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?

Do two avoidant people ever get together?

We looked through the literature. It hardly ever happens, obviously. They can get together, but they tend to lack the glue that keeps people together.

(More on TIME.com: Why Methamphetamine Is Almost as Cuddly as Ecstasy)

You write that avoidant people are overrepresented in the dating pool.

When you go to a therapist and your relationships haven’t worked out, they may tell you that you have a pattern of always finding the wrong person. That may be right — some people do get addicted to the highs and lows of tumultuous anxious/avoidant relationships — but [the problem may not be] all about them.

There are some social forces. What happens with someone avoidant is that they tend to stay in relationships less. They are more likely to divorce. They tend to circulate back into the dating pool more often than anxious or secure people.

Anxious attachment sounds stereotypically female: is it more common in women or is this a myth?

The good news is that the majority of men and women are secure. But there are some stereotypes we have about men and women — Mars and Venus. The idea that men don’t like to communicate, for example — that’s more descriptive of avoidant men. The majority of men can be close and communicate; they want to get married and have kids. They’re the silent majority. We don’t hear much about them because there’s very little drama.

There is a slight excess of men who are avoidant, but a lot of women are avoidant, too. [The same is true with a slight excess of anxious women, but the majority are secure.]

(More on TIME.com: Do Tight Times Make Better Marriages?)

The original tests of attachment were done in very young children, looking at how they responded when they were left alone by their mothers. Does your infant attachment style stay with you into adulthood?

If there is a correlation, it’s weak at best, which is good news because it means that we can change our attachment style. Adult attachment styles are stable but plastic. When [researchers] looked at a group over four years, 25% had changed their attachment style. It can happen in several ways, for example when someone anxious or avoidant gets into a relationship with someone secure.

So what can you do to change your attachment style if you are not secure?

First of all, by understanding your relationship from an attachment perspective, you can work to identify insecure patterns and learn how you can change them to become more secure.

We have examples in the book. One couple moved in together. One of them was very avoidant; he had a hard time and got to the point where he was thinking about breaking up. But he was also able to say how he was having hard time letting her in, and to think about how lonely he was before and how he really longed to share his life. A transition occurred when he was able to see his role in what was going on and take step back and not feel like he was being pushed into a corner.

[I also worked with a] 40-year-old woman. She was dating and was sick of it and wanted a man and kids. She started to just say, I want to get married and have kids as soon as possible. She was able to do two things there, express that need and be authentic, which correlates very highly with satisfaction and happy relationships. A lot of people were scared off, but that way she didn’t waste her time. And the way she did it, it can come from place of strength, it doesn’t have to come from place of weakness.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.

Related Links:

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