Have you ever noticed that some of the people you’ve dated were needy and clingy, while others were aloof and detached? Or maybe the opposite was true—you were the needy one, and your date was the distant one.
This has to do with the person’s attachment style—i.e., the way they relate to people in intimate relationships.
Your attachment style is the specific way in which you respond emotionally to your intimate or romantic partner (or other people in your life). Not everyone has the same attachment style. When you’re dating, it’s important to know your attachment style, as well as your date’s—so that you can explain your needs and behaviors to each other.
Understanding why your date or partner acts the way she does (and vice versa) is what makes a relationship satisfying and able to withstand tough times.
What is Attachment Style?
Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby coined the term “attachment style” in the 1950s.1 They theorized that the way an adult relates to other people (i.e., their attachment style) has a lot to do with the experiences they had with their caregivers in early childhood. Bowlby studied “the intense distress” some infants experienced after they were separated from their parents.2 He contrasted that with infants who seemed perfectly fine after their parents left them.
Think of the relationship dynamics you had with your caregivers (usually parents) when you were a baby and/or child. As an adult, your attachment style is usually similar.
If your early caregivers were responsive, consistently tuned into your needs, and offered predictable care—then you probably have a different attachment style than someone whose caregivers were unresponsive, inconsistent, and unpredictable.
Peter Lovenheim, the author of The Attachment Effect, says, “Human beings are born helpless, so we are hardwired at birth to search for and attach to a reliable caregiver for protection…The quality of that first bond—loving and stable or inconsistent or even absent—actually shapes the developing brain, influencing us throughout life in how we deal with loss and how we behave in relationships.”3
There Are 4 Attachment Styles—3 of Which are Insecure
The attachment styles are: anxious, avoidant, fearful-avoidant (a.k.a. disorganized), and secure.
The first three are insecure forms of attachment. As the name suggests, a secure attachment style is the only form that’s secure. Let’s examine each style.
- Anxious attachment is characterized by a deeply rooted fear of abandonment. If you’re often afraid of being rejected, or you worry about whether or not your partner really loves you, you might have anxious attachment. If you get anxious when your date doesn’t text you back right away…same.
If your date shows needy or clingy behavior (like always wanting your validation and attention and not letting you have your space), she might have anxious attachment.
Other names for this include:
- anxious-preoccupied attachment
- anxious-ambivalent attachment
- anxious-resistant attachment
- Avoidant attachment is when you’re afraid of intimacy with your date or partner. If you have problems trusting people or are reluctant to get “too close” to them, you most likely have avoidant attachment. With this style, you can seem distant or emotionally unavailable. Someone with avoidant attachment usually wants to stay independent.
Other names for this include:
- dismissive-avoidant attachment
- anxious-avoidant attachment
- Fearful-avoidant attachment (a.k.a. disorganized) is where you have a mixture of the first two types—anxious and avoidant. You’re craving someone’s love and affection, but at the same time, you’re not fully open to having a close relationship with that person. This attachment style brings high risks. A person who is fearful-avoidant may have trouble managing their own emotions. There might be heightened sexual activity or violence within the relationship.
All three of the above attachment styles are considered “insecure.” Now let’s look at the fourth one.
- Secure attachment is where you’re capable of creating a loving, secure relationship with another person. You can trust people, you can be open and vulnerable with them, you can love (and receive love from) them, and you’re not afraid of intimacy. You’re also not afraid when your partner needs space. Your early caregivers were most likely reliable and responsive to your needs as an infant.
This is actually the most common type—as about 55% of the population has a secure attachment style.
Looking at yourself and your date, which attachment style do you think you have?
Find Out Your Attachment Style
You can find out your attachment style by taking a 5-minute quiz.
You can also take the quiz created by an attachment researcher, R. Chris Fraley, Ph.D. It has 36 questions about how you tend to feel in intimate relationships. (Select Option B.)
“Is My Attachment Style Bad?”
None of the attachment styles is necessarily “bad.” They simply show what a person is seeking in an intimate relationship. No matter what style you have, the more awareness you have around what you and your date both need, the better. With awareness, you can understand each other’s responses and reactions. You can work through any challenging moments with clear communication.
It’s helpful to know your partner’s (and your own) attachment styles. For example, if you’re anxious and you’re dating someone who’s avoidant, your relationship will be prone to struggles, because you both have opposite needs. You’ll be craving closeness with her, and she’ll be craving her independence more.
You might find that it’s healthiest for you to date someone who has a secure attachment style. Given that secure people make up 55% of the population, you have good odds of finding someone with this style.
All relationships go through difficult times. A successful relationship will need at least one partner who’s willing and able to stick things out, no matter how tough it gets.
Can I Change My Attachment Style?
No behavior is permanent. You can heal and/or change your behavior with any number of strategies, but it will take work and patience. You can learn about communication skills and practice with your partner. You can reflect on your previous relationship patterns and breakups. And/or you can get counseling. (I recommend EFT counselors.) Or you can simply practice mindfulness through journaling, meditation, deep breathing, etc.
Linda Carroll, M.S., a marriage counselor, says, “Practicing mindfulness is essential for any change. In relationships, shifting from reactiveness to responsiveness can lift us out of our early attachment patterns toward a healthier, more secure style.”3
No matter what you choose, I wish you happy dating! (Contact me here for lesbian matchmaking & dating services.)