HIM & HER
So, what is your ‘attachment’ type?
Tabitha Lasley
Friday, June 01, 2012

New research claims that there are only three kinds of relationships in a man-woman pairing: finding out your personal attachment style could be the key to lasting love.

Ever wondered why you choose the wrong guy over and over again? Conventional wisdom has it that if you pick unavailable men, you’ve got no one but yourself to blame. After all, the only thing they’ve got in common is you, and the fact you keep picking them. But now, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, a new book by neuroscientist Amir Levine and social psychologist Rachel Heller, looks to turn this tough love stance on its head: it might all be down to whether your attachment style works with his, they say.

“When you go into therapy it’s all about what you bring to the table,” says Levine. “But what happens in the space between two people is a dyadic process.” In other words, it’s the dynamic between the two of you that accounts for the quality of a relationship. The key to understanding this dynamic? Getting a handle on your attachment style.

According to Levine, there are three distinct attachment styles: anxious, avoidant and secure. Anxious people crave intimacy, can become preoccupied with relationships, and worry about their partner’s capacity to love them back. Avoidant types prize autonomy over intimacy, and often push their partner away. Meanwhile, secure people feel comfortable getting close and are generous with their affection.

Where we get our attachment styles from is still up for debate. There’s some evidence that it may be genetic; the dopamine receptor DRD2 has been linked to anxious attachments, while the serotonin 5-hT1a has been linked to avoidants. But it could also be tied to the way our parents interacted with us as babies. Either way, these styles are encoded into us at a young age.

British psychiatrist John Bowlby, who conducted some of the first experiments on attachment theory, found that by 12 months, you could already tell a child’s attachment style. But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with your style forever; you can change your default setting, but it will take time and effort.

Secure 
attachments

Do you refuse to play games? Find it easy to communicate your needs? Feel comfortable with intimacy? See your partner’s wellbeing as your responsibility?

For those with anxious or avoidant styles, a partnership with a secure comes complete with a built-in relationship coach. Because secures know how to communicate in a direct and honest way, their good habits will rub off onto their partners; researchers have found that ‘mixed’ couples (that is, couples made up of one secure and one anxious or avoidant) function just as well as a partnership between two secures.

When it comes to other people’s needs, secures have a ‘sixth sense’, which means they instinctively know how to soothe and comfort an anxious partner before they panic. And because they assume they’re lovable, and go into a relationship expecting to be treated well, they remain unfazed when an avoidant tries to push them away. Although they’re often dismissed as ‘boring’ by anxiously attached people, they’re actually anything but.

Levine describes secures as the ‘supermates’ of evolution, and bagging one offers the most expedient route to a satisfying relationship.

Anxious 
Attachments

Do you feel unhappy when you’re on your own? Worry you’re essentially unlovable? Let your partner set the pace of the relationship?

“If you’re anxious, you want closeness and intimacy,” says Levine. “But if you think about the attachment system as an alarm system, then anxious people have a sensitive alarm system that goes off very, very easily.”

Remember Sex and the City’s Carrie and her constant dithering over on/off boyfriend Mr Big (way back before he finally capitulated)? Levine says this was the quintessential anxious/avoidant pairing. She spent most of her downtime talking about the relationship and was always asking for more than he was prepared to give.

Meanwhile, he was obsessed with staking out his space (he wouldn’t even give her a drawer in his bedside cabinet) and flatly refused to talk about their future.

Unfortunately, anxious and avoidant people are hopelessly drawn to each other. It rarely makes for a happy relationship. Anxious people are finely attuned to the subtlest shifts in their partner’s mood, and one unanswered SMS can send them into a tailspin of anxiety. When the avoidant finally replies, the sense of relief can be overwhelming.

They often mistake this roller-coaster effect for true love. But avoidants only exacerbate their anxious tendencies; they’d be much better off with a secure.

Avoidant 
Attachments

Do you feel stifled by relationships? Have a clear idea of your ‘ideal’ partner, which no one has yet measured up to? Try to preserve your independence at all costs? Finish relationships frequently and get over exes quickly?

Early years attachment

British psychologist John Bowlby observed the way babies responded when their mother left the room, and how they reacted when she returned.

A secure baby would be visibly upset by her leaving, happy to be reunited, and quick to calm down. Anxious babies would be equally distressed when their mothers left the room, but ambivalent about their return; they’d push them away angrily, and refuse to be comforted. Avoidant babies ignored their mothers and continued playing calmly whether they were there or not. Yet their heart rates went up, and their cortisol (stress hormone) levels soared when their moms were out of the room. They may have been outwardly unmoved by their mothers’ departure, but inside, they were upset.

Just as anxious partners are keen to get close, avoidants like to keep a certain amount of distance between them and their partner. They do this by finding fault, refusing to commit, keeping secrets, pining after an ex or ‘the one’ they’re sure is just around the corner.

They’re attracted to anxious people (one study failed to find even one avoidant/avoidant couple) but irritated by their need for intimacy. When an anxious partner pushes for proof of their love, rather than reassure them, they will become even more distant, which creates a constant cycle of stress and recrimination. Avoidants try to confine their emotions, but are often unsatisfied in their relationships. They too are better off with secures.

Is co-dependence such a bad thing?

“Dependency has got a 
bad rep,” says Levine. “The [anti] co-dependency movement has decided that you have to be two grown-ups, take care of your own needs, and then meet together in a very adult way. But the truth is, our biology is not like that. When we get attached to someone, we become almost like one unit.”

In fact, once we’re ensconced in a happy relationship, it has a huge impact not just on our emotional life, but on our physicality. Our partner’s presence will regulate 
our breathing, our heart rate, our sleep patterns and our appetite.

People in good relationships have even been found to heal quicker than those who are single or in bad relationships. It seems that finding the right person changes the very essence of us, and we are genetically predisposed to become dependent on them.

(Find out more about your and your partner’s attachment styles at www.attachedthebook.com)

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