I just don’t like who I become when I’m in a relationship.
We’ve all heard – or said – that one before.
And it’s usually either a thin-veiled admission that he’s been checking your WhatsApp messages while you were showering off the post-coital bliss, or that she’s ghosted so many exes that even an Ouija board won’t go near her.
Finding out your attachment style
Both behaviours – stalking and ghosting – are on the extremes of what is known as attachment theory, a model which describes how people respond to being hurt or taken away from their loved ones.
Although the theory was developed to explain the attachment of children to their primary caregivers, it is particularly applicable to our adult dating lives.
John Bowlby, the British psychologist who first coined the theory, identified three main styles of relating to people – secure, anxious and avoidant.
Knowing which of these styles you subscribe to is by far the most important thing you can do when it comes to improving your dating life and your relationships.
Powered with that knowledge, you can then educate yourself – and those around you – about the romantic traps you’re likely to fall into when you enter a new relationship.
Anxious attachment style
Research shows that roughly twenty-five per cent of the population has an anxious attachment style.
If you fall into this category, you have an above average craving for intimacy and closeness, and you don’t like the idea of not being in a relationship. You may describe your need as a desire for someone to complete you or to fulfil you.
While you’re wonderfully loving and sensitive to your partner’s moods and needs, you’re also very delicate when it comes to any type of perceived threat which threatens the romantic picture you’ve painted in your mind.
Your panic radar is extremely sensitive, so even if you’re not a particularly jealous person, the slightest whiff of ambiguity triggers paranoia that your partner may be falling out of love with you.
As a result, you require very regular verbal, physical and emotional reassurance that your partner is still committed to you.
Your friends might describe you as emotional, romantic and passionate, while your exes would probably settle for clingy, paranoid and codependent.
Avoidants hate the drama
On the opposite end of the attachment scale, you’ll find the avoidant lovers – making up about 25 per cent of the population.
If you’re an avoidant, you’ll probably bring a lot of variety and excitement into a relationship, although often not a huge amount of emotional depth.
It’s not necessarily that you lack depth. It’s just that you prefer to avoid the hassle of having to deal with all the ‘drama’ that comes with relationships.
This is why many avoidants take a rather dismissive approach to love – resenting anyone who dares to impede on their emotional self-sufficiency. Indeed, you’re uncomfortable with the idea of depending on anyone else but yourself.
Whenever you feel yourself getting close to someone, your impulse to flee gets triggered and you’ll seek to distance yourself from your partner – either by casually bringing your incredible ex-boyfriend up in conversation, getting sarcastic with you boo, or by burying yourself in work.
At the root of this frosty behaviour lies an often-touching backstory from the past, one which has led you to fear the very same thing that sends your anxious lovers into a tailspin – abandonment.
Secure attachment rules the roost
Then there’s the fifty per cent of you lucky ones with a secure attachment style.
Generally, you have a reasonably positive outlook on yourself and on relationships. You’re okay with other people depending on you, and you’re equally comfortable depending on others.
Research also shows that most of you have pretty high self-esteem, are good at seeking out social support, find enjoyment in intimate relationships and are pretty adequate at sharing feelings with others.
Your emotional prowess has the potential to ‘heal’ the relationship patterns of lovers on both ends of the spectrum.
Indeed, when you’re with an anxious partner, you take care of their neediness by making them feel safe and secure. And when you’re with an avoidant partner, you give them the space and sense of independence they crave.
While by no means 24/7 fairy tales, relationships with secure lovers tend to be quite equal, honest and open – with both parties feeling independent, yet loving towards each other.
Indeed, your ability to communicate and tune into what your partner wants and needs, has turned you into genuine relationship gold.
But, wait a minute. If secure lovers are such a catch, then why are so many anxious lovers falling for avoidants – and vice versa?
Partly because romance is a numbers game. Secure lovers – aka ‘all the good ones’ – are out there having stable relationships, mostly with one another. Meanwhile, the dating pool replenishes itself with anxious and avoidant lovers who continuously repeat their increasingly bruised and battered romantic patterns with each other.
But most importantly, avoidance acts like a red rag on anxious lovers – and vice versa. They simply can’t resist each other.
There’s logic to this. If you have an anxious attachment style, you experience the highs and the lows that come from dating a free-spirited charismatic avoidant much stronger than anyone else.
You’ll happily accept the dreadful lows, simply because the rest of the ride is so darn exhilarating. But once that rollercoaster becomes a relationship pattern, you’ll crave that ‘passion’ with every new potential mate.
When a secure match then finally walks into your life – with all their predictability, attentiveness and talk about feelings – you’ll be bored within a month because Goodie Two-Shoes isn’t providing you with your intensity fix.
And before you know it, you’re back to dating hot, brooding fellas who’ll take you to a fetish club on your first date and subsequently respond to your increasingly desperate ‘are we still one for Friday?’ with ever-lasting silence.
Avoidants seek out anxious lovers for the same reason. They also love the intensity ride and get a thrill from seeing their anxious lovers validating the avoidant’s self-perception that they’re somehow stronger and more independent than everybody else.
Test your attachment style
Does that mean relationships between mixed attachment styles are doomed from the start? No, but they do require a strong sense of grounding and a hell of a lot of communication – skills which neither anxious or avoidant lovers are typically good at.
Getting to know your own attachment style is therefore really important.
Spend some time taking a closer look at your relationship history and write down what your triggers and emotional patterns in each of them. In fact, do the test here and find out where you fit in.
If you’re anxious, be honest with yourself about what your needs are in a relationship. Move on quickly if your love interest is unable to meet them, rather than hoping things will get better over time. They rarely do.
If you’re an avoidant, realise that being be strong and autonomous is a sexy trait, but so is vulnerability. Not everyone is out to clip your wings, and a balanced relationship with the right person will massively increase your sense of self-worth and your capacity for intimacy.
Best of all, allow yourself to explore the safety of a relationship with a secure lover. As Amir Levine, author of Attached: The New Science of Adult puts it: “It’s like having a coach built into the relationship. They’re so good at it, they walk you through many potential pitfalls and teach you to become more secure.”
So, if you happen to be a secure lover reading this, please use your healing powers wisely. Most of us anxious and avoidant lovers look forward to being welcomed into your stable arms sometime soon.
If those arms ever become single again of course.