Thursday, February 24, 2011

Attachment and Romantic Relationships

Finding a partner should not be left to chance

Tamara started dating Greg:
I first noticed Greg at a cocktail party at a friend’s house. He was unbelievably good-looking. A few days later we went out for dinner with some other people, and I couldn’t resist the glimmer of excitement in his eyes when he looked at me. But what I found most exciting were his words and an implicit promise of togetherness that he conveyed. He said things like, “You can call me any time you like.” If I’d only listened carefully, I could have easily heard another message that was incongruent with this promise. Several times he’d mentioned that he’d never had a stable relationship – that for some reason he always grew tired of his girlfriends and felt the need to move on. I figured that Greg was just not ready for a relationship at the time and that he hadn’t met the right person for him. I believed that if he really fell in love with me, he’d want to stick around. But then the strangest thing happened – we did fall in love, but the closer we got, the more he pushed me away. I became so preoccupied with the relationship that I stopped seeing my friends and had a hard time functioning at work. Most of the time my thoughts were directed at him. I hated it, but I also couldn’t help it.

Although Tamara acknowledged that she would be happier without Greg, she could not muster enough strength to leave. An intelligent and sophisticated woman had become anxious and insecure. Why would somebody so adaptive with other life challenges become so powerless with this one? And why would Greg keep her at arm’s length, even though he loved her?

Evolution and Attachment

Throughout history, those who became attached to a partner got a survival advantage over those who did not. People who were in a relationship with someone who cared deeply about them had a greater chance of surviving and have kids, and they passed on to their offspring their preference to form intimate bonds.

Also, children who became attached to their caregivers got a survival advantage, and had a greater chance of surviving to maturity, have children of their own, and pass on to them their attachment style.

There are four distinct ways in which infants form attachments with caregivers: secure, anxious, avoidant and ambivalent. Infants with a secure attachment style use their mother as a secure base from which to explore the environment, learn and thrive, and derive comfort and reassurance when they are upset or tired. Infants who have an insecure attachment style are too preoccupied with their mother’s whereabouts to be easily soothed (anxious), or too seemingly indifferent toward her to use her as a secure base for comfort in times of need (avoidant), or a mixture of both (ambivalent).

Adults show patterns of attachment to romantic partners similar to the patterns of attachment that children have with their caregivers. Knowing these different attachment styles can help us understand and predict people’s behavior in romantic situations.


Generally, secure people have little difficulty expressing their needs and feelings. They are usually loving, giving and intimate. They create little drama. They are comfortable depending on their partner and having their partner depending on them. They seldom worry about being abandoned.


Generally, anxious people crave physical and emotional closeness. They want to merge completely with their partner, and that desire sometimes scares (prospective) partners away. They will sometimes feel that their partner is reluctant to get as close to them as they would like. They constantly think about the relationship, and often worry that their partner doesn’t really love them or will abandon them. They are oversensitive to everything their partner says or does. They get increasingly clingy and upset in the face of a partner who distances himself/herself. And, they have a hard time breaking from unsatisfying relationships.


Generally, avoidant people find it difficult to depend on their partner, and have difficulty in saying “I love you”. They equate intimacy with a loss of independence, and find that their partners often want them to be more intimate than they feel comfortable being. When their (prospective) partner gets too close, they get nervous, and push him/her away. They may be distant, often find faults in the partner, and initiate fights – and this set back any progress in the relationship.

Lessons to be learned

Effective communication – to state your feelings and needs in a simple, nonthreatening manner – is the quickest way to determine whether a (prospective) partner will be suitable for you. By spelling out your needs, you are making it a lot easier for your partner to meet them. S/he does not need to guess whether something is bothering you – or what that something is.

Most wo/men are only as needy as their unmet needs. When our needs are met, we usually turn our attention outwards. This is the dependency paradox: the more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and creative they become. So, dependence is not a bad thing – unless it becomes extreme. The ability to step into the world on our own often stem from the knowledge that there is someone besides us on whom we can rely. So, if you want to take the road to independence and happiness, find the right person to depend on and then travel down it together.

If a prospective partner shows a sincere wish to understand your needs and put your well-being first, your future with him/her has promise. But, if a prospective partner brushes aside your concerns as insignificant or often make you feel inadequate, foolish and hurt, you will be better off with someone else. Mismatched attachment styles can lead to a great deal of unhappiness in a relationship, even for people who love each other greatly.


Levine, A. & Heller, R. S. F. (2011). Get Attached: The Surprising Secret to Finding the Right Partner for a Healthy Relationship. Scientific American Mind, January/February, p. 22-29.

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