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Learning about attachment types taught me all I need to know about dating


Most friendship groups have that one perpetually single friend (Picture: Getty Images/fStop)

I have always been baffled at how the most confident, intelligent and attractive people I know turn into anxious, insecure wrecks when they enter the realm of dating.

Successful friends who have the courage to command the boardroom, the confidence to murder the dancefloor, who juggle social lives so busy they’d currently be classified as a threat to public health – yet when a boy they fancy doesn’t like them back, they become as vulnerable as Achilles in a pair of slingbacks.

Dating is hard. But how do some people make it look so easy while the rest of us wallow in pits of despair?

I think I’ve found the answer. It’s called ‘Attachment Theory’, and it’s changed the way I’ll view relationships forever. 

The theory was presented to me by a dear friend via voice note during one of our regular ‘what’s wrong with us?’ WhatsApp therapy sessions.

Attachment theory was developed back in the 1930s. It began as a study into how infants respond when separated from their primary caregiver, but variations of the thesis have been developed in relation to how people form romantic attachments in adulthood.

Adult attachment theory states that there are three types of people in the dating game; the Secure, the Anxious and the Avoidant. In some versions of the theory the Avoidment type is separated into two subgroups, but for now I’m just going to refer to it as one. The labels are pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll go into a little more detail (with my limited understanding as a Wikipedia-trained amateur psychologist), nonetheless.

Anxious daters crave emotional intimacy, to the point where it negatively impacts other parts of their life. While they have the capacity to be extremely loving, they are anxious over perceived threats to their relationship and experience a lot of negative emotions because of it. The anxious type fears rejection or abandonment, and this can be a controlling influence on their behaviour and levels of relationship satisfaction.

You’d think those with an anxious attachment style would have a nervous, shy and insecure personality, yet some of the most badass women and men I know fall into this category. 

I’ve even been there myself: the quivering wreck who spent hours staring at her phone, trying to summon up a text back from someone through the powers of telekinesis; channelling my inner Uri Geller, but outwardly resembling a pathetic, bent spoon with low self-esteem and the inability to focus on anything else.

So what exactly causes this seismic shift from self-assured, to insecure? It could be because the person they are dating is their attachment style nemesis: The Avoidant. 

Avoidants prioritise independence over intimacy. Even though they have a desire to be close to others, they keep romantic partners at an arm’s length – a living hell for an anxious dater.

Avoidants operate on high alert for any signs that the person they’re dating may impinge on their autonomy, even if it’s as basic as the expectation of regular contact. They may retreat when they feel their partner is asking too much of them – even if those asks are perfectly reasonable, or even essential for a healthy relationship – and go distant. But because they still have a desire for closeness, when they feel they might be pushing their partner too far away, they reel them back in – albeit temporarily. 

Sending mixed-messages is the avoidant’s M.O., even if they don’t realise they’re doing it. Unlike anxious types, they don’t fear rejection, but they don’t exactly like being rejected either.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve consoled an anxious friend who is dating someone with an avoidant attachment style. I’ve had friends who are convinced that a like on Instagram is a sign of love and commitment, because they have been operating in such an intimacy deficit that low-level displays of interest feel significant. 

It’s an emotional rollercoaster destined for disaster, yet it’s nobody’s fault… they’re just incompatible.

Whenever my friends warned me I was going for the ‘wrong type’ of guy, I presumed they meant his job, his interests or his correlating letter in the Greek alphabet of male stereotypes. 

While they may have had a point, since learning about attachment theory, I have become convinced that it is compatibility of attachment styles that holds the key to a fulfilling relationship.

For too long, people who chose to live their lives happy and single have been judged by society as if there is something inherently wrong with them

Which brings me to the third attachment style of the trilogy: The Secure.

People with a secure attachment style are good communicators. They are comfortable with expressing their needs and appreciate their own self-worth. They want intimacy but aren’t overly sensitive to rejection.

I’ve known plenty of secure people in my time. Although they are not immune to disappointment or misfortune within relationships, they’re resilient enough to bounce back, given time. Secure people know what they want, and they aren’t afraid to ask for it. While anxious types find themselves relinquishing basic needs in the pursuit of intimacy, secure people aren’t afraid to let go of a person who doesn’t reach the bar.

After a pal of mine went through an excruciating divorce, I selfishly revelled at the prospect of having a new wing-woman with whom I could attack the dismal dating scene. Yet, within months, she’d met a fellow secure individual and settled down, as I returned solo to navigate the hell hole of Hinge in an attempt to find a plus one for her second wedding.

While I don’t doubt that chance plays a huge role in the people we meet, I wondered how she could be so lucky.

What I later discovered is that she had met a whole host of individuals before she re-settled, but just hadn’t entered into relationships with them because they didn’t meet her needs. In hindsight, this was classic secure behaviour. She didn’t feel desperate to meet just anyone, she was happy being alone until she met the right someone.

Most friendship groups have that one perpetually single friend. I’m not talking about the friend who is living their best life, happily single, but the one who despite their best efforts, just can’t seem to find the right person and no one really understands why because they are such a catch.

They try and implement all the modern dating advice bestowed upon them – ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’, ‘focus on yourself first’, ‘act aloof’, ‘don’t be too available’, yet for an anxious person, this behaviour doesn’t come naturally.

It doesn’t have to. Choosing to date a person with a secure attachment style – who accepts their need for reassurance and reciprocates affection without feeling threatened by it – can turn anxious daters into confident, secure people. In fact, studies show that about 30% of people change their attachment style over time, and this has a lot to do with the people they choose to date.

Although the same studies state that only 23% of people fit into the avoidant category, it feels like the dating pool is swamped with plenty of avoidant fish in the sea. That’s probably due to the fact that avoidant people are more likely to be single and secure people are more likely to be in happy relationships, according to the book Attached by Dr Amir Levine and Rachel S.F Heller, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t any secure, single people out there, ready to date.

If you’re an anxious person accustomed to dating avoidant types, the prospect of dating a secure person may feel unexciting because you’re so used to living in fear of rejection; that the smallest display of affection feels like a high. 

But you have got to ask yourself what’s more thrilling in the long term: a momentary triumph against a partner’s ambivalence, or the fulfilment in being able to be your authentic self, express your needs and have them met?

For too long, people who chose to live their lives happy and single have been judged by society as if there is something inherently wrong with them. It’s a well-worn trope in novels, TV and film, as well as in the minds of the pestering Aunt at family get togethers.

Thankfully, modern society is now learning to appreciate life beyond the bounds of heteronormative, conservative and traditionally stereotyped relationships, and many people feel liberated. But that doesn’t mean that a desire to be in a mutually dependent relationship is a form of weakness. 

At the risk of sounding like the opening monologue to a Richard Curtis film, human beings need love and connection in order to live fulfilling lives.

That fulfilment may be found in the form of friendships, a successful career, a supportive family unit or even a loyal Doberman, but for some people, the absence of a romantic partner is felt more than others.

In a world where we pride ourselves in self-sufficiency and independence, there’s no shame in admitting to a need for intimacy and a longing to find happiness as part of a couple, or throuple if that’s your thing. 

If we truly want to live our most authentic romantic lives, we must acknowledge our own needs, and look out for signs that the person we are dating might not be up to the task.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk

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