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The Science of Attachment

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One beautiful spring morning, Hillary thought it would be great to take a romantic walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Steve, whom she had recently started dating. They had connected very deeply on their dates but there were still some mixed signals and uncertain vibes coming from Steve.  When she called him, he said he was doing the laundry and would call her back later. She got a little upset. She didn’t like to be left hanging but didn’t want to seem too interested either. A friend talked her into calling him back to suggest that he join her for the walk now and finish his laundry later. Reluctantly, she made the call and to her dismay, not only did Steve refuse to put off the laundry, but he now wasn’t interested in getting together at all that day!

Hillary was devastated. She had gone outside of her comfort zone and called him, only to be rebuffed. She was furious with her friend and was sure that she had ruined her chances with Steve.

What to make of this scenario? Did Hillary really make a fatal mistake by calling Steve that day? Would it have been better if she had kept her cool or even made plans with other friends instead, as many relationship experts would suggest?

Surprising insights from the science of adult attachment – the most advanced relationship science to date – can provide real answers to these questions.

Adult attachment shows that there are three main “attachment styles” or ways in which people perceive and respond to intimacy in romantic relationships: Secure, Anxious and Avoidant (see sidebar or www.attachedthebook.com for details).  Interestingly, studies reveal that those with a Secure attachment style intuitively know how to handle dating situations without falling into many of the pitfalls that people with an anxious or avoidant style do.  By breaking down Secure behaviors and attitudes into specific actions, we can understand what it is that sets them apart and makes the dating world easier for them to navigate:

  • Secure people spot “smoke signals” early on and treat them as deal breakers:  They intuitively know that “what you see is what you get.” “If my date says or does things that suggest he can’t show up for me, I take his word for it and never assume he’s going to change,” says 28-year-old Dana, a secure woman we interviewed.  “When he sends mixed signals or tells me he’s not ready for a serious relationship, he’s being blatantly clear about his wishes. Why would I assume he doesn’t mean what he says?
  • Secure people wear their heart on their sleeve:  The science of attachment teaches us that the more authentic you are, the higher your level of satisfaction and happiness in the relationship – starting with the first date and for years to come. Part of being authentic means expressing your needs to your partner.  And if you state those needs from a place of strength, not only will you not sound “needy,” you’ll actually come across as self-confident and decisive — unanimously attractive traits. You need to know you’re exclusive early on? You can’t deal with having your partner compare you to other men she’s dated in the past? If you’re secure, you’ll voice these concerns from the get-go.  If your partner can meet those needs – you know you’re on the right track.  If they can’t, you’ll know it early on, before you’re overly invested in them emotionally and will be able to move on to somebody who can.
  • Secure people don’t play games: When you wear your heart on your sleeve, playing games is out of the question. The two are mutually exclusive! 

Pretending to be busy just to play hard-to-get, showing you don’t care when you really do (Hillary’s default strategy), or trying to be someone that you’re not — can all backfire. By acting hard-to-get, when in fact what you truly crave is closeness, consistency and stability, you may end up attracting the exact person who is least likely to make you happy – someone avoidant—who doesn’t feel comfortable being close and prefers to keep you at arms length. 

  • Secure people never take blame for their date’s offensive behavior: She said she’d call and she didn’t?  He decided he’s not capable of committing yet?  She told you the chemistry just isn’t there? When a prospect acts inconsiderate or hurtful, people with a secure attachment style intuitively understand that this says a lot about the other person rather than about themselves.  In Hillary’s case, Steve’s message was loud and clear: “I don’t care if you sit around and wait for me.  And if you have any requests, I’ll just withdraw completely.  Either way – your wishes are not my concern.”
  • Secure people believe that there are many (yes, many!) potential partners who could make them happy:  Anxious and avoidant people convince themselves that there are very few people out there who are right for them – whether it’s because they want someone with a very specific look or who comes from a particular background or even just because they believe that only few people would find them attractive.  Secure people don’t get locked on a particular type; they have much more flexible views about what a good relationship is about and what kind of partner is suitable. They certainly don’t hop from one date to the next; they really give you a chance, but if they meet someone attractive who isn’t suitable, they don’t get stuck.  They move on. They just know that someone attractive and compatible is waiting around the corner.  

Once we understand how secure people deal with relationship issues, we get a clear answer to Hillary’s dilemma:  She did the best possible – and most secure — thing when she called Steve and expressed her wishes to him. That she would be angry with her friend and still want to go out with Steve suggests that she has an anxious attachment style and needs a major overhaul in her dating practices and beliefs. If she can learn to date the secure way, she’ll be on the fast track to finding—and keeping—her true soul mate.

Sidebar:

*As featured in Elle magazine (January, 2011):

*ANXIOUS AVOIDANT SECURE
Craves closeness; obsesses over relationships; frets about whether you love him/her back. M.O.: Facebook®-stalks an ex, plays games, pretends to be unavailable or busy; expects you to guess when something’s bothering him or her. Avoids intimacy; fears relationship will rob him or her of independence.  

M.O.: Says things like “I need a lot of space” and struggles to utter “I love you;” stays a stride ahead of you on the sidewalk; prefers solo vacations; doesn’t invite you to his or her place; routinely dates only a certain “type.”

Great girlfriend/ boyfriend material: comfortable with commitment; warm, loving; easily expresses needs and wants.M.O.: Calls when s/he says s/he will; doesn’t suddenly get cold feet; wants to make you part of his or her circle of friends; won’t leave you guessing or try to make you jealous.

To learn more about your attachment style and that of your partner or date, check out: http://www.attachedthebook.com/compatibility-quiz/

To learn more about Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You – Find and Keep – Love, visit: www.attachedthebook.com. 

By Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel Heller, authors of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love.

 

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