Your crush might be avoidantly attached, or maybe they’re just not that into you.
Words by Andrea Carrillo. Photo by Pedro Merino.
Whether or not you’re particularly into astrology, you probably know your zodiac sign – at least for dating purposes. From horoscopes to the five love languages, sometimes it seems easier to test compatibility with a potential partner through someone else’s words and systems than our own. Enter attachment theory, the concept that emotional bonds with childhood caregivers play a heavy role in future romantic relationships, for better or worse.
British psychologist John Bowlby first coined attachment theory in 1958 to study how infants and children are affected by their caregivers, primarily mothers, and how that affects adulthood relationships. Bowlby categorized four types of attachments: secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful. In a perfect world, all parents — secure themselves — guide their children to form strong relationships, trust others, and be capable of healthy intimacy.
Attachment theory isn’t necessarily new, but the concept has garnered widespread popularity on social media. The topic’s hashtag has over 158 million views on TikTok, and Twitter’s therapist corner has bulky threads on how to identify, interact with, and heal attachment styles in romantic relationships.
The 2010 book Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller ranks #21 on Amazon’s list of best-selling dating books. Because of the theory’s psychological roots, the concept holds higher credibility among rationalists than comparing celestial maps of astrology. Is attachment theory the follow up to astrology when it comes to exploring compatibility with others, and how attached should we be to it?
Patterns are developed, feelings get hurt, and generational trauma nips at the capacity to form emotional bonds. People aren’t perfect – parents or childless. Bowlby’s theory states that caregivers with hot-cold parenting styles can cultivate anxious attachments. This can look like children with insecurities and abandonment issues that constantly seek reassurance. Those labeled avoidant typically come from neglectful or emotionally unavailable caregivers. This causes them to hold intimacy and trust at arm’s length. Fearful attachment styles indicate the child grew up afraid of how their caregiver would respond to their distress. Commonly, this is the result when there’s abuse within the relationship.
Anita Chlipala, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says she discusses the theory with all of her clients. “To some degree, you can know how someone will show up in a relationship based on their attachment style,” she says. Some individuals are prone to exhibiting behaviors of their respective style and causing friction in the relationship as a result. But ultimately, attachment styles are “fluid” and “people have a responsibility to change their behaviors and beliefs if their attachment style is no longer serving them,” she says.
An understanding of attachment styles is a beneficial starting point for couples willing to do the work it takes to reach the holy land — mutual secure attachment. Research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018 suggests more than half the population is securely attached, but Chlipala notes that ideally at least one partner should have secure attachment for relationship satisfaction. However, the theory doesn’t mean you should pour over your situationship’s texts and decide they’re avoidantly attached if they seem uninterested, nor should you dismiss your partner’s requests for intimacy as being anxious and needy.
There’s simply no shortage of reinforcements on- and offline that help navigate the confusing world of dating. Whether you’ve linked with your partner on the astrology app Co-Star or analyzed each other’s love languages, we’re drawn to more sophisticated games of MASH to become the psychoanalysts of our own love lives and that of our friends.
Astrology, attachment theory, and other compatibility blueprints are tempting because it’s enticing to have someone — or in this case, a theory backed by psychologists — tell us who or not to date. Who wouldn’t benefit from a neatly packaged explanation for the confusing behaviors that leave us up at night? It offers justification — and sometimes an excuse — for each other’s behaviors. After all, attachment theory in particular promises that your partner isn’t purposely trying to hurt your feelings, they’re just mirroring the behaviors of their caregiver.
However, there’s more to the theory than people realize, says Helen Wyatt, a relationship and sex therapist. “We have to understand what all our dynamics were in childhood and friendships, how we learned to behave, and what templates got mapped into our brain and emotional system,” she says. “Then we can notice how that shows up in adulthood.” Despite being raised in a certain style, we aren’t chained to it forever. Caregivers aren’t the only ones responsible for how we attach. Different styles are formed and fostered based on our familial, romantic, and platonic relationships.
Overanalyzing and overidentifying one’s upbringing and behaviors poses limitations, too. “People are so complex, they deserve complex conversations,” Wyatt explains. Humans are capable of entering avoidance, anxiousness, or security at any given time. However, grounding yourself as the secure one in the relationship makes attachment your partner’s problem. By doing so, “we lose some awareness of the other person and what their needs are,” she says. Many even view attachment theory through a gendered lens, further muddling who is capable of achieving security.
Men and masculinity are often associated with avoidance, while women and femininity are pegged with the anxious label. However, Wyatt believes that because more women want to feel empowered against modern-day patriarchy, attachment needs to be viewed more flexibly. “Attachment is about authenticity, how we trust ourselves, and how we trust others based on how we’ve learned to move through the world,” she says.
As the rules of dating change, feeling the need to overanalyze your partner’s behaviors and tendencies could even be indicative of your own attachment style. In the same way one might limit their dating pool based on zodiac signs, letting attachment theory become a rubric for your life deflects true self-awareness. Before tackling the attachment dialogue with parents and romantic partners, Wyatt believes friendships may be a safer place to practice secure attachment.
Seeking professional help from a therapist stimulates healing from negative attachments, says Chipala. But she also recommends first identifying the impact of your style on day-to-day interactions and “working on not taking your partner’s behavior personally.” Diane Poole Heller also explores exercises and tools for self-reflection in her book The Power of Attachment.
Attachment theory isn’t a justification for anxious or avoidant people to continue down a potentially harmful path, and finding emotional security with another person takes work. “Being comfortable in your own skin and having tools that help you relax is a really big deal, but learning how to feel safe with others is revolutionary,” Heller says. There’s a lot to learn about yourself and your partner through studying attachment, but before you jump into one psychological theory, remember that humans are complicated. Start with a little grace.