Years ago, when I was single, I decided to break out of my Introverted Bubble and do something outside my comfort zone: I went to an organized happy hour event filled with utter strangers, alone. While this was a professional happy hour for networking, it quickly became clear to me that it was really a way for singles to meet. Because that was more than I could handle, I decided to pretend I had a boyfriend, which allowed me to talk freely to anyone without the pressure of dating.
As such, I met a string of interesting men. Once they discovered I wrote dating and relationships books, knowing I wasn’t a dating prospect, they began sharing their dating frustrations with me. I recall one in particular, who asked me why women are so “self-entitled.” I asked for clarification, and he seemed to have a pattern of choosing women who demanded a lot from him in terms of what he provided financially, who seemed to feel that they deserved to be taken care of then and in the future.
Overall, venting can be a good thing or a bad thing. If done in an appropriate way and with the goal of solving a problem, venting can be the key to a better life.
So I’m working on another book. My first in years. I forgot how much fun it is to write non-fiction, and how much more naturally it comes to me than writing fiction, probably because I’ve been doing it much longer.
Anyway, the book will cover dating advice for introverts. I don’t think that topic is adequately covered in what’s already out there, and I have a lot more to add to the introvert conversation. In this book, I talk about what introversion is as well as other traits that are often seen among introverted folks. One of them is sensitivity.
The word “sensitivity” has many meanings. But for our purposes, we can think of sensitivity in terms of how much you’re affected by external stimulation. Some people like a lot of external stimulation — they like loud music, they’re risk-takers, they’re often very social, and lots of noise, odors, and activity doesn’t bother them. Others prefer less stimulation — they enjoy quiet, they’re not big risk-takers, and often times they can get overwhelmed by too much noise, by certain odors, or by too much going on in their environment. These latter folks are known as HSPs, or Highly Sensitive Persons.
The thinking mind behind the idea of the HSP is Elaine Aron and her well-known book, The Highly Sensitive Person. Here are signs that you may be an HSP, taken from Aron’s website:
- Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
- Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
- Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
- Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
- Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
- Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
- Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
For a more comprehensive understanding of your sensitivity levels, take this quick quiz. If you score 14 or more, you’re probably an HSP to some degree. I just retook it and scored 17. I don’t mind violent movies or rough fabrics, but I hate noisy environments (especially when I’m home or working) and I cannot drink caffeine at all.
HSPs, in a nutshell, have sensitive nervous systems. They’re more easily impacted by stimulation than others. The reasons for this are complex and involve lots of scientific words, to be explored in future articles. For now, it’s important to understand that sensitivity isn’t something you have much control over, as Aron points out that it’s innate to us. We can, however, control our environments.
Here are a few facts about HSPs:
- HSPs comprise 15-20% of the population. So it’s not rare, but not “typical” either.
- The majority of introverts are also highly sensitive. If you’re introverted, chances are you’re at least someone sensitive. However, introversion and sensitivity are not the same thing; introversion is about being an internal person and sensitivity is about how you react to stimuli.
- Extroverts can be sensitive too. I’ve known many extroverted HSPs and they tend to need time alone to rebalance themselves. This makes them wonder if they’re introverted, when in reality they just need to recover from the stimulation of their lives.
- Sensitivity isn’t the same as shyness, although many shy people are probably HSPs.
- There are pros and cons to being an HSP. Cons include people (i.e. non-HSPs) calling you “too sensitive” and thinking you’re difficult or high maintenance. Pros include having a strong awareness of others and an ability to care for them. Many HSPs go into helping and healing professions, such as massage therapy or life coaching.
I’ll talk more about HSPs, and how sensitivity can impact a relationship, in future articles. For now, tell me: can you relate to the idea of an HSP? What did you score on the quiz? What are you sensitive to?
Today, we’ll continue our discussion of attachment style and its huge importance in dating in the third in a series on this topic. Part 1 talked about the origins of attachment and the studies that helped define the different attachment styles. Part 2 explained the three basic attachment styles and what they look like. Today, we’ll talk about how these attachment styles influence dating and how to use your knowledge of attachment to find dating success.
Now you know about the three attachment styles: the secure types who don’t struggle much with forming bonds with partners, avoidant types who fear getting too close to others and keep their partners at arm’s length, and anxious types who fear abandonment and seek a lot of reassurance in a relationship.
Once you know about the basic attachment styles, you can see where they influence dating and relationships. A person with an avoidant style needs a lot of space, an anxious type needs a lot of attention and affirmation, and a secure needs something in the middle. There’s nothing “wrong” with any particular style; the trick is to know your style and needs and to choose partners accordingly.
The problem is, most people aren’t aware of their attachment style, or they are but have been punished for it by poorly chosen partners in the past, so they’ve never fully accepted who they are. When that happens, you keep repeating the same mistakes. Here are some facts that can help you find a partner who’s compatible with your needs.
Know Your Type and Accept It. Whatever your type is, that’s you. It’s part of who you are. Being a secure type does make life easier, but there’s nothing aberrant or “wrong” about being avoidant or anxious. Everyone has challenges they must face in life, including challenges in dating. The trick is to know those challenges, accept them, and move forward.
If you’re avoidant or anxious, chances are you’ve been punished for that in past relationships. If avoidant, you’ve probably been accused of being distant, uncaring, or incapable of intimacy. If anxious, you’ve probably been called needy, clingy, or insecure. None of us is perfect; if you’ve been accused of these things, work on them, but also accept them about yourself and know that there is someone out there who will accept those sides of you and even nurture them.
Remember that attachment style can change. According to the authors of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find–and Keep–Love, people can shift attachment styles over time. You probably won’t completely flip-flop to an opposite type, but you can shift into a more secure style when you have a connection with the right partner.
Choose well. Not surprisingly, secure types do well with other secure types. Also, avoidant or anxious types can do well with a secure person and vice versa. According to this article, a relationship should have at least one secure person in it, as a secure’s lack of anxiety around getting close to a partner offers a good balance to the deep-seated worries and concerns of the other two types. However, another science-based article states that secure-anxious and secure-avoidant relationships are more prone to breakups than anxious-anxious or avoidant-avoidant pairings. The latter have more drama and difficulty in them, but because the two people are similar in style the drama seems normal to them and they stick it out anyway. Overall, it’s a good idea to find a partner who has at least a somewhat similar attachment style.
Of course, many don’t. In fact, avoidants often wind up with anxious types, which is the worst sort of pairing because they have opposing needs that will only reinforce the other’s tendencies. In other words, the neediness of the anxious type will only push the avoidant farther away, and the avoidant’s distance will only make the anxious type more anxious.
There are a couple reasons why these ill-matched folks wind up together. One is societal stereotype: men are conditioned to be more distant, and women more needy in relationships. So when an avoidant guy and an anxious woman pair up as they often do, these societal stereotypes are reinforced and both assume that that’s “just how men are” or “just how women are,” when in reality that isn’t the case.
The other reason these two types wind up together and torturing one another? They’re unaware of their attachment style and their issues. And when you aren’t aware of your deeper-seated issues, guess what? You’ll unconsciously feel attracted to and choose people who force you to face and deal with those issues. An avoidant man who’s unaware of or unable to deal with his relationship needs will continue attracting anxious partners, forcing him to face who he is again and again. Only when he becomes aware and accepts who he is will he make better choices.
This is true even beyond attachment style: when we attract partners who are bad for us, it’s our mind’s way of forcing us to face the truth about who we are and what we need.
Whatever your style or needs, there is a partner for you. Know yourself first.
Books to Check Out
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:
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.
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…
Top of the morning to ye, lassies and laddies.
(I couldn’t help myself. I just finished reading Outlander and my mind is filled with such things…).
So, after my last post mentioned I would do some future posts on the topic of attachment, I got a few comments mentioning interest in that topic. As such, I will begin there. I aim to please, you know.
But I quickly realized that attachment is a big topic, too big to cover in one post if one wants to cover it properly. So this will the the first in a series of articles on attachment styles and why they matter.
What is Attachment Style?
In a nutshell, attachment theory studies how we develop close relations with others. This field of study has been around for decades and has resurfaced and made its way from dusty scientific journals to mainstream use by dating and relationship gurus. The idea behind attachment theory is that our ability to bond to others, particularly romantic partners, is based on our bonding with our parents/primary caregivers. This kind of bonding is established right off the bat during those early years, and what we learn during that time can greatly influence our relationships decades later.
I know, more stuff about childhood and our parents, blah blah, right? But it makes sense. Our parents represent the first people we bond to, the people who teach us what it is to love to another human being. Whatever they taught you, whatever they showed you, it was programmed into your understanding of life at a very early age. And the younger we learn something, the more embedded and unconscious it is.
Everyone has different parents. Some were very cuddly, some more distant. Some were emotionally stable and available for you, some were suffering from mental illness or were otherwise unable to provide as much closeness. Whatever it is, that blueprint influenced how you attach to others.
Three Basic Attachment Styles
One of the classic methods researchers and experts have used to study attachment is to observe young children (~ 2 years) with their parent (the primary caregiver, which in many cases was the mother) in what is called the “Strange Situation” (Ainsworth, 1969). The child/mother are put alone in a room that has toys or other interesting things; the child goes to explore and the mother hangs out. Soon, a stranger enters the room and talks with the mother, then the mother quietly leaves. Mom returns, comforts her child, then leaves again. The stranger leaves as well, then returns and interacts with the child. Finally, Mom returns and greets her child.
What happens next, and how the child responds to all this, is the interesting part.
Some children explore the toys and room when Mom is present. They may experience distress (including crying) when Mom goes, but show happiness when she returns and go to her for comfort. These children show signs of secure attachment.
Other children may not explore as much. They show less emotion when Mom leaves, no obvious preference for her over the stranger, and, when Mom returns, they avoid or ignore her. These children show signs of avoidant attachment.
Still other children don’t explore much either, but unlike the previous example, these kids are wary of the stranger and grow very distressed when Mom leaves. When she returns, these children may want to be comforted by Mom and even act clingy, but may also show signs of anger or resentment for the temporary abandonment, and prove difficult to soothe. These children show signs of anxious attachment.
This is a fourth style, a disorganized attachment style where the child can show signs of various styles, but for simplicity we’ll skip that one.
Like all theories, Attachment Theory isn’t perfect. But it does provide a way to understand how we do relationships as adults. We all favor one of these attachment styles and they have a big influence on who we choose to be with, what we expect in that relationship, what makes us feel secure and insecure in the relationship, and why some of our former partners drove us nuts.
In the next article in this series, I’ll talk about the 3 attachment styles and what they look like in adults.