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March 21, 2022

Attachment Styles: Do They Matter?

Attachment Styles: Do They Matter?

There is no dearth of relationship quizzes out there that will help you determine how you attach. But does how you were loved as a child shape how you love as an adult? Is this all bullshit? And if not, can your attachment style be changed? Eleanor takes these questions out for a spin with a few people who have thought a lot about how we attach.

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There is no dearth of relationship quizzes out there that will help you determine how you attach. But does how you were loved as a child shape how you love as an adult? Is this all bullshit? And if not, can your attachment style be changed? Eleanor takes these questions out for a spin with a few people who have thought a lot about how we attach.


Eleanor: This is Dating. I'm Eleanor Kagan. And listen, just go with me for a minute here. Okay. Imagine it's Friday night, you're at a club. The music is your favorite type of music to dance to, the floor is packed and yeah, everyone's been vaccinated and tested and boosted. And anyway, this is a fake dream scenario, so just roll with me here. Sidebar, I really miss doing this in real life. Anyway, you're at this club. You're ready to step out on the dance floor and you see three cuties dancing around you. The first person is giving you some real come hit their eyes while they shimmy and shake. And they kind of look like a snake made out of water in a hot way. The second person is giving you like the robot, but make it fashion. And the last person has their eyes closed face to the sky, arms up just vibing in their own little world. So what do you think you know about these people, just based on the way they dance. 

Hayden: We're learning how to dance with someone else. The secure person understands and, and experiences in their body both the sense of interdependence. I am both my separate person, I'm Hayden, and there's also that relationship with my partner. 

Eleanor: So Hayden is a therapist, but crucially, he also kills it on the dance floor. Especially if I Wanna Dance With Somebody by Whitney Houston is playing. He gave us this dance floor analogy as a way to explain the thing that we're actually here to talk about today, attachment theory, which is all about relationships and the bonds that we have other people.

Maybe you've heard the term attachment theory thrown around or taken an online quiz to figure out your style. Maybe you've seen it as you've swiped through apps. Maybe you already know if you're an anxious attacher or an avoidant attacher or maybe you're about to go out on a third date with the secure attacher of your dreams. Imagine if it was as easy to identify somebody else's attachment style or your own, as it was to identify whether you like how somebody shows up on the dance floor. 

Hayden: I like to think of myself as a secure person. There are some times that I'm like, look, I wanna dance by myself, that's okay. There are times where I'm like, you know, I, I really wanna dance with my best friend Alisa, and we can get down together. There's times I'm like, oh, I really wanna dance with my husband, even though he's not a dancer. Like I just wanna try that out together. There's times that we can dance as a whole group together. And wouldn't it be lovely if we all could find ways to just experience all of that.

Eleanor: So that's the deal with secure attachment, but there are also three different types of insecure attachment and we're gonna go through them one by one. The first one is avoidant attachment. 

Hayden: Folks that are avoidant. They want to be close to people, but as people come closer to them, these are people that are really concerned with maintaining their independence, sort of at all costs.

Eleanor: And then there's disorganized attachment. 

Hayden: This could be the person on the dance floor that might be butting into some other couple that's dancing, might be jumping out, dancing by themselves. It can be really difficult for this person to kind of orient to one place, one person, one thing. Do they wanna dance with someone else, do they wanna dance by themselves? So yes, it, it can feel really confusing. 

Eleanor: And the last one is anxious attachment. 

Hayden: Very preoccupied and wanting to receive messages from them and checking your phone constantly. And it's like, yes, there's excitement in the rush of, that's important to bring people together, but when it's really getting difficult to do your work or you're, you're worried about them constantly, those are kind of the, the classic kind of signs of someone that's more anxiously attached.

Eleanor: Anxious attachment has come up in our show before. You might remember Aziz, our dater from a previous episode who tended to have crushes on and seek valid validation from people who were kind of avoidant and unavailable. But he found it really hard to fall for people who genuinely liked him and actually were pretty upfront about their feelings.

Aziz: I very much resonate with a like anxious attachment style. And I like feel like I have needs in a relationship that I've been shy or like conscious about, and now I'm like, oh no, this is actually a need that like, I need to communicate. And, and I actually need to find for a healthy relationship. 

Eleanor: So there are a lot of experts on attachment theory and different people use different words for the different styles. So here, we're gonna focus on three. Secure, anxious and avoidant. I feel like I also wanna say that this is just one framework for how people show up in the world and it may be useful to you or it might not resonate at all. And that's fine. So I feel like with any of these things, take what works, leave what doesn't. But if this does resonate, figuring out your own attachment can be kind of a process, especially because you can experience different styles with different people or be sort of fluid among the different styles.

Hayden: And so it can be really difficult as you kind of graduate to a bigger dance floor with people that have had other experiences. And you're thinking, well, where do I fit in with this? 

Eleanor: I think Hayden asked a really good question. And like the more I read about attachment theory, the more questions I have.

So I called up Logan Ury. She's our resident dating coach and also a behavioral scientist. She was very patient and indulged me by answering all of my questions. 

Logan: I'm always really into talking about attachment theory. I feel like there's all these things out there that are not really based on science, like love languages. And then attachment theory is one of the ones where I'm like, yeah guys, this is is rigorous. This is real. 

Eleanor: Oh, okay. Cause that's, that's one of the things I wanted to ask you like me just being a generally skeptical person. I'm always like, is this bullshit? 

Logan: Yeah. That is a question that you should ask about a lot of things. So sometimes people will say to me, why don't we talk more about Myers Briggs in dating. It's really important that I'm an ENFP and I want people to know that. The thing about Myers Briggs, the thing about love languages is yeah, they're a convenient way for us to label ourselves. And they're sort of a shortcut to say, I care about. spending time with others or I'm extroverted or I'm conscientious, or like whatever it is, right. It's a shortcut to express ourselves. But Myers Briggs is not based on rigorous research with experiments that can be replicated. 

Eleanor: Ah.

Logan: Attachment theory is the real deal. Attachment theory is based on over 60 years of research into children's relationships with their parents. So this all dates back to this developmental psychologist named John Bowlby. And so he basically came up with this theory around how it's really important when children as a young age, how they are treated by their primary caretaker, which at that time was almost all mothers, and what sort of attachment they developed with them. Then this psychologist named Mary Ainsworth came along and she investigated how this attachment style in different children might affect them. 

Eleanor: They wound up with three different attachment styles. The secure child felt really upset when the caretaker left the room, but when the caretaker came back, that child was pretty easy to soothe. The anxiously attached child also was very upset when their caretaker left. But when the caretaker returned, they had a really hard time getting that child to calm down. And then finally with the avoidantly attached child, when the caretaker came back, the child just totally ignored them. Pretending not to be upset, even though they were. Anyway fast forward to adulthood, let's say you're dating or you're at the club trying to find a cutie. Logan tells me that the dating pool tends not to have that many secure daters because those people tend to find relationships and stay in them. So a lot of the folks out there at the club are gonna be anxious or avoidant daters. 

Logan: I wanna talk about the anxious avoidant loop, cuz I think it's super interesting.

Eleanor: Okay. The anxious avoidant loop sounds like a recipe for drama. What is that exactly? 

Logan: So think about it this way. Let's just say I'm anxiously attached, Eleanor you're avoidant attached. So how do I treat you? I'm constantly texting you, I wanna be in touch, when you go on a trip and you don't text me, I get upset. I'm constantly trying to get closer to you. 

Eleanor: Mm.

Logan: Okay, you're avoidant attached. What's your biggest fear? It's being smothered. And so what I'm doing, my vision of love is completely reinforcing your worst nightmare. So my nightmare's that you pull away. Your nightmare is that I smother you and we're basically doing that to each other. And so this is why attachment theory is so important, is that honestly, compared to all the things that I teach people, all of the things that are research based, it's one where, when people learn it, they're like, aha, this is what I've been doing my whole life. So many people have been stuck in the anxious, avoidant loop, and they just think that that's what love is. They think I go after you, you pull away and it's only when you realize, oh, there's this other option of dating a person who's securely attached that you can actually break out of it. 

Eleanor: Okay. So say somebody has been able to identify themselves as anxious or as avoidant. How does this actually apply to somebody's dating life? You know, if, if somebody knows their attachment style, what does this actually mean in the world of dating, especially if they're trying to break their habits?

Logan: Okay. So first step is just knowing what you are and identifying it and saying, I didn't choose this with, this is the way I am, then it's really, what can you do about it? So the first thing is if you are that anxiously attached style, one thing that you can do is really prevent yourself from getting into that red zone, that trigger zone, where you then start doing protest behavior. So Eleanor, let's say, you and I are dating. And I'm anxiously attached. I might say, Hey, I know you're going to a conference this weekend and you're gonna be busy. It would mean a lot to me, if we could FaceTime once a day, even if it's for five minutes, it'll just help me feel connected. And then for you, maybe you don't need to FaceTime once a day. You, you would be fine not talking for a few days, but I've let you know that this is something small that I need, that will help me stay sane and happy and feel connected to you. And so I'm being reasonable and clear with you about what I need from you to help me stay in a positive mindset while you're gone. 

Eleanor: Oh. So it's like, it all comes down to just communicating your needs clearly. 

Logan: Yeah. It's knowing your triggers. So my trigger might be when people are away and I don't hear from them, I get upset. So then I pre empt that by saying when you're away, can you text me a few times a day? And can we FaceTime at least once? 

Eleanor: Okay. So that's what to do if you're anxiously attached. What about if you're avoidantly attached? 

Logan: For the avoidant attached people, a big part of it is just understanding. You might feel yourself being turned off by someone. I'm turned off by the way you pronounce a certain word, or I wish that your teeth were straighter and then actually questioning those thoughts and saying, is this really a big deal to me? Or am I doing this as a way to push you away? Part of it is just understanding, oh, I might be feeling overly sensitive to something because I'm worried about being smothered. 

Eleanor: So again, it's just about communicating. 

Logan: Yeah. And another thing is learning how to ask for space. Let's say you and I have been hanging out on a date, extended time together from Friday night till Sunday morning, I wake up Sunday morning and I look over at you. And I think I like Eleanor, but, I just wanna spend this day by myself, instead of saying, I just can't date right now, or I wanna break up or kind of doing the dramatic pull away thing. Can you find a way to ask for space in a way that's specific to the moment, but not pulling away entirely? And so I might say to you I've really loved hanging out, but I have a bunch of errands that I need to run today, I'm forward to seeing you in the future. And so instead of kind of jumping to conclusions, like I don't like Eleanor because I want her to leave. It's just, no, I want some solo time right now. That's completely reasonable. And so I'm going to ask for that. So once again, communication, saying to someone, this is what I need right now. I need some solo time and understanding that that's not a sign, that the relationship is doomed. You just want to be by yourself for a bit. 

Eleanor: All right. So we've gone through anxiously attached and avoidantly attached. And basically what I'm hearing you say is that the thing to do is just really own whatever style you are and be like, listen, this is how my feelings manifest and then take whatever steps you need to make to actually manage those feelings.

Logan: Totally. Another thing that you can do is look for a secure partner. Because honestly, secure partners are amazing and they help you grow, they help you develop, they help you really figure out, oh, this is what it feels like when I break the anxious avoidant loop. 

Eleanor: So how does somebody do that? You know, write on your dating profile, like I am searching for a secure partner, but how does that actually break down when you're going on dates with people who might not know their own attachment style, what can somebody do to look for that secure partner? 

Logan: One of the best ways to look for a secure partner is to say, is this person upfront about who they are, what they're looking for and how they feel. So the kind of thing that a secure partner might say is. I really loved seeing you, when's the next time that I can see you? Or they send you a text message the next day saying that was such a fun date, I really like you, let's go out again. And so if you're anxiously attached and you're used to that chase, you might think, oh, this person likes me way too much. Or the fact that they like me means that they have bad taste or where's the chase. They're so boring, but no, that's the moment to make the change.

I had this client. Well, she was a friend and I also was coaching her named Vivian. Vivian was the quintessential anxiously attached person. She felt like love was about the chase. She loved to get involved with guys who would pull away. When guys would be interested in her, for example, she went on a date with a guy, she told him she was going to Seattle. He said, great. I'm gonna send you a list of things to do in Seattle. And then that turned her off because she said he was quote, pathetic and too available. And so with Vivian, I helped her identify the fact that she was anxiously attached. We talked a lot about attachment theory and she did a couple important things.

One, she learned to avoid avoidant attached guys. So when a guy would pull away, instead of being turned on and excited, she would say, oh, those are alarm bells. I don't wanna repeat this pattern. And she would actually stop it before it started. And. The other thing she did was she found a securely attached guy. Somebody who in the past, she might have said was boring. She was like, no, this is what Logan told me to look for. And she wound up with this amazing guy who was clear about what he wanted, was clear about his interest in her. And they have this beautiful relationship that I honestly don't think would've happened if she hadn't understood and owned her anxious attachment style.

Eleanor: Wow. So. She was basically able to identify the parts of her that got triggered in certain dating scenarios and kind of get past some of her like gut reactions to people. 

Logan: Yeah. It's almost like teaching somebody a secret code. 

Eleanor: So do you have any examples of a avoidantly attached person who like overcame their tendency to avoid.

Logan: I have a close friend who identifies himself as avoidant attached. And he said throughout his twenties, whenever he dated somebody, he would just focus on all of their flaws. And he would just feel like they're getting too close. I'm not gonna be able to accomplish my goals. They are smothering me. I don't have any independence, and he would just push them away. And so he had this very consistent pattern. Where he would consistently date someone, get freaked out. And at the three month mark say, I need to break up. However, at some point, he dated a woman and he tried to do that. And when he did it, she said, no, we have a good thing here. I can leave right now. I can give you some space, but we should keep dating, this feels good. You bring out a good side of me. I'm happy when I'm with you, you seem really happy. And she basically questioned him, called it out and said, no, this is a good thing. We have a connection. If you need space. Ask for it, but you don't need to go into outer space. You don't need to break up with me. And so she was securely attached. She helped him overcome his avoidant attachment and he needed that person to say, no, this pattern isn't serving you let's choose a different path.

Eleanor: So I wanna end this by going back to the club and back to the dance floor with Hayden. I'm really curious what his take is on people, changing their attachment styles and changing how they show up on dates. 

Hayden: I think it takes both the inner and the outer work of the dance floor. How do we create dance floors that are more inclusive and more open to people figuring that out. And also it takes secure dance partners, helping those who might have more disorganized, anxious, and avoidant attachment styles into kind of leading by example. In couples dancing, you have that the leader and you follow. So I, I, I definitely think it's gonna take a, a lot of different ways of being and, and doing. And maybe sometimes that means that we have to set the ambiance of the dance floor, change the, the shades, the colors, maybe it means we change the tempo of the music. Maybe we, we, we go have something that's faster. Maybe we have something that we slow down. Maybe we put a classical music, maybe it's jazz, maybe it's gospel, you know, because we're not all gonna be able to at the same beat together all the time, but, but how can we create a more capacity for all these different ways in which everyone shows up into relationship? I think that's just a lovely question that I will kind of sit with probably for the rest of my life.

Jesse: So, if you would like to be set up by us, go to There's a quick application. Tell us a little bit about yourself and we'll be in touch. This is Dating is produced by Jesse Baker and Eric Nuzum at Magnificent Noise. Our production staff includes Hiwote Getaneh, Eleanor Kagan and Taelor Hansen. We also received help from Esther Perel, Courtney Hamilton, Robert Smith, Julia Natt, julia Silbergeld, the Quarantine Love Project, Hayden Dawes, Lulu Krause, and Eva Wolchover. Original music production and sound design by Paul Schneider. Logan Ury is our consulting producer and the executive producer of This is Dating is Jesse Baker.