.
It’s great to learn about attachment, but ultimately you need to see results: the quality of your love life has to actually improve.
Science tells us that the brain creates the future based on past experiences, so it’s key to have new, positive romantic experiences as references for our future selves. In order to do that, whenever you start dating someone, ask yourself:
Can I form new, positive dynamics with this person, or am I just going to reinforce old patterns?
Don’t aim to find the ideal partner or secure attachment right away. Just make sure that each new relationship is a bit healthier and more balanced than the previous one. That will become your new standard, upon which you can continue to grow and move towards the North Star of secure attachment.
Sometimes you can do the work within the relationship you’re in, sometimes not 一 it’s up to you to figure out when it’s time to stay or leave.
With each experience you’ll become clearer about what type of relationship you want, so that you can express it ever more clearly.
Telling your partner what you feel, think, or need is perhaps one of the most important tools you have to work on your attachment style and build better relationships.
Both the anxious and the avoidant often fail to communicate their needs clearly, feeling resentful when their desires are unmet. In this case, each partner should practice speaking up about what they want, and why it matters to them.
Clear communication can also help you quickly figure out whether your partner can (and cares to) meet your needs, and make it easier for them to do that (and vice versa). As the authors of Attached suggest, “effectively expressing your emotional needs is even better than the other person magically reading your mind”.
However, while good communication is important, it’s not enough without active listening. You and your partner must be willing to make improvements upon what has been communicated, or else nothing will change. As Levine and Heller put it: “What’s vital is your partner’s response—whether he or she is concerned about your well-being, has your best interests in mind, and is willing to work on things.”
Sharing your life with someone you love, trust, and rely upon is one life’s most rewarding experiences and, biologically speaking, a cornerstone for long-term wellbeing. At the same time, managing the strong emotions generated by attachment’s invisible threads can be difficult.
With patience, work, and a bit of courage you can make your attachment style more secure and enjoy lasting, nurturing, and loving relationships. I hope this article was helpful to make some progress in your journey.
Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence. — Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (1956)