Picture this: Josh and Annie just got back from a long, intimate dinner during which they shared tender touches and talked with depth and openness. Annie was relieved—Josh had seemed withdrawn for the past few weeks, and she was worried that he was losing interest in her. When they got home, Josh immediately sat down in his favorite spot on the couch, turned on the TV, and began to watch a tennis match. Annie sat down next to him, and he moved away. It was subtle, but she felt it like a strike.
“What’s wrong? We were so close at dinner, and now you seem totally unavailable,” Annie said. “It’s like dinner never happened.”
Josh answered defensively, “Nothing’s wrong—we had a great time. Now I just need to space out and watch this match.” He looked back to the TV. Annie could feel herself getting upset and she shifted toward him, this time aggressively. “You ALWAYS do this,” she said. “Just when I trust you to be there and connect, you disappear.”
He looked at her with a face that had turned to stone. “And you always do THIS,” he retorted. “No matter how much connection you get, it’s never enough.” Many of us are intimately familiar with this damaging dance of (dis)connection: We live in it, remaining trapped by our own insecurities until they break us apart, and then we start the pattern again with someone else.
We know that two people can’t exist in a constant state of closeness—human beings need to take a step back and recharge in solitude as much as we need to be close with one another. The trouble arises when there is an attachment problem. With this couple, we can surmise that Annie is insecurely attached and that Josh suffers from avoidant attachment. The normal process of moving apart throws her into a spiral of abandonment fears, while too much closeness alarms and overwhelms him until he feels like he has to push away and close down.
The attachment theory of love teaches us that our romantic relationships mirror the type of relationship we had with our primary caretaker as a child. A group of psychologists has identified three attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, and secure.
A person with an anxious attachment style constantly worries whether they are truly loved—they seek constant reinforcement to reassert their self-worth. If their partner doesn’t text back or quickly return a call, this is often perceived as a lack of love or commitment. People with insecure attachment may have a history of turbulent relationships; for someone whose sense of security comes from other people, there is seldom if ever enough reassurance for them to feel truly secure. They fear being alone, and some would rather stay in an unhappy yet “secure” relationship than live with loneliness long enough to find that security within themselves.
Most often, a person with an anxious attachment style will pair with a person with an avoidant attachment style. Like Josh, avoidant people can only handle a small amount of intimacy before feeling compelled to pull away—often abruptly. Too much connectivity triggers the same kind of panic in Josh that Annie felt when she received too little.
The third kind of style is secure attachment. Securely attached people are as comfortable feeling close with others as they are with being alone. They don’t interpret a partner’s need for personal space as rejection, seldom obsess over relationships, and are more likely to feel deeply connected to themselves as well as to others. They handle aloneness and togetherness with equal ease, they don’t personalize their partner’s moods, and they can respond to their shared needs for interpersonal connection and personal independence.
So what can you do if you find yourself caught between the extremes of being too anxious about closeness or too worried about connection? The good news is that neuroscientists tell us we can rewire our brains for healthy love. While the heart can be fickle, the human brain is incredibly complex, constantly changing, and can build healthy new habits and ways of loving.
We need not be victims of our own history, and as we become more secure in our own attachment styles, those behaviors may encourage our present or future partners to develop secure attachments as well. 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. Here are four ways to help facilitate that transition:
1. Recognize when you’re motivated by “old fears.”
Next time you feel a partner coming too close or moving too far away, listen to what each of you is saying and how it’s said. You might notice that your words in emotional situations trigger a physiological reaction of fight or flight. Simply becoming aware of each other’s old fears is the first step in preventing them from controlling us.
2. Practice self-soothing.
Talk to yourself like someone you truly and sincerely love. Let’s say Annie feels anxious because Josh hasn’t answered her texts. If Annie can step back and be nonjudgmental, she’ll see that she’s filtering the facts through an “old story”: a knee-jerk reaction based on past experiences rather than present realities. From Josh’s perspective, his partner’s need for reassurance and connectedness could feel stifling and overwhelming, but taking a deep breath would help him realize that he’s retelling himself an old story.
3. Learn the art of self-compassion.
Observe how the old stories we tell ourselves cause adrenaline to flood the body and reinforce old fears, whether of intimacy or lack thereof. Recognizing our old stories and fears means we can actively be kind to ourselves, instead of fostering a harsh inner critic. Soothing yourself tells your nervous system, “Everything is OK.” Replacing self-criticism with self-compassion is like trading an angry wolf for a newborn puppy.
4. Remind yourself that this is all a learning process.
For those of us with anxious or avoidant attachment styles, practicing the art self-compassion, self-soothing, and self-awareness is a counterintuitive move. You will need to constantly remind yourself not to fall victim to old fears or tell yourself old stories, but the longer you act as if you are securely attached, the truer it will inevitably become.
In today’s day and age, we are inundated with relationship advice: how to keep them healthy, when to leave them, when to deepen them, and why you should have one in the first place. But the most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself. Knowing where you fall in the attachment theory of love is the key to a healthy relationship built on mutually secure attachment, with you and with anyone else.