My first boyfriend broke up with me three weeks before my college graduation. We’d only dated for five months, but with him I experienced a kind of love that made me feel like the quirky, desirable female lead in every indie movie I’d ever seen. The love affair was short-lived yet significant, and its abrupt ending took a toll on my young heart. As the dumpee, I assumed it was all my fault and began obsessively questioning my own behavior: Was I was too clingy? Too obsessive? Too jealous? Unfortunately, no amount of overthinking could undo the breakup; I was spiraling.
After two weeks of crying nightly to Frank Ocean, I took to Google to seek out the sort of solace only the internet can provide. Tons of corny breakup articles later, I stumbled upon a piece about attachment theory — a developmental concept in psychology, formulated by John Bowlby, that focuses on the way a child’s relationship with their parents during infancy informs the child’s future long-term relationships — especially romantic ones.
Reading about attachment theory, which categorizes people into four “attachment styles,” and learning to examine my relationship through a psychological lens turned out to be a lot more constructive than beating myself up. In fact, it jump-started the process of healing. I now consider myself something of an attachment theory evangelist, bringing what I hope is previously untapped wisdom to my friends and loved ones, whether they asked for it or not. If I’ve sufficiently piqued your interest, a primer for you below.
People who demonstrate a secure attachment style are more than likely to find themselves in happy, healthy and honest relationships in which there is much room for growth. This attachment type is often observed in those who, as kids, were allowed to freely explore the world and had positive relationships with parental figures. These people are often extremely supportive and trusting of their romantic partners, making them great candidates for open relationships.
Are you unfettered by the thought of being non-monogamous? Would you be supportive of your partner if they wanted to explore their sexuality? Do you feel confident in your partner’s love for you, even when they’re far away or not paying attention to you? Securely attached people generally adapt to changes in relationships with grace. If you rarely experience jealousy or would support and care for your partner even if they decided to move away for a new job, then you are probably securely attached.
There are two types of avoidant attachment. The first, dismissive-avoidant, describes those who always seem to need “space” in relationships. This is not because they don’t desire closeness with their romantic partners, however. Research has shown that people who develop dismissive behaviors learn how to suppress their need for closeness at an early age — often as a result of not receiving the care and attention they desire. Dismissive-avoidant people learn to be self-sufficient and deny themselves the need for romantic love, keeping their partners at arm’s length so as to avoid the possibility of rejection.
If you became autonomous very early on in childhood, this could be you. Do you find comfort in keeping romantic partners in the dark regarding intimate details of your life? Do you feel maxed out by the amount of intimacy involved with familial and platonic relationships, leaving less room for romantic intimacy? Those with dismissive-avoidant attachment style often don’t see the value in getting too close with romantic partners. If difficulty around “imagining a future with someone” is a recurring issue for you, you might be the dismissive-avoidant type.
The fearful-avoidant lover, on the other hand, is fearful of both intimacy and distance. Like the dismissive-avoidant, the fearful-avoidant has learned to suppress their need for intimacy. However, unlike the dismissive, who suppresses as a defense mechanism, the fearful suppresses out of fear. Somewhat paradoxically, however, too much distance can also generate fear of abandonment. There is no safe place for the fearful-avoidant — if they get too close to their lover, they’re afraid. If they stray too far from their lover, they’re afraid.
For fearful-avoidants, even a simple fling can cause a severe case of emotional whiplash. Are you fearful of getting too close to new relationship prospects, yet worried that pulling away will scare them off? Do you struggle with commitment issues and clinginess? Fearful-avoidants often have complicated histories with love, in which neither intimacy nor aloneness have produced positive outcomes. If the idea of love feels like a double-edged sword in this sense, there’s a good chance your attachment style is fearful-avoidant.
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment
Lastly, there’s the anxious-preoccupied attachment style. People who demonstrate this style are perpetually anxious that their partners are going to leave them. These people more than likely received inconsistent intimacy from their parents as infants. In other words: They have trust issues. Anxious-preoccupied folks have a fear of abandonment that is never truly assuaged. They’re constantly seeking validation from their lovers, not necessarily because they love them, but because they’re emotionally hungry for affection.
If you find yourself in a perpetual state of anxiety about your relationship, this might be you. Do you constantly fear that your partner will leave you? Do you jump to drastic conclusions about why they don’t respond to texts or a phone calls — even on your best days? Often, people demonstrating anxious-preoccupied attachment act on their anxiety, rather than genuine love. If you find yourself with an emotional hunger that is rarely satisfied, you might have anxious-preoccupied attachment.
Of course, these types were created to explore a spectrum; as Psychology Today points out: “Psychological labels are like signposts, artifacts meant to guide our understanding of how a person generally is and how she may act in the future.” It could be that you are a combination of types, or express different types with different people, or grow out of a type as you age and change. The key to attachment theory, for me, has been to use it as a tool for examining my own behavior, and recognizing how my emotions during a given moment might be informed by my past more so than the situation in front of me.
As a self-diagnosed anxious-preoccupied type, this new way of thinking was self-revealing in some really humbling but ultimately illuminating ways. Having a better understanding of why I’m feeling the way I do makes me feel better equipped to communicate my needs with romantic partners in the future. Instead of repeating old patterns, I can take steps towards loving more healthily. What type are you? Meet me in the comments if you want to share.
Celeste is a writer and photographer living in Los Angeles. You can follow her here.
Illustration by Emily Zirimis.