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From the Science of Relationships website

Last time, I talked about the origins of attachment theory, including what “attachment” is and how scientists came up with the basic attachment styles. In Part 2, I want to discuss how the basic attachment styles look in adults, particularly when it comes to dating and relationships. But first, a couple of case studies:


Dude #1

When I was still a teenager, I dated a man who was a few years older than I was. When we first started dating, he was fun, he was attentive, he was affectionate. Then, right after we dropped the L word, he withdrew and backed out of the relationship. Months later, he returned and we stayed together for two years. He was the first man I ever loved.

During those two years, he worked a lot, sometimes as many as 70 hours per week at two jobs, neither of which he loved. I rarely saw him and had to ask for more time together. When it came to affection, he would tolerate a certain amount and then push me away. We rarely had deep conversation and he almost never complimented me. He always seemed preoccupied and in those two years I never felt close to him. At some point, I outgrew the relationship and left.


Dude #2

Years later, I met and dated another man for several years. Unlike Dude #1, Dude #2 was open with his feelings. He was affectionate and romantic and generous with compliments. He loved deep conversation and made it clear that spending time with me was a priority. After the first guy, he seemed like the perfect man.

But, with time, I realized his affections came at a price. He had strong ideas about how close a couple should be and had strong fantasies about love. He wanted to go running together, shower together, commute together to work… every day. When I wanted to do things with my friends, he complained about being excluded unless it was clearly labeled “girls’ night.” If I wasn’t in the mood for sex, he took it personally and fretted about my sexual interest in him, despite an active sex life. In the end, I felt smothered and like I was responsible for his happiness.


3 Attachment Styles

As I explained in Part 1, there are three basic attachment styles: secure, avoidant, and anxious.

Secure attachment. People who exhibit a secure attachment style are reasonably comfortable in relationships and have little trouble forming bonds with others. They enjoy closeness but also know when to draw boundaries. They tend to get more satisfaction from relationships. They tend to trust their partners and feel comfortable asking for and receiving support from them. Secure types represent about 50% of the population.

Avoidant attachment. Those exhibiting avoidant attachment style favor a more distant relating style. They place heavy emphasis on their freedom and independence. They can be distant, cold, emotionally shut down, and they often struggle with commitment. They may put their work above all else, including their relationships. Avoidant types represent about 25% of the population.

Anxious attachment. Those who favor a more anxious style put a lot of emphasis on closeness in a relationship. They can be needy, clingy, or possessive, and often have fears that their partner will leave them. They may have fantasies of perfect love but also create drama in their relationships. They may need (or think they need) rescuing.  Avoidant types represent about 25% of the population.

Dude #1 showed strong signs of avoidant attachment, which explains why I felt so distant from him, even after two years, despite not feeling that way with any other man I’ve been with. On the other hand, Dude #2 fell toward the anxious side of the spectrum, explaining why our relationship was so close but also smothering and difficult for me.

Which style do you favor? Take the quiz here and find out.

It’s important to mention a couple of things:

  • While secure attachment style is ideal, secure types aren’t perfect and they have relationship issues as well. However, they will have fewer issues maintaining their relationships.
  • Those with avoidant and anxious styles are capable of relationship success, especially if they’re aware of their attachment style and choose appropriate partners. In addition, attachment styles can change with time. I’ll talk more about all this in Part 3.
  • Most of us don’t fit neatly into any style. We may show signs of various styles, depending on who we’re dating and what’s going on in our lives. When I took a couple of quizzes, I came out secure but I know that at various times in my life I’ve exhibited signs of the other two styles.

How about you? Can you relate to any of these attachment styles, either for yourself or people you’ve been with? Share your experiences in the comments…

Further reading

Psychology Today: What is Your Relationship Attachment Style?

Mark Manson on Attachment