On a train across France, I had an earth-shaking “aha!” moment. Headphones in, audiobook on blast, a tear of solace rolled down my cheek. I was halfway through the countryside and through the book “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love.” A realization slid into my conscious mind as swiftly as the provincial vineyards beyond the train windows, altering my perspective on love forever.
If you’ve even as much as dipped a baby toe into the waters of self-help you may be familiar with the term attachment, but for those just joining us, here’s a quick synopsis: Attachment theory was brought to life by psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who observed the relationships between anxious infants and their primary caregivers. What he found was that our most formative years (usually the ages 0-4) of establishing our personalities, and needs, our dynamic with our primary caregiver can be incredibly impactful on how we develop our relational habits to others for the rest of our lives.
The theory outlines four attachment styles: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. If we have a parent or guardian who does not nurture us or whose presence we cannot depend on, we may feel that our needs are not safe and we may become anxious, avoidant, dismissive, and fearful in close relationships. If we have a parent who is able to model consistency and we feel our needs are met, this could allow us to develop a stable attachment style that would carry through our lives as we grow up and become romantically involved with others.
My “aha!” moment from earlier? It had been as such: I had been choosing romantic partners that were simply unable to hold space for my needs. It wasn’t that either of us was inherently bad, or that my needs were too many. Our attachment styles simply didn’t match. Our necessities weren’t speaking the same language.
I became an attachment style hobbyist, learning as much as I could on the subject. As I dug deeper, I realized I had fallen into the trope of the fiercely independent person. I had no skills for voicing my emotional needs for fear of being burned, or worse, labeled as needy. In Attached, the authors make a point to speak to the individualist culture we glorify in our contemporary society. The archetypes of the independent woman who needs no one but her bank account and her mace keychain, or of the dude who is seemingly above human emotions in order to keep his masculinity intact, have proven to be incredibly detrimental to not only our biology, but our relationships.
It turns out, science tells us that we are wired to pair up and create safe spaces to depend on each other for our emotional needs (this doesn’t inherently mean monogamous relationships, but that’s a conversation for a different time). And when we perpetuate this idea that you should never depend on a partner, we are actually going against our human nature.
“Your needs are valid — you may just asking the wrong person to fulfill them.”
With my newfound understanding, the pressure I had internalized that maybe I had been asking for too much and the weight of feeling like I hadn’t done enough to make my relationships work were lifted from me. Relating to others became an opportunity to use what I had learned about myself and apply it to what I was seeing in their own attachment styles. This was especially helpful when navigating dating dynamics; my ability to decipher what was right for me or not became a discipline. I was no longer letting things that did not serve me linger on. I resolved that the act of closing doors through clear communication and respectful boundaries was a way to set the precedent of what I did and didn’t want for my future relationships.
This practice soon led me to a wonderful partner, with whom I can express my needs and vice-versa without repercussion. Our secure attachment to each other comes from respect and maturity but also the work we both put into addressing our triggers, deciphering ego vs. authentic feelings, and understanding how we both relate. We ask each other how we can be of support to one another and if there is to be an expectation in our relationship, we state it verbally.
Ultimately, the goal is not only to nudge our way closer to a secure attachment style, but also to understand that wherever we are on the scale is perfectly legitimate. If you are an anxious partner and struggle with feeling like you’re too needy or asking for too much, learning what your triggers are and how to communicate them to your partner will work wonders for both of your psyches. If you feel avoidant when someone states their needs to you or if the concept of someone’s emotional dependence on you feels suffocating, finding practical ways to create safe spaces that don’t trigger your want to run for the hills could be a good place to start.
This is all to say what maybe you need to hear: your needs are valid — you may just asking the wrong person to fulfill them. If this read made you want to get started on your own Attachment Style journey, here are a few great resources to get you started: “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love“ by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, “Insecure In Love“ by Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, and “The Attachment Theory Workbook” by Annie Chen.