Read an Excerpt
The New Science of Adult Attachment
Decoding Relationship Behavior
• Only two weeks into dating this guy and already I’m making myself miserable worrying that he doesn’t find me attractive enough and obsessing about whether or not he’s going to call! I know that once again I’ll manage to turn all my fears about not being good enough into a self-fulfilling prophecy and ruin yet another chance at a relationship!
• What’s wrong with me? I’m a smart, good-looking guy with a successful career. I have a lot to offer. I’ve dated some terrific women, but inevitably, after a few weeks I lose interest and start to feel trapped. It shouldn’t be this hard to find someone I’m compatible with.
• I’ve been married to my husband for years and yet feel completely alone. He was never one to discuss his emotions or talk about the relationship, but things have gone from bad to worse. He stays at work late almost every weeknight and on weekends he’s either at the golf course with friends or watching the sports channel on TV. There’s just nothing to keep us together. Maybe I’d be better off alone.
Each of these problems is deeply painful, touching upon the innermost core of people’s lives. And yet no one explanation or solution fits the bill. Each case seems unique and personal; each stems from an endless number of possible root causes. Deciphering them would require a deep acquaintance with all the people involved. Past history, previous relationships, and personality type are just a few of the avenues that a therapist would need to pursue. This, at least, is what we, as clinicians in the field of mental health, were taught and believed, until we made a new discovery—one that provided a straightforward explanation for all three problems described above and many more. The story of this discovery, and what came after it, is what this book is about.
IS LOVE ENOUGH?
A few years ago, our close friend Tamara started dating someone new:
I first noticed Greg at a cocktail party at a friend’s house. He was unbelievably good-looking, and I found the fact that I caught his eye very flattering. A few days later we went out for dinner with some other people, and I couldn’t resist the glimmer of excitement in his eyes when he looked at me. But what I found most enticing were his words and an implicit promise of togetherness that he conveyed. The promise of not being alone. He said things like “Tamara, you don’t have to be home all by yourself, you can come and work over at my place,” “You can call me any time you like.” There was comfort in these statements: The comfort of belonging to someone, of not being alone in the world. If I’d only listened carefully, I could have easily heard another message that was incongruent with this promise, a message that made it clear that Greg feared getting too close and was uncomfortable with commitment. Several times he’d mentioned that he’d never had a stable relationship—that for some reason he always grew tired of his girlfriends and felt the need to move on.
Though I could identify these issues as potentially problematic, at the time I didn’t know how to correctly gauge their implications. All I had to guide me was the common belief that many of us grow up with: The belief that love conquers all. And so I let love conquer me. Nothing was more important to me than being with him. Yet at the same time the other messages persisted about his inability to commit. I shrugged them off, confident that with me, things would be different. Of course, I was wrong. As we got closer, his messages got more erratic and everything started to fall apart; he began telling me that he was too busy to meet on this night or that. Sometimes he’d claim that his entire work week looked “crazy” and would ask if we could just meet on the weekend. I’d agree, but inside I had a sinking feeling something was wrong, but what?
From then on I was always anxious. I was preoccupied with his whereabouts and became hypersensitive to anything that could possibly imply that he wanted to break up. But while Greg’s behavior presented me with ample evidence of his dissatisfaction, he interspersed pushing me away with just enough affection and apologies to keep me from breaking up with him.
After a while, the ups and downs started to take a toll and I could no longer control my emotions. I didn’t know how to act, and despite my better judgment, I’d avoid making plans with friends in case he called. I completely lost interest in everything else that was important to me. Before long the relationship couldn’t withstand the strain and everything soon came to a screeching halt.
As friends, we were happy at first to see Tamara meet someone new that she was excited about, but as the relationship unfolded, we became increasingly concerned over her growing preoccupation with Greg. Her vitality gave way to anxiousness and insecurity. Most of the time she was either waiting for a call from Greg or too worried and preoccupied about the relationship to enjoy spending time with us as she had done in the past. It became apparent that her work was also suffering, and she expressed some concern that she may lose her job. We had always considered Tamara to be an extremely well-rounded, resilient person, and we were starting to wonder if we were mistaken about her strength. Although Tamara could point out Greg’s history of being unable to maintain a serious relationship and his unpredictability, and even acknowledged that she would probably be happier without him, she was not able to muster the strength to leave.
As experienced mental-health professionals, we had a hard time accepting that a sophisticated, intelligent woman like Tamara had so derailed from her usual self. Why was such a successful woman acting in such a helpless way? Why would somebody whom we’ve known to be so adaptive to most of life’s challenges become powerless in this one? The other end of the equation was equally puzzling. Why would Greg send out such mixed messages, although it was clear, even to us, that he did love her? There were many possible complex psychological answers to these questions, but a surprisingly simple yet far-reaching insight into the situation came from an unexpected source.
FROM THE THERAPEUTIC NURSERY TO A PRACTICAL SCIENCE OF ADULT LOVE
At about the same time that Tamara was dating Greg, Amir was working part-time in the Therapeutic Nursery at Columbia University. Here, he used attachment-guided therapy to help mothers create a more secure bond with their children. The powerful effect that attachment-guided treatment had on the relationship between mother and child encouraged Amir to deepen his knowledge of attachment theory. This eventually led him to a fascinating discovery: as research findings first made by Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver indicated, adults show patterns of attachment to their romantic partners similar to the patterns of attachment of children with their parents. As he read more about adult attachment, Amir began to notice attachment behavior in adults all around him. He realized that this discovery could have astounding implications for everyday life.
The first thing Amir did, once he realized the far-reaching implications of attachment theory for adult relationships, was to call his longtime friend Rachel. He described to her how effectively attachment theory explained the range of behaviors in adult relationships, and asked her to help him transform the academic studies and scientific data he’d been reading into practical guidelines and advice that people could use to actually change the course of their lives. And that’s how this book came to be.
THE SECURE, THE ANXIOUS, AND THE AVOIDANT
Attachment theory designates three main “attachment styles,” or manners in which people perceive and respond to intimacy in romantic relationships, which parallel those found in children: Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant. Basically, secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back; avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness. In addition, people with each of these attachment styles differ in:
• their view of intimacy and togetherness
• the way they deal with conflict
• their attitude toward sex
• their ability to communicate their wishes and needs
• their expectations from their partner and the relationship
All people in our society, whether they have just started dating someone or have been married for forty years, fall into one of these categories, or, more rarely, into a combination of the latter two (anxious and avoidant). Just over 50 percent are secure, around 20 percent are anxious, 25 percent are avoidant, and the remaining 3 to 5 percent fall into the fourth, less common category (combination anxious and avoidant).
Adult attachment research has produced hundreds of scientific papers and dozens of books that carefully delineate the way in which adults behave in close romantic ties. These studies have confirmed, many times over, the existence of these attachment styles in adults in a wide range of countries and cultures.
Understanding attachment styles is an easy and reliable way to understand and predict people’s behavior in any romantic situation.
In fact, one of the main messages of this theory is that in romantic situations, we are programmed to act in a predetermined manner.
Where Do Attachment Styles Come From?
Initially it was assumed that adult attachment styles were primarily a product of your upbringing. Thus, it was hypothesized that your current attachment style is determined by the way in which you were cared for as a baby: If your parents were sensitive, available, and responsive, you should have a secure attachment style; if they were inconsistently responsive, you should develop an anxious attachment style; and if they were distant, rigid, and unresponsive, you should develop an avoidant attachment style. Today, however, we know that attachment styles in adulthood are influenced by a variety of factors, one of which is the way our parents cared for us, but other factors also come into play, including our life experiences. For more, see chapter 7.
TAMARA AND GREG: A FRESH PERSPECTIVE
We revisited our friend Tamara’s story, and saw it in an entirely new light now. Attachment research contained a prototype of Greg—who had an avoidant attachment style—accurate down to the last detail. It summarized how he thought, behaved, and reacted to the world. It predicted his distancing, his finding fault in Tamara, his initiating fights that set back any progress in their relationship, and his enormous difficulty in saying “I love you.” Intriguingly, the research findings explained that though he wanted to be close to her, he felt compelled to push her away—not because he wasn’t “into her” or because he thought “she’s not good enough” (as Tamara had concluded). On the contrary, he pushed her away because he felt the closeness and intimacy increasing.
As it also turned out, Tamara wasn’t unique either. The theory explained her behaviors, thoughts, and reactions, typical for someone with an anxious attachment style, with surprising precision as well. It foresaw her increasing clinginess in the face of his distancing; it predicted her inability to concentrate at work, her constant thoughts about the relationship, and her oversensitivity to everything Greg did. It also predicted that even though she decided to break up with him, she could never muster up the courage to do so. It showed why, against her better judgment and the advice of close friends, she would do almost anything to try to be close to him. Most important, this theory revealed why Tamara and Greg found it so hard to get along even though they did indeed love each other. They spoke two different languages and exacerbated each other’s natural tendencies—hers to seek physical and emotional closeness and his to prefer independence and shy away from intimacy. The accuracy with which the theory described the pair was uncanny. It was as though the researchers had been privy to the couple’s most intimate moments and personal thoughts. Psychological approaches can be somewhat vague, leaving plenty of room for interpretation, but this theory managed to provide precise, evidence-based insight into a seemingly one-of-a-kind relationship.
Although it’s not impossible for someone to change his or her attachment style—on average, one in four people do so over a four-year period—most people are unaware of the issue, so these changes happen without their ever knowing they have occurred (or why). Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, if we could help people have some measure of control over these life-altering shifts? What a difference it would make if they could consciously work toward becoming more secure in their attachment styles instead of letting life sway them every which way!
Learning about these three attachment styles was a true eye-opener for us; we discovered that adult attachment behavior was everywhere. We were able to view our own romantic behaviors and those of people around us in a fresh new light. By assigning attachment styles to patients, colleagues, and friends, we could interpret their relationships differently and gain much more clarity. Their behavior no longer seemed baffling and complex, but rather predictable under the circumstances.
Attachment theory is based on the assertion that the need to be in a close relationship is embedded in our genes. It was John Bowlby’s stroke of genius that brought him to the realization that we’ve been programmed by evolution to single out a few specific individuals in our lives and make them precious to us. We’ve been bred to be dependent on a significant other. The need starts in the womb and ends when we die. Bowlby proposed that throughout evolution, genetic selection favored people who became attached because it provided a survival advantage. In prehistoric times, people who relied only on themselves and had no one to protect them were more likely to end up as prey. More often than not, those who were with somebody who deeply cared about them survived to pass on to their offspring the preference to form intimate bonds. In fact, the need to be near someone special is so important that the brain has a biological mechanism specifically responsible for creating and regulating our connection with our attachment figures (parents, children, and romantic partners). This mechanism, called the attachment system, consists of emotions and behaviors that ensure that we remain safe and protected by staying close to our loved ones. The mechanism explains why a child parted from his or her mother becomes frantic, searches wildly, or cries uncontrollably until he or she reestablishes contact with her. These reactions are coined protest behavior, and we all still exhibit them as grown-ups. In prehistoric times, being close to a partner was a matter of life and death, and our attachment system developed to treat such proximity as an absolute necessity.
Imagine hearing news of a plane crash in the Atlantic on the evening your partner is flying from New York to London. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach and the accompanying hysteria you’d feel would be your attachment system at work. Your frantic calls to the airport would be your protest behavior.
An extremely important aspect of evolution is heterogeneity. Humans are a very heterogeneous species, varying greatly in appearance, attitudes, and behaviors. This accounts to a great extent for our abundance and for our ability to fit into almost any ecological niche on earth. If we were all identical, then any single environmental challenge would have the potential to wipe us all out. Our variability improves the chances that a segment of the population that is unique in some way might survive when others wouldn’t. Attachment style is no different from any other human characteristic. Although we all have a basic need to form close bonds, the way we create them varies. In a very dangerous environment, it would be less advantageous to invest time and energy in just one person because he or she would not likely be around for too long; it would make more sense to get less attached and move on (and hence, the avoidant attachment style). Another option in a harsh environment is to act in the opposite manner and be intensely persistent and hypervigilant about staying close to your attachment figure (hence, the anxious attachment style). In a more peaceful setting, the intimate bonds formed by investing greatly in a particular individual would yield greater benefits for both the individual and his or her offspring (hence, the secure attachment style).
True, in modern society, we are not hunted by predators as our ancestors were, but in evolutionary terms we’re only a fraction of a second away from the old scheme of things. Our emotional brain was handed down to us by Homo sapiens who lived in a completely different era, and it is their lifestyle and the dangers they encountered that our emotions were designed to address. Our feelings and behaviors in relationships today are not very different from those of our early ancestors.
PROTEST BEHAVIOR IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Armed with our new insights about the implications of attachment styles in everyday life, we started to perceive people’s actions very differently. Behaviors that we used to attribute to someone’s personality traits, or that we had previously labeled as exaggerated, could now be understood with clarity and precision through the lens of attachment. Our findings shed a new light on the difficulty Tamara experienced in letting go of a boyfriend like Greg who made her miserable. It did not necessarily come from weakness. It originated, instead, from a basic instinct to maintain contact with an attachment figure at all costs and was amplified greatly by an anxious attachment style.
For Tamara, the need to remain with Greg was triggered by the very slightest feeling of danger—danger that her lover was out of reach, unresponsive, or in trouble. Letting go in these situations would be insane in evolutionary terms. Using protest behavior, such as calling several times or trying to make him feel jealous, made perfect sense when seen in this light.
What we really liked about attachment theory was that it was formulated on the basis of the population at large. Unlike many other psychological frameworks that were created based on couples who come to therapy, this one drew its lessons from everyone—those who have happy relationships and those who don’t, those who never get treatment and those who actively seek it. It allowed us to learn not only what goes “wrong” in relationships but also what goes “right,” and it allowed us to find and highlight a whole group of people who are barely mentioned in most relationship books. What’s more, the theory does not label behaviors as healthy or unhealthy. None of the attachment styles is in itself seen as “pathological.” On the contrary, romantic behaviors that had previously been seen as odd or misguided now seemed understandable, predictable, even expected. You stay with someone although he’s not sure he loves you? Understandable. You say you want to leave and a few minutes later change your mind and decide that you desperately want to stay? Understandable too.
But are such behaviors effective or worthwhile? That’s a different story. People with a secure attachment style know how to communicate their own expectations and respond to their partner’s needs effectively without having to resort to protest behavior. For the rest of us, understanding is only the beginning.
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE—DEVELOPING SPECIFIC ATTACHMENTBASED
By understanding that people vary greatly in their need for intimacy and closeness, and that these differences create clashes, adult attachment findings offered us a new way of looking at romantic relationships. But while the research made it easy to understand romantic liaisons better, how can we make a difference in them? The theory held the promise of improving people’s intimate bonds, but its translation from the laboratory to an accessible guide—that people can apply to their own lives—didn’t exist. Believing that here lies a key to guiding people toward better relationships, we set out to learn as much as we could about the three attachment styles and the ways they interacted in everyday situations.
We started interviewing people from all walks of life. We interviewed colleagues and patients, as well as laypeople of different backgrounds and ages. We wrote summaries of the relationship histories and romantic experiences they shared with us. We conducted observations of couples in action. We assessed their attachment styles by analyzing their comments, attitudes, and behaviors and at times offered specific attachment-based interventions. We developed a technique that allowed people to determine—in a relatively short time—someone else’s attachment style. We taught people how they could use their attachment instincts rather than fight them, in order to not only evade unhappy relationships but also uncover the hidden “pearls” worth cultivating—and it worked!
We discovered that unlike other relationship interventions that focus mostly either on singles or on existing couples, adult attachment is an overarching theory of romantic affiliation that allows for the development of useful applications for people in all stages of their romantic life. There are specific applications for people who are dating, those in early stages of relationships, and those who are in long-term ones, for people going through a breakup or those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. The common thread is that adult attachment can be put to powerful use in all of these situations and can help guide people throughout their lives to better relationships.
PUTTING INSIGHTS INTO ACTION
After some time, attachment-related lingo became second nature to the people around us. We’d listen to them during a therapy session or at dinner saying, “I can’t go out with him, he’s clearly avoidant,” or “You know me, I’m anxious. A short fling is the last thing I need.” To think that until recently they weren’t even aware of the three attachment styles!
Tamara, of course, learned everything there was to know about attachment theory and about the new discoveries we’d made—she brought the subject up in nearly every conversation we held. She finally had summoned the strength to break off her loose ties with Greg. Shortly afterward, she began dating again with a vengeance. Equipped with her newly acquired attachment knowledge, Tamara was able to elegantly dodge potential suitors with an avoidant attachment style, who she now knew were not right for her. People whom she would have spent days agonizing over in the past—analyzing what they were thinking, whether they would call or whether they were serious about her—fell by the wayside effortlessly. Instead Tamara’s thoughts were focused on assessing whether the new people she met had the capacity to be close and loving in the way that she wanted them to be.
After some time Tamara met Tom, a clearly secure man, and their relationship developed so smoothly she barely discussed it. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to share intimate details with us, it was that she had found a secure base and there were just no crises or dramas to discuss. Most of our conversations now revolved around the fun things they did, their plans for the future, or her career, which was in full swing again.
This book is the product of our translation of attachment research into action. We hope that you, like our many friends, colleagues, and patients, will use it to make better decisions in your personal life. In the following chapters, you’ll learn more about each of the three adult attachment styles and about the ways in which they determine your behavior and attitudes in romantic situations. Past failures will be seen in a new light, and your motives—as well as the motives of others—will become clearer. You’ll learn what your needs are and who you should be with in order to be happy in a relationship. If you are already in a relationship with a partner who has an attachment style that conflicts with your own, you’ll gain insight into why you both think and act as you do and learn strategies to improve your satisfaction level. In either case, you’ll start to experience change—change for the better, of course.