Q&A: How the New Science of Adult Attachment Can Improve Your Love Life

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People tend to think of “attachment” and “bonding” as the subjects of child psychology, but in fact, these factors are just as important to adult health and happiness. So what defines the healthy adult relationship — is there such a thing as too “clingy” or “dependent?” — and can people change in order to find lasting love?

With studies showing again and again that our relationships are critical to our long-term mental and physical health, researchers are increasingly turning their attention to the nature of adult connections. In their new book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine and co-author Rachel Heller explore the topic. And just in time for Valentine’s Day, they offer a new perspective on how to find the right partner. (More on Time.com: 5 Little-Known Truths About American Sex Lives)

What are attachment styles and what characterizes them?

There are three major attachment styles: anxious, avoidant and secure. [To find out yours or your partner’s style, take this quiz.] Around 20% of people are anxiously attached. Anxious people need to be close; they love to be intimate. They are very preoccupied with relationships, and very sensitive to small cues of threat in a relationship. Let’s say their partner is going to the airport — it’s anxiety provoking for the relationship. They would start to worry if they didn’t hear from their partner soon. It’s almost like they have a very sensitive alarm system.

What about avoidant?

About 25% of people are avoidant. Avoidant people want to be in relationships — because we’re all programmed to get attached to other people — but something strange happens when they get close to a person. They are uncomfortable with too much closeness. They keep their partners at arm’s length and constantly try to negotiate intimacy and closeness. They see it as something that interferes with their independence.

And secure?

They make up 54%, the majority, of the population. Securely attached people are warm and loving and love to be close, but they don’t have a sensitive alarm system. They don’t get preoccupied with the relationship; they don’t mind things so much. They have a talent for being in relationships. If they’re going to the airport and you’re anxious, they would call you before you even think about calling them.

The avoidant person would hit ignore and think, “Oh, she’s calling again,” and you end up yelling at each other. You can see what kind of a different life you would have with someone secure.

[By knowing about attachment styles], you actually have way to go about finding the right person.

Isn’t there one more style?

There’s also disorganized, or anxious/avoidant. That’s much more rare. When children have this, it is linked to trauma.

Therapists often tell people that you can’t be loved until you are able to love yourself, and suggest that people take time to work on themselves before getting into a relationship. But there’s no data to support that, and in fact, the research shows that you need to be loved before you can love. Why do we have this cultural misunderstanding about relationships?

[People say it] because there’s a kernel of truth to it, but that’s one of the reasons we wrote this book. [In it, we describe] someone we know who is well-rounded and functional in every aspect of life, and clearly very much loves herself and her life. But she went into a relationship with someone who was very avoidant, and then became very anxious to the point that she almost lost her job.

It’s funny because one of most amazing things that this theory teaches is that if you are anxious or avoidant, and you meet someone who is secure, there are huge healing powers [in that relationship]. You become more secure. You don’t even have to work hard, it just happens. Sometimes, magic can happen. The science breaks it down, it really challenges your perception and ideas and beliefs about relationships in a good way, and you change [in ways] that would be very hard to do on your own. (More on Time.com: Allergic to Valentine’s Day Gifts? 5 Last-Minute Alternatives)

You can do [some of that] in therapy but it’s so powerful when you do it in a relationship. When we get attached, powerful forces [are involved]. People think about psychological aspects but it’s also very much physiological. Your partner starts to control your blood pressure and autonomic nervous system. It has huge implications for physical health.

(More on TIME.com: Does Men’s ‘Bond’ with Porn Spoil Them for Real Sex?)

Anxious people are often stigmatized as clingy and needy and desperate.

It really isn’t that. You are only as needy and clingy as your unmet needs. [If your needs are met, you can just relax.]. If kids feel safe, they don’t cling to their mothers, they play with their toys. It’s the same with adults.

You have a chapter titled “Dependency Is Not a Bad Word” Yet the common wisdom about codependency suggests that caring too much can be a disease.

We stigmatize dependence. Our society is avoidant, in a way. We really put emphasis on independence. But dependence is a biological fact. Once we become attached, we’re dependent whether we want to be or not.

I understand why, in the context of addiction, some people say it’s a bad thing. It’s really only bad because there’s no good treatment [for addiction]. In that context, you can see why you sometimes have to withdraw support from the person — but even there, it’s problematic. I’ve seen enough cases where the family withdrew and then something [awful happened to the addict].

And in other areas, it really doesn’t hold water — as if you have a disease if you help someone?

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