Humans crave connection. Just look at how lonely we feel when we move to a new city or how quickly we start looking for a new partner after a breakup. Yet some of us find ourselves stuck in the same interminable loop of dates and breakups, always struggling to make a relationship work. Others seem to effortlessly fall into healthy relationships. Why?
The answer may be a mismatch in intimacy needs. If one partner needs a lot of closeness while the other needs total independence, there will be conflict in the relationship. It's only once both partners learn to identify, communicate and join their individual needs that they will create the loving, secure relationship they both ultimately want.
Three attachment styles
In their book "Attached," authors Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A., and Amir Levine, M.D., state that to figure out our relationship needs, we first need to understand our attachment style, which stems from our childhood caregivers. Originally coined in the 1950s by psychologist John Bowlby, the term "attachment style" only truly garnered attention after Levine and Heller's book was published in 2010.
The authors describe three attachment styles:
- Anxious people have a tendency to overthink every detail of their relationship and of their partner's words and actions, worrying whether or not their partner is able to love them back.
- Avoidant people tend to look at intimacy as a loss of independence. They push away their loved one, and minimize closeness even though they're desperate for a relationship.
- Secure people are at ease with intimacy and nonjudgmental communication, and are able to be warm and loving.
Anxious/Avoidant people have a mixture of both of these styles, but are extremely rare.
Learn your attachment style by reading "Attached" or taking one of many online quizzes.
Some attachment styles intrinsically work better together than others. For instance, people with a secure attachment style work well with all styles and generally feel more satisfied in their relationships as they're confident enough to accept their partner's shortcomings. If their anxious partner feels extra-sensitive about an ex liking their Facebook post, for example, a secure partner will reassure them kindly, and will find a way of navigating the issue moving forward.
On the flip side, couples composed of one anxious member and one avoidant member typically have a trickier time creating a secure relationship. Avoidant people generally need a lot of space, Levine and Heller explain, and that desire for space can cause panic for an anxious partner who needs a lot of reassurance. This can end up becoming an unbearable cycle that continues until they decide to break up.
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Interestingly, anxious and avoidant people tend to be most drawn to each other, as their contrasting intimacy needs bounce off one another, creating a more tumultuous relationship, which many people equate with passion.
This isn't to say that anxious and avoidant people should never date, and that all people who date a secure person will have the smoothest relationship. However, by understanding your partner's sensitivities, you can learn to navigate them with care and love, creating closer intimacy and a stronger bond—whatever your attachment style.
Benefits of understanding attachment styles
If you're already in a relationship, knowing which attachment style you and your partner have enables you to communicate with more ease and kindness, helping you work together to overcome insecurities or fears.
If you're still in the dating pool, understanding a potential partner's attachment style helps you predict who will be a good match, so you can cut your losses earlier, saving time and effort.
Just realizing which attachment style you have is half the battle. Most of us won't naturally change our attachment style, but we can work on slightly altering it. We can work on ourselves to better recognize when we're reacting in ways that are linked to our fears, and we can pursue relationships with securely attached people, which will help calm most predisposed worries. We can ultimately develop new styles of attachment that will sustain a loving, and satisfying, relationship.