Let’s flashback to adolescence with a Cosmo-style quiz, UnF*ck Your Brain style.
Instead of learning 99 Ways to Tell if They’re Into You, we’re going to learn your attachment style.
Attachment style refers to the theory that as children, we develop attachment systems that govern our relationships to our caregivers, and that influence and shape and manifest in our relationships as adults – especially with romantic partners.
Let’s be clear upfront: Attachment theory is a thought (or set of thoughts) like anything else. I am not claiming it is absolutely true. But for reasons I will be exploring in this week’s teaching, I think the idea has useful implications for thought work.
So let’s get started! I want you to choose which of these thoughts sounds most familiar to you in a romantic relationship:
- Why didn’t my partner text me yet today? Are they ghosting me? They probably don’t want to keep seeing me. This always happens.
- Why are they texting me so much? We’ve only been dating a couple of weeks. I wish they would chill out!
- Whoops, we haven’t communicated all day today – we must both be busy at work today!
As you may have guessed, each of the above examples corresponds roughly to a different attachment style.
- If this sounds familiar, you may be anxiously attached: You tend to be preoccupied with fears of being abandoned or rejected. You tend to worry about your partner losing interest in you, changing their mind about the relationship, or leaving you. You often experience jealousy and anxiety in a relationship. Your reaction to these fears, when they are activated, is to try to re-establish closeness and intimacy. You may use what are called “protest” behaviors, like calling or texting a partner excessively, acting out in the relationship, or even playing games to try to manipulate the partner into reassuring you.
- If this sounds like you, you may be avoidantly attached: You also experience a lot of anxiety around relationships but rather than worry about losing intimacy, you worry about losing autonomy and independence. You see relationships as being threats to your independence and you tend to react to closeness and intimacy by wanting to create space and distance. You find intimacy and closeness uncomfortable and anxious in a way that is assuaged only by separation, not by closeness.
- If you don’t experience much anxiety around relationships and you find it fairly easy to be in intimate romantic partnerships, you may be securely attached. You are comfortable with intimacy and interdependence but also maintain independence. You are neither isolated nor co-dependent. You are neither anxious nor avoidant.
Which attachment style resonates with you?
If you said “anxious attachment,” you’re not alone.
People socialized as women tend to disproportionately identify as anxiously attached, while people socialized as men tend to be more avoidant.
I haven’t done a formal survey, but I’d venture a guess that my podcast listeners tend to be even more likely to be anxiously attached because anxious attachment in my experience is correlated with perfectionist tendencies and black-and-white thinking.
That’s why I’m going to explore the anxiously-attached thought pattern – where it comes from and how it impacts your relationships.
First, let’s explore some of the sources of anxious attachment.
Your childhood relationship with your primary care-givers is the usual suspect in attachment theory, along with your adult romantic relationships.
But what I think is left out of this analysis is the connection between attachment style and heteronormative social conditioning.
Because just as people socialized as women tend to be more anxiously attached than people socialized as men, people socialized as men tend to be more avoidant.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Think about how we are socialized to think about romance in a heteronormative society.
People socialized as women are taught to think that having a romantic partner is the most important thing in their lives, that if they are straight, a man’s commitment is the ultimate validation of worth. Think of how many childhood stories end in a prince marrying a pauper, in a man sweeping a woman off her feet. We are taught that a man’s approval is the ultimate goal.
So let’s break this down.
If you are taught (as people socialized as women are):
- Your appearance and your attractiveness as a mate is the most important thing about you
- Those who aren’t chosen by a man for a romantic relationship aren’t as good as those who are
- Being single means something is wrong with you
Then how do you think you’re going to feel about romantic relationships?
Pretty fucking anxious!
And if you’re taught to think (as those socialized as men are):
- That women are constantly trying to trap you into marriage
- That having feelings is unmanly
Then how will you likely feel about intimacy?
Pretty fucking avoidant!
Of course, there are people of every gender identity who display any of these attachment styles, but I am being blatantly heternormative to make a point: a heteronormative society results in gender socialization that is reflective of that heteronormativity. Our attachment styles may seem unique to us, but they actually reflect the values and socialization of society.
And the real value in breaking it down like this is that it allows us to see how your attachment style is not something inherent or immutable – it is instead a series of thoughts (some of which have been internalized from social messaging, some of which have developed in conversation with your personal upbringing).
Which means you can shift your attachment style by applying a feminist frame to your thought work – by working on your self-worth, self-acceptance, and self-value. You can consciously choose what you want from your romantic relationships, and why.
This is challenging work, so let’s first get clear on why you may want to shift your anxious attachment.
For one thing, anxious attachment often goes hand-in-hand with perfectionist thinking (and we all know how useful that thought pattern is).
Think about it: When you are intimate with someone, you are going to be vulnerable and human and messy and imperfect. You’ll say the wrong thing or snap at someone or act on a negative feeling.
And if you’re a perfectionist, you will judge yourself for being human…which means you will project these judgments onto your partner.
You will project onto them your own constant evaluation, analysis, and rejection of yourself.
If you are cataloging your own faults, you will assume your partner is too.
If you are constantly comparing yourself to other people and thinking about how they are more attractive and fun and smart than you are, then you will assume your partner has those thoughts too.
You will project all of your anxiety onto your partner, and expect them to be able to bring you peace by reassuring you.
But of course, no amount of reassurance will help, because the root of your anxiety is your own thoughts about yourself.
Another hallmark of anxious attachment is that you may succumb to black-and-white thinking, which may in turn undermine your ability to balance having a relationship with other things in your life.
The uncertainty that comes with a gradually developing relationship will feel threatening, so you will want to jump to extremes: you love them or you hate them, you fall in love immediately or reject on the turn of a dime if they “disappoint” you.
And if you don’t manage your mind around your attachment style, it can even impact who you choose as a partner. The literature discusses anxious-avoidant relationships as an example of how people who “trigger” each other get stuck in a negative cycle. But I think what is missing from this picture is how perfectionist, black/white thinking anxious attachment partners get out of this choice.
What I see is that if you are anxiously-attached you may be more drawn to avoidantly attached people because they are the foil you need to create limits on your relationship. You push them to spend more time with you, they pull back/push you away, you obsess over the relationship, and the dance continues.
In this dynamic, you don’t have to figure out how much you actually like your partner. You don’t have to choose what kind of relationship you want or how to integrate it sustainably into your life.
And you may even reject people who are securely attached because being in a relationship with them means you have to face yourself more clearly. You have to see how you are creating all this drama in your own brain and confront how much work you have to do to figure out what kind of relationship you actually want.
That’s hard work!
It can be easier to stay on the relationship roller coaster of using your dating life to punish yourself, seek reassurance, seek validation, get a brief high, plummet off that high, and start it all over again.
But stepping off that ride provides huge opportunities for growth.
For learning about what you actually want in a relationship, and why.
For choosing what type of relationship you want from a place of security and self-love.
For creating an iron-clad belief in your own self-worth and value.
For proving that you can have your own back, again and again, regardless of your partner or lack thereof.
One thought at a time.