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How To Get (Happily) Attached


According to a new book, understanding the dynamics behind your attachment style can make you feel more secure in your relationship. Here, the authors discuss the three styles — and how to change yours.

By Lauren Ware

andra’s first date with Tom was a blast. He was good-looking, smart, and funny. But afterward, she found herself waiting for his call and worrying that she’d said or done something wrong when he didn’t phone her. Over the following months, their dating pattern was characterized by fun and closeness, followed by Tom pushing her away emotionally. She
Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone.
obsessed about whether he cared about her, and she felt consumed with worry and doubt about their relationship. Just when Sandra would decide that she’d had enough and they should break up, Tom would do something that would convince her that he really did love her after all. Then, the cycle would start all over again.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Understanding the dynamics underlying this pattern can help you stop it in its tracks, thus replacing frustration, worry and doubt with a relationship filled with connection, security and intimacy. A new book by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine and social psychologist Rachel Heller, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, uses decades of scientific research to help you do just that.

Levine and Heller say that a person’s attachment style — originally defined as a type of relationship between a child and his or her caregiver — apply to adult romantic relationships, too. Looking through the lens of various attachment styles can shed light on seemingly puzzling or mysterious behaviors — yours and your partner’s. And understanding your own attachment style can help you find a fulfilling, connected, happy relationship.

Why people form attachments to others
American psychologist Mary Ainsworth was the first person to discover the various attachment styles. She described the three types of attachment styles formed by babies to their mothers as being secure, avoidant, or anxious. Her work built on British researcher and child development specialist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, which proposed that natural selection favored humans who formed attachments to other people because it gave them a survival advantage. In other words, we are meant to be connected! And, in what Levine and Heller call the “dependency paradox,” the more closely we’re connected with a partner, the freer we feel to explore the world and grow as individuals. Many of us have been told that being “dependent” on a partner is a bad thing, but researchers say it’s biological — we are, in fact, physiologically connected to our significant other. It’s how we’re wired, and our survival as a species has always depended on it.

Although part of our attachment style is determined by our experiences as young children, it’s not that simple — genes, other environmental influences and our own romantic relationships also influence us. It’s important to note that Levine and Heller describe these attachment styles as being “stable, but plastic.” Although people tend to be fairly stable in their attachment styles, “the great news is that attachment styles do change,” say Levine and Heller. We’ll get into that in a minute, but first, you’re probably wondering what your attachment style is and what that means for your relationship.

What’s your attachment style?
Attached’s website has an online quiz you can take, but here’s a “cheat sheet” to help you determine your own attachment style. Simply decide which of these statements you identify with the most.

Anxious:
  • I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me.
  • When my partner isn’t with me, I fear that he or she might become interested in someone new.
Avoidant:
  • I find it difficult to depend on other people, including romantic partners.
  • My partners often want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable with myself.
Secure:
  • I am comfortable expressing my wants and needs to my partner.
  • Sometimes people think I’m boring because there’s little drama in my relationships.
How to find a good match for your particular style
Researchers have found that people who are avoidant rarely end up partnered with other avoidant people, because there
Your date’s reaction to your honest communication is very telling.
just isn’t anything to hold them together. Being partnered with a secure person can make both anxious and avoidant people feel more secure themselves — which actually helps them develop a more secure attachment style over time.

The most difficult partnership — and the one that, ironically, many people find attractive — is on that’s formed between someone with an anxious style and an avoidant style individual. These types may be drawn to each other because of the highs and lows that ensue in their relationship, as described in the example above. But they probably aren’t the best fit for each other. However, if you’re already in an anxious-avoidant partnership, you can both work to become more secure (and being aware of your differing attachment styles is the first step to that).

Which attachment style does your date have?
So how can you find out — on the first date or soon after — whether your date has a compatible attachment style? The best way, say Levine and Heller, is to use the descriptions above and apply them to that person. But be careful, because a common pitfall lies in assuming the other person wants a close, committed relationship, based on hearing comments like: “When we move in together, I want to...” in the very early stages of a relationship. “When these are combined with mixed signals,” say Levine and Heller, “they’re actually a pretty sure sign of someone who’s avoidant.” And if you’re already in a relationship with someone and you’ve just realized they’re avoidant or anxious? “Say what you’re thinking!” advise Levine and Heller. Rather than second-guessing yourself or making assumptions, express your needs and feelings when you’re in a calm, collected space together, say the authors: “Your date’s reaction to your honest communication is very telling. It indicates how important your well-being is to him or her.”

How to be more secure in your relationships
If you’re a person with an anxious or avoidant attachment style, take heart; according to Levine and Heller, you can change it with a little work. The simplest way to do this is to get in a relationship with someone who is secure. “When you’re with someone who’s secure, you have an amazing coach built into the relationship,” say Levine and Heller. Studies show that people partnered with someone who has a secure attachment style naturally become more secure over time. Another way to become more secure is to learn the secrets of people with that attachment style; think about people you’ve known in your life who are secure, and try to emulate them.

Whatever your style, you can find happiness and become more secure in your relationships. Knowing and understanding your individual attachment style is the first step for finding a fulfilling and meaningful long-term relationship — and avoiding future drama and heartache. “Get familiar with these attachment styles,” say Levine and Heller, “because they have the potential to change your life.”


Lauren Ware lives and writes in northern Vermont. Besides crafting new dating profiles for clients of Match.com’s ProfilePro service, she pens the About.com Guide to Small Farms and writes about medicine, science, food and farming for such publications as Proto and Wondertime. Read more of her work at www.LaurenWare.com.
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