Attachment Theory vs (S)He Just Isn’t That Into You?

Just yesterday, I finished reading the book, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love (that’s a mouthful), and while I enjoyed reading it, I’m always really skeptical of anything I agree with too much.

If I agree with it then I’m reinforcing my existing beliefs which means that my brain is probably not critically engaged enough to pick up on what doesn’t match and I’m missing out on learning opportunities.

There’s a quote that goes something like:

If you and I both think the same thing, then one of us is redundant

Anyway, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and there are a few things that are interesting about it and a few things that I think are adequately explained with how they fit in.  In fact, maybe all of the interesting points from my perspective may fall into the category of not being adequately explained, which is probably why I find those particular things interesting.

To VERY briefly explain attachment theory, there are 3 basic attachment styles:

Secure
Anxious
Avoidant

Secure people are just like you would expect…they are comfortable with intimacy, trust their partners easily, and assume the best in conflicts which helps keep them from escalating out of control.

Anxious people really crave intimacy with someone, but at the same time tend to be continuously concerned that their significant other doesn’t care for them enough and any small detail that could potentially mean that they are less loved than they want to be is highlighted and is cause for major concern.

Avoidant people want to be attached, but when they actually find someone the closeness is suffocating and they do various things to sabotage the intimacy they have in their relationships.

Now that we have the basics, we can  go into some of the weird things that come to mind when you think about this more closely.

A lot of the book is focused on what anxious and avoidant people can do to be happier in their relationships and the problems that they face and how you can manage those if you are with one of those two types.

One of the most surprising pieces of advice that I found in this book was the advice for anxious people that they date multiple people simultaneously.  It’s rare that a mainstream, (somewhat) scientifically rigorous book recommends that.  The authors’ reasoning is that anxious people put too many expectations on others early on and by having more than one prospect they reduce that anxiety by having a “plan b” (my words, not theirs).  They mention this kind of in passing, and they don’t go into detail about what this might look like.

It’s unclear if they are advocating some form of polyamory or they just mean for people to “play the field” before settling in on one person.  Either way, those kind of arrangements often open up other problems that are totally not addressed like how to manage multiple people, and how to pare down to one once you’ve selected a person from the pool to be with.

The next thing that struck me is that their characterizations of an avoidant person don’t distinguish between a person who has problems with intimacy and a person who just doesn’t want to get too intimate with a particular person for whatever reason (usually because that person doesn’t meet their minimum threshold for a serious partner because of looks, temperament, geography, religion, finances, education background, etc.)

There definitely is a difference between someone who has problems with intimacy and someone who really likes a person but doesn’t wnat to be serious about them because they have a major black mark against them like a drinking problem, for example.

Under these circumstances, the securely attached person might appear to be avoidant, when actually they are just being prudent.  What this highlights is that these types are really about a person’s INTERNAL experience, but since those aren’t visible to outsiders, they can mis-characterize your attachment style and then interact with you in a sub-optimal way.

Ultimately, the books seems to say that the conflicts that come when these three types interact with one another are the differing levels of intimacy with Anxious at one end, requiring lots of intimacy and Avoidants at the opposite end wanting a lot less intimacy and a lot more freedom.

Secures are..?  Able to be flexible according to their partners?  it’s quite unclear where secures fall into this, but I guess the authors may be saying that because they are secure they can negotiate their intimacy needs and make sensible compromises and trade-offs to (mostly?) satisfy their own intimacy needs and those of their partner.

The last thing, I want to mention is that they imply that the avoidant type uses seeing other people as a way to reduce their attachment to a given partner and to maintain their autonomy as they might also do by long absences, for example.  What’s not clear to me though is if someone engages in those behaviors but hides them from their partner.

So, an Avoidant might maintain contact with an ex and want it to be known so that the other person is on notice not to get too close, but a secure might maintain a relationship with an ex just because they like that person.  And I think that this can be even more confusing if you think of the case of a person wanting to and deciding to have sex with someone else.

From what he book seems to be saying, if the person is Avoidant, they would want their partner to know to keep them at bay, and if they were anxious they would either be doing it for some perceived slight and may or may not want to keep it a secret, or they are doing it to get more attention by trying to create jealousy in their partner in which case they would want their partner to find out.

But what about the securely attached person…

Theoretically, they are satisfied enough with the level of intimacy they are able to negotiate to stay with their partner and be calm and supportive but that doesn’t mean that their personal needs are being met at the level they want them to be met at.  So, if a Secure was seeing someone on the side, presumably they would work to keep it a secret because they don’t want to hurt their partner and aren’t playing any games to try and change their partners behavior because they can negotiate directly around their needs and wants, right?

The authors don’t say.

So ultimately, why this book is very interesting and while I found myself nodding along on a regular basis, I also felt that they conflated intimacy needs with these attachment styles but I suspect that even securely attached people have different intimacy preferences or, they may want to keep a low intimacy relationship because (s)he isn’t that into you at the moment…though that can definitely change with time.