Readers of my book on heartbreak often ask me what aspect of it had the most profound effect on me personally. My answer is always that becoming familiar with the ins and outs of attachment theory has, quite simply, changed my life.
Attachment theory was spawned by the work of John Bowlby, who was the first psychologist to put forth the idea that underpins much of today’s psychotherapy: that a child’s intimacy and sense of security with their primary caregiver plays a crucial role in how secure that child will be as an adult. Over time, psychologists have further refined this idea to argue that early childhood attachment patterns predict adult attachment styles in romantic relationships later in life.
While the exact terminology can vary depending upon which expert one consults, adult attachment styles generally come in four flavors:
- Secure: “Being close is easy!”
- Anxious-preoccupied: “I want to be emotionally intimate with people, but they don’t want to be with me!”
- Dismissive-avoidant: “I’d rather not depend on others or have others depend on me!”
- Fearful-avoidant: “I want to be close, but what if I get hurt?”
The last three of these fall into a mega-category known as “attachment insecurity.” The avoidance and anxiety that go along with most attachment insecurity are undoubtedly key themes that many of us in therapy wrestle with, week after week, and sometimes year after year.
I know I did.
Getting over it
I am, or at least was, a textbook, or perhaps even extreme, case of anxious and avoidant. For years, I was so crippled by fear of intimate relationships that I didn’t have anything even close to a boyfriend until I was 28. Even then, it took another eight years for me to pull off having a long-term, serious relationship, much as I wanted one.
There are a lot of things that explained this rather debilitating immaturity (depression, trauma, and a bevy of neuroses, not to mention misguided stubbornness and pride), but the only thing that explains how I got over it and ultimately became a wife and mother (and the author of an entire book on heartbreak) was the patience and care of a truly gifted therapist—that and medication that treated my depression and social anxiety.
And while I know I still have a long way to go—intimacy still be a battle for me, as those who are close to me will attest—just having acquainted myself with my attachment style and made the progress I’ve made thus far fortifies me for all the work I have yet to do.
But I also find it incredibly comforting that just as I was a textbook case for anxious and avoidant when it came to my intimate relationships, I’m now a textbook case for someone who has, more or less, gotten over it.
You see, research in attachment theory is pointing in a thrilling direction: that just because an individual is, as an adult, suffering from attachment issues that negatively affect their romantic relationships, that doesn’t mean they will forever.
Five ways to overcome attachment insecurity
If you think you’re insecurely attached, and it’s having a negative impact on your love life, here are a few common sense steps you can take to make the transition to secure attachment:
- Get to know your attachment pattern by reading up on attachment theory. I don’t care if it’s through Wikipedia, an academic article like “Attachment Bonds in Romantic Relationships,” or immersion in a book like Attached, by Amir Levin and Rachel S.F. Heller, a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist respectively. Trust me: Knowledge is power.
- If you don’t already have a great therapist with expertise in attachment theory, find one. It might even be worth asking if they’ve ever had a patient or client who they’ve seen make the leap from insecure to secure attachment in their adult romantic relationships.
- Seek out partners with secure attachment styles. The last thing you need if you’re trying to overhaul your attachment style is to be undermined by someone who can’t support you. Research indicates that about 50 percent of adults are secure in their attachment style—pretty good odds for finding someone out there who rocks your world AND is secure. Studies suggest that a positive experience with a securely attached person can, in time, override your insecure impulses.
- If you didn’t find such a partner, go to couples therapy. If you’re, say, anxious-preoccupied and you’re already in a loving relationship with, say, someone who is fearful-avoidant, I’d advise finding a couples therapist who can help both of you become more secure, together. Even if you feel like your relationship is going great, consider taking this step as a pre-emptive strike against trouble.
- Practice. Pillow talk just isn’t your thing? Make yourself do it, even if you have to start by talking to a stuffed animal. Hate talking about the future of your relationship? Try talking about the next few months of your relationship if you can’t handle talking about the next few years.
It’s important to keep in mind as well that secure attachment in intimate relationships doesn’t just make those relationships more fulfilling; there’s evidence that it can make interactions with even those you’re not close with richer.
Research indicates that “boosting” one’s security in any fashion (“security priming” in psychology circles) makes people more generous and compassionate overall. This study by leading attachment researchers indicates that “the sense of attachment security, whether established in a person’s long-term relationship history or nudged upwards by subliminal or supraliminal priming, makes altruistic caregiving more likely.”
My sense is that for those attempting to upgrade their attachment style from insecure to secure, it is, as the saying goes, just like riding a bike: Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. Over time you can still challenge yourself to become a “better biker”—a stronger one, a faster one, a more agile one—but once you’ve mastered looking ahead and pedaling at the same time, you are forever good to go.