How attachment theory can help you understand relationships.

Attachment theory: why lockdown has made us all obsessed with the psychology of relationships

Posted by for Relationships

Relationships are under the microscope, and we’re turning to psychology to find out why. But is it useful to apply academic theories to everyday dating? 

I was standing outside an Old Street pub (back when pubs didn’t solely exist in our dreams), cradling a gin and tonic, when my friend dug a book out of her bag and began to explain why this book was her new bible. “My therapist told me to read it,” she explained. It had, apparently, given her clarity and closure over her past romantic experiences, as well as the knowledge she needed to not make these mistakes again. It sounded like something I needed to read.

This magical book was called Attached, written in 2010 by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel SF Heller, and based on attachment theory. For its many, many fans, the book has been life changing. I should know: since that summer evening almost two years ago, there’s been a slow rise in my friends’ interest in the psychological concept – all of whom have made sure to tell me what it’s taught them. 

Perhaps it’s just a case of seeing something everywhere once your eyes are open to it, but as lockdown rumbles on, the attachment theory conversion seems to have hit its peak. It is to 2021 what horoscopes were to 2019: an internet sensation.

What is attachment theory?

The theory of attachment dates back further than Attached though. It was developed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the late 60s, building on the foundational research of psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby was attempting to understand how the distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents influenced future bonding, describing attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’

“There’s an increasingly large amount of research that suggests that adult romantic relationships function in ways that are similar to infant caregiver relationships,” explains psychotherapist and love addiction expert Talitha Fosh. “Attachment styles are simply patterns of emotions that are activated in childhood by the extent that their needs are met. Children then develop belief systems which then go on to manifest in their romantic relationships.”

The theory suggests that you bond in one of three (main) ways: secure, anxious or avoidant. Someone with secure attachments has ‘solid’ relationships, knowing that their partner is there to support them. It means that they grew up with the belief that care givers are reliable and can fulfill their needs.

The other two patterns are insecure bonding styles. Despite the adult bonding styles being opposite, they are actually borne from the same experiences: a belief that they can’t rely on people to fulfil their needs. People who have an avoidant style become fiercely independent and tend to draw away when they feel that someone is getting close to them. Anxious people tend to go the other way, meaning that they seek intimacy. 

Why are we obsessed with attachment theory?

Someone who understands the current state of attachment theory more than anyone is Laura Mucha, author of We Need To Talk About Love. She’s currently in the process of writing her second book, We Need To Talk About Relationships, set to be published in 2022 and focusing on attachment theory and bonding.

The reason she is so interested in the psychology of attachment is because of her own insecure patterns. “I grew up with my mum and my grandparents, but my grandfather passed away when I was 11. I didn’t know this at the time but subconsciously I was building an expectation that the people that you love can die or leave and, therefore, having relationships is a bit dangerous,” she says.

She set out on a mission to discover how and why people function in traditional relationships, and discovered attachment theory, which “really resonated” with her experiences. But why are the rest of us, who haven’t written an academia-inspired book on the subject, suddenly so interested?

According to Laura, relationships, generally, have become a wider focus in the academic world for the past 10 years or so. One reason for this is because there’s a lack of funding in the fields, and it costs little to observe interactions between children and caregivers. Academic research then trickles down to mainstream literature, so our discussions are more focused on relationships and childhood.

But there’s also an appetite for accessible, digestible and personalised science. Perhaps thanks to Instagram, we’re all searching for the latest news on everything from nutrition to mental health in order to optimise our health, bodies and relationships.

However, we can’t ignore the impact of coronavirus on inducing the recent flurry of interest in attachment theory. “Research suggests that in times of crisis the quality of a romantic relationship is often exacerbated. So if you’ve got a good relationship, it will probably stay pretty good or even get better. But for those in less positive relationships, Covid is making them much worse. Because we can’t distract ourselves from that in the way we used to, we’re seeing discussions about unhelpful ways of being in relationships coming to the fore a bit more,” says Laura. 

She points me to a Bar-Ilan University study from 1993, looking at attachment styles in people throughout the Gulf War. As you’d expect, those with avoidant attachment patterns distanced themselves from other people during the trauma. But, interestingly, they also had more psychosomatic complaints than those who were secure. “There’s a similar level of stress that this pandemic might be causing,” says Laura, so is it any wonder that people going through physical and mental unrest are seeking for reasons why?

How do attachment style apply to relationships?

“I don’t love the impulse our culture has to stigmatize almost every behavioral pattern under the sun, as if each little thing we do on any given day can be labeled as healthy or unhealthy, good or bad, morally righteous or selfish,” wrote Heather Havrilesky in her Ask Polly newsletter. She was responding to a question from a woman asking if she, an avoidant, could ever make it work with her partner, who has an anxious attachment style.

“Many of us have become so self-conscious about how healthy we are or aren’t that we can barely breathe. And that’s not how human beings thrive. We’re complex and we’re also animals. We fit together in unique and interesting ways as couples. You may always be happiest with someone who’s a tiny bit anxious and your boyfriend may always be happiest with someone who’s a tiny bit avoidant.” 

She hit the nail on the head. Our obsession with attachment theory feels like an extension of our need to find a label to excuse for our, or our loved ones, behaviour. We saw it with the aforementioned spike in interest in horoscopes, with people shrugging off their flaws because “it’s just so Cancer of me to hold a grudge”. It’s annoying when people blame their zodiac sign for their behaviour. It’s potentially damaging when they blame it on psychological theory.

Firstly, because that’s simply not how attachment styles are supposed to work. It is not for categorising the general population. In fact, it’s almost impossible to work out what your bonding style is. The psychological theory of attachment is based on “really intense, unenjoyable attachment interview,” explains Laura. “It gets transcribed and then someone who has been trained for at least a year codes it for around six to 10 hours,” she says.

I tell her I took a 50 question quiz online that took me no more than 10 minutes to complete and I watch her face squirm. “Attachment interviews measure how you talk and process events in the past. Those questionnaires are measuring something very different. And that’s the massive problem with people doing quizzes, reading a 200 word definition of their attachment style and applying it to their relationship, when it’s all through a lens of misinformation.”

Talitha agrees: “It’s important to know that attachment styles do not define who we are and how we are in relationships. It’s not black and white.”

Secondly, you can change attachment styles over the course of your life. A big event, such as a relationship that challenges your bonding style (for better or worse) and therapy in which you reflect on past behaviours are just two ways that your attachment may vary. Labelling yourself therefore limits change. 

“We get so used to similar outcomes that we then choose partners or act ourselves in ways that emphasise these behaviours just so that we can say ‘I told you so’,.” For example, anxious people chase and chase until they get hurt, then use that as evidence that they are unloveable. But it’s all they know, so they continue. “That fits with our belief pattern, and we don’t like change. We’d rather be right than happy,” says Talitha. 

However, she doesn’t think that there should be such an emphasis on trying to change your attachment style. The point in learning about them is not to make your attachment pattern your identity, but rather to make sense of yourself. “A lot of clients find it quite relieving when I tell them about the theories, because they often don’t understand why their relationships haven’t worked out. It isn’t true for everyone, but many find it comforting to know that their actions are because they’re following a belief system.”

Even if you can not know for certain if you are anxious or avoidant, “knowing about my perceived attachment theory has given me the option of noticing what’s going on and choosing whether what I’m going to indulge the avoidant gremlin within or deal with the problem,” says Laura. “Learning about this is good as long as you don’t put yourself in a very fixed box, based on not enough information. It can provide a stepping stone to reflecting on the way that you’re being, and then consciously choosing how you want to be, rather than subconsciously just living that path.”

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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