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Key insights from

Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—And Keep—Love

By Amir Levine, Rachel S.F. Heller

What you’ll learn

Why are some people able to enjoy intimacy while others have only ever known relationships that disintegrate into emotional chaos and disappointment? Heller and Levine show us the science behind attachment and argue that intimacy issues are usually the result of incompatible responses to perceived threats.

Read on for key insights from Attached.

1. Codependency is a myth that keeps many from experiencing the beauty of intimacy.

Codependency is one of the most discussed ideas among self-help writers and pop psychologists. The theory goes something like this: A person’s happiness should not be dependent on an external source. If a person is dependent upon someone else for a sense of stability and well-being, he or she might be too enmeshed in that relationship. This person, according to codependency theory, has failed to create healthy boundaries that differentiate himself or herself from the personhood of another. The solution is to become more differentiated by setting better boundaries, learning to say “no,” and focusing on yourself. What inevitably becomes the worst-case scenario according to codependency is “needing” someone else.

What most people don’t remember is that codependency theory was originally formulated to help people who are friends or families of addicts. In this context, it has been incredibly useful. But the basic dynamic has been extrapolated beyond the realm of addiction to cover any kind of relational dysfunction, and suggests that if you’re swayed or shaken at all in your relationships, there’s something wrong and you need to “keep working on you.”

More significantly, codependency forgets our basic biology.  Dependency is a fact of nature, and pop psychology’s attempts to minimize this do more harm than good. Studies reveal that by becoming attached to someone, physiologies actually begin to sync and form a single unit. Your partner can help regulate your heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing, and hormone levels.

One experiment involved married women who were told by the doctor-researcher that they were about to receive a mild shock. This stressful situation activated the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus was most active (in other words, the subjects were the most stressed) when they were alone. When the same women held the hand of a stranger, hypothalamus activity was diminished. When the women’s husbands were present to hold their spouses’ hands for the moment of mild electric shock, stress levels were even more significantly diminished.

Despite conventional wisdom, dependency is not a bad word. People worry about a loss of independence and identity, but paradoxically, it is the lack of a secure base that prevents countless people from reaching their full potential because they don’t have the freedom to try new things and pursue their passions whole-heartedly.

2. The longing for a secure relational base is as old as humanity, but some are better at getting and keeping this than others.

John Bowlby recognized that the desire for close, intimate relations is an extremely deep human yearning—written into our very genes. From the womb until the tomb, we are constantly trying to maintain a secure relational base. Without it, we fall apart in a variety of ways.

What happens, for example, when a baby or small child suddenly can’t find her mother in a grocery store? Mom, the secure base, is nowhere to be seen, and so the child cries and screams in hopes of regaining what was lost, namely an intimate, secure relation. These behaviors that the child engages to restore the connection are called “protest behaviors.”

What scientists are discovering is that adults demonstrate similar needs for a secure base and develop their own protest behaviors to reestablish connection when they sense it’s threatened.

People typically fall into one of three styles of attachment:

Secure individuals tend to be warm, open, and comfortable with intimacy. About 50 percent of the general population is secure.

Anxious individuals deeply desire intimacy, but tend to fret over what their partner might or might not be thinking, and worry that their partner may not be able to love them well. About 20 percent of people have the anxious style of attachment.

The avoidant type equates intimacy with a loss of autonomy, and thus feels threatened by a partner’s attempt to get close. About 25 percent of people are avoidants.

Originally, attachment theorists believed that upbringing explained attachment style, that if your parents were warm, attentive, and sensitive to your needs when you were an infant, then you would likely grow up with a secure attachment style. If there was inconsistency in parent response, you’d develop an anxious attachment style, and if you grew up with parents who were distant, aloof, or neglectful, then you’d develop an avoidant style. We now know that upbringing is one of a number of factors, that life experiences beyond childhood can be formative, as can genetic makeup.

This research is significant because these same attachment patterns show up not just among North Americans but in every other country in which the theory’s been tested. Attachment theory matters for us because so many adults repeatedly have relationships with partners whose attachment style inflames rather than complements their own. Knowing which type you have can clue you in to which attachment types in a partner are most likely to lead to satisfaction in relationship and which will not.

3. The anxious stand to benefit from understanding their need for a secure relational base—perhaps more than any other type.

Over 300 years ago, renowned Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza surmised that, “All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love.” Choosing our romantic involvements is thus a question of great importance. This is especially important for those with the anxious attachment style.

People with the anxious attachment style are only as strong and stable as the relationship they’re in. It’s remarkable that even individuals who are bright, resilient, ambitious, and successful can still fall apart if they are in a relationship that leaves them without love.  Sometimes they’re diagnosed as masochistic or having a borderline personality disorder when in fact it’s a matter of an attachment system that is easily activated. As mentioned earlier, the attachment system is the brain’s mechanism that tracks the presence of the attachment figure—that person we count on for a sense of security.They tend to be the most sensitive to social cues, from tone of voice to facial expression. More than any other type, those with the anxious attachment tendencies have a sixth sense about any potential threat to the primary attachment, and are incapable of returning to a position of calm until they’ve been reassured of their partner’s love. They will employ a variety of strategies to reestablish a connection with their partner.

Among the common strategies that the anxious use to restore closeness with a partner are: constant obsessive thinking about the partner, viewing them through a rosy lens, elevating the partner’s talents and downplaying one’s own, having an anxiety that’s only alleviated by contact with the other, believing that this person is the last shot at love, and rationalizing away problems—even legitimate ones.

These are the internal workings. The outward expressions of this attachment system include excessive protest behaviors to maintain contact, withdrawing, keeping score, being hostile, threatening to abandon, being manipulative, or trying to elicit a jealous response. These patterns of behavior sometimes linger well after the end of a relationship.

If the above is sounding all too familiar, you might have an anxious attachment style. That’s not a bad thing. It’s better to acknowledge it and understand what it means rather than fight it or imitate another type that isn’t the real “you.” You will feel even less known, and your needs will continue to be unmet. Remember, dependence is not a bad thing.

If you’re looking to date someone, come to terms with your needs. Pay attention to signs that your date may be an avoidant (sends mixed messages, pines after the perfect other, disregards your emotions, dismisses your feelings as overly sensitive or overly reactive, avoids certain topics that you bring up). Don’t just know your needs, but express them—even at the risk that you’ll come across needy. Wearing the mask of cool detachment is more culturally acceptable but the cost is too high. You will be in touch with who you are and quickly learn whether or not the person you’re seeing can actually meet your needs. Because the anxious tend to get attached rather early on, it is important to remember that there are plenty of other wonderful people out there, and this is not your last shot at love. Lastly, keep an eye out for the secure type—and don’t misinterpret tranquility as lack of chemistry. Some people are so used to tumult in relationships that they mistakenly think something is wrong when the chaos doesn’t show up.

4. The avoidant tendencies resonate well with a culture that prizes independence, but it also keeps people lonely.

People with the avoidant attachment style tend to prize their autonomy above intimacy. They keep love at arm’s length if they sense their partner is coming too close, encroaching on their sense of independence. Need is weakness. Even when they date or have a partner, there is a deep aloneness. They suppress instead of express.

Conventional dating advice unwittingly encourages the avoidant M.O.. The advice is to remain mysterious, even ambivalent, and wait for the other to call. We admire the lonesome traveler who is self-sufficient and (apparently) rises above the need for meaningful human interaction. What both avoidants and anxious types pretending to be avoidants don’t realize is that everyone misses out.

One of the most significant insights that early attachment psychologists had was that human beings cannot flourish without a secure base they can count on for consistent love and comfort. No one can flourish if they sense danger, and the avoidants can’t experience the relief of the secure base as long as they feel threatened by it.

Among the telltale signs of avoidance are finding fault with minor imperfections in a partner (obsessing over the worm and forgetting the apple), pulling away when things are going well (after an intimate date, for example), checking out when the partner is talking, keeping feelings vague and refraining from honest self-disclosure to maintain independence, evading physical closeness, flirting with others to introduce insecurity into the relationship, or refusing to commit but also refusing to break up. These are all defense mechanisms to defuse threats to autonomy.

As with the anxious, there is hope for those with the avoidant attachment style to overcome their obstacles and find the love they crave deep down. Avoidants can begin by paying attention to what sets them off—the situations that trigger their fear response. Instead of checking out or withdrawing in the moments when euphoria suddenly deteriorates into fear, stick with it. Are those trivial shortcomings you see actually that big a deal—or just your attachment system’s attempt to keep things safe?

Here are some other strategies that might be useful to you avoidants:

-Make independence less of a priority than interdependence.

-Be on the lookout for people with the secure attachment style. The anxious type may unnecessarily activate your defenses. It usually means less defensiveness and fewer fights.

-Put to rest the myths of the phantom ex and the perfect partner. Your ex was not as perfect as you let yourself believe, and “the one” doesn’t exist at all.

-Be cognizant of your penchant for misinterpreting behaviors. Viewing your partner or date’s behavior suspiciously will harm any chance of intimacy.

-Make a list of all the things you appreciate about your partner. Have that list nearby to counter your proclivity to focus on the negative.

-Do more active things together, like hiking, cooking a meal, crafting, or snorkeling. Such positive distractions can make intimacy less intimidating.

5. The anxious-avoidant trap is common because the anxious crush easily and avoidants don’t date other avoidants—for long.

It is not at all uncommon that an anxious dates an avoidant. The reason for this is because the anxious feel attached pretty quickly, and there are far more avoidants “in the market” because they tend to not stay in relationships for long. On top of that, the number of “available” avoidants is even higher because avoidants usually don’t date other avoidants. The likelihood of anxious-avoidant relationships is further increased by the dearth of secures. It can be a while before secures come back to the dating pool because their relationships tend to last longer.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always end well because the couple falls into the anxious-avoidant trap. The problem is that one partner’s attempt to alleviate a perceived threat sets off alarm bells for the other. If the avoidant becomes withdrawn, the anxious partner will feel unsafe and try to reestablish connection, which will make the avoidant partner feel even more threatened and withdraw even further, which will make the anxious partner feel even more unsafe and desperate to get intimacy. On and on it goes in a vicious circle.

The most indicative signs that you’re in an anxious-avoidant trap are:

-You’re riding an emotional rollercoaster punctuated by the occasional moments of intimacy.

-You and your partner are emotionally compensating, with the avoidant puffing up a sense of self and independence, which validates the anxious partner’s suspicion of inadequacy.

-Instability becomes the new normal. The couple gets so used to the chaos that they live with constant dissatisfaction.

-You have the sinking feeling that the other person isn’t right for you, but you feel too emotionally invested to end things.

Many couples fall into this trap, but things don’t have to stay this way. One reason for hope is that there is some plasticity to attachment style. About 70 percent of people keep their style, but there are things you can do to move closer to the secure attachment style. This can be a challenge when you’re in the chaos of the trap, but another way out of the trap—and perhaps the best way—is to find a secure instead of an insecure.

6. People with secure attachment styles tend to make their partners more secure as well.

Many overlook those with a secure attachment style as “boring,” but it could be that their relationships are simply free of the drama and tumult that characterize other relationships. The secure types tend to be more warm and embracing, more comfortable with intimacy, and communicate clearly about their needs and issues. They tend to be quicker to forgive, don’t separate sex and emotional closeness, treat their partners very well, aren’t angered or saddened by criticism, and don’t play games.

It may not be surprising, therefore, that pairings of two secures report very high levels of satisfaction in their relationship—far higher than couples comprised of two insecures (i.e., some combination of anxious and avoidant). More surprising, however, is that similar levels of high satisfaction are reported in relationships between a secure and insecure—whether that insecure is an anxious or avoidant. It seems that a secure personality has a buffering effect that minimizes the attachment system flare-ups that make insecures want to cling or hide.

For those who have the secure attachment style, here are some ways to support a partner with an anxious or avoidant attachment style.

-Be available to your partner. Comfort and encourage. Check in with them, and make sure they feel seen. Permit them to depend on you.

-Provide support without being interfering. It is important that they feel they are making decisions and taking the initiative. Avoid micromanaging or taking control of situations, as this can feel disempowering.

Of course, secures are not invulnerable to insecurities and their relationships are not free of problems, but they know how to deal with problems well, by knowing their needs and communicating them clearly. They don’t get fixated on the problems that often consume insecures and activate their attachment systems. The secure’s ease in relationship is a tremendous gift to the person they are with and often comes back to them in the form of rewarding relationships.

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