What kind of romantic partner are you? Psychologists came up with attachment theory to better understand children's relationships with their parents, but for the past 15 years, psychiatrist, neuroscientist and Attached author Amir Levine has used it to help his patients navigate dating and marriage.
Every person is unique, of course, as is every relationship. But relationships tend to follow patterns, and within relationships, Levine believes most people fall into one of three attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, or secure. Anxious people want more from the relationship than their date or partner does. They're the ones who feel they must struggle not to call too often, not to appear too needy. An old friend of mine once described it as sitting on his sofa having tied himself up, trying to figure out how to dial the phone with his toes.
Avoidant people, on the other hand, easily feel like their relationships are too confining. They crave freedom and space. They may want to keep their options open, like an old boyfriend of mine whom I could never see on Friday nights because he had a standing date with his friends at a bar to which I was not invited.
Unfortunately, anxious and avoidant people are often drawn to each other in what can be a never-ending dance. The anxious one reaches out, the avoidant one pulls away, and each feels unsatisfied but at the same time comfortable because the experience reinforces their deeply held beliefs about relationships. The anxious believe they are doomed to a state of perpetual longing; Avoidants believe that every relationship becomes stifling sooner or later. This can go on for years, or for people's entire lives.
There's another way.
And then there are secure people. They feel comfortable giving and receiving love. They're capable of being content in a satisfying relationship--they don't eternally want more from their dates or partners, and they're not constantly afraid of losing their freedom. They're OK with sometimes being dependent on another person, and sometimes having another person depend on them. Research in North America and Europe suggests that 25 percent of the population is avoidant, 20 percent is anxious and the remaining 55 percent is secure. There's bad news, though, for anyone looking for a mate: Most secure people are already married or in a committed relationship, because they're good at it.
There's good news, too, though. Your attachment style is very deep-rooted and results from your childhood experiences and maybe even your genes. But it can change.
I once watched someone change attachment styles in an instant. I'd been secretly dating a man even though I was supposed to be in a committed relationship with a boyfriend who was in graduate school in a different state. Throughout this time, my secret lover had done everything he could think of to win me, sending me loves notes, drawing cartoons for me, cooking me lavish meals. I didn't like feeling unfaithful and dishonest. I knew I had to choose between these men, so I chose to break up with my faraway boyfriend. The moment I informed my clandestine lover that I was now all his, he transformed from anxious to avoidant. Years later he told me that when it happened, he suddenly had no idea what to do next.
Being in a relationship with a secure person can make you secure as well. This is what happens to the lawyer Miranda in the series Sex and the City, which fits the paradigm so well that Levine sometimes shows clips of it to his patients. Miranda has a one-night stand with a bartender named Steve who falls for her and becomes particularly anxious to partner with her once he learns that she's having his child. She starts out as avoidant but he responds by straightforwardly offering his love without being manipulative or clingy. That's the thing about secure people--they're very straightforward about how they feel and what they want. In time, she too becomes secure and eventually they marry.
Wondering what your own attachment style is, and your partner's? A quiz at the Attached website will help you find out. But whatever it is, you're not stuck with it and you're certainly not stuck with repeating the same unsatisfactory relationship pattern, even if you've been in one all your life. Your partner may or may not change, but you can.