Sunday, September 4, 2011

Book Recommendation: Attached.

Prior to 1950, parents were told not to coddle their children for fear of making them soft. Sick children stayed in the hospital alone, allowed to see their parents only during visiting hours. The work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, the creators of attachment theory, changed America's approach to child raising. They discovered that children don't just need food, water, and warmth, they also need affection, love, and touch. When children don't get this, they development serious emotional and physical problems.

Bowlby and Ainsworth proposed that humans are endowed with an attachment system which propels them to connect with others, first with parents and later with romantic partners. The attachment system drives us to be close, and it freaks out when an attachment is threatened.

Ever have a partner fail to call you when they were supposed to and you started to get worried and develop theories ("Did they leave me?" "Did they get in an accident?" "Are they cheating?")? That is your attachment system being activated.

Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find - and Keep Love is less a book about attachment theory and more a simple to use guide on how use the theory to, well, find and keep love. It is super readable, and I recommend it to pretty much everyone who wants to create a good relationship.

However, maybe you don't want to buy this book, and instead of a few hours, you only want to spend a few minutes learning about how attachment theory can help you. Awesome, because I am going to break it down right here in this blogpost.

Before I get to it, it is important to point out that attachment theory is backed up by reams of empirical research. Therefore, this is not an ordinary self-help relationship book. It is science, baby, and so is my distillation of the book's main points:

1. "Dependency is not a bad word." This was the biggest thing I learned from this book. According to the authors, everyone in a relationship is dependent on their partner. This is not a bad thing. It is the way evolution made us. 

Like toddlers who feel empowered to explore the world around them as long as they know mommy is there, adults who feel secure in their relationship are empowered to develop their individual selves. Hence, the "dependency paradox": people are better able to be an individual in the context of a good relationship.

This flies in the face of the belief in American culture that you should not have to depend on anyone else. As a therapist, I often here from clients that they fear asking for support from their partner because they believe this makes them weak. According to Levine and Heller, the opposite is true. Asking for what you need makes it more likely you will get it or realize that you are unable to get what you need from your current relationship.

2. There are happy relationships out there. You can have one.

3. There are four types of attachment systems: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized (which the authors call anxious/avoidant and only mention briefly because it is rare.) Fifty percent of people are secure, twenty percent are anxious, twenty five percent are avoidant, and five percent are anxious/avoidant. Your type of attachment system is a product of how you were raised, your biology, and your experiences in other relationships.

Attachments are relatively stable but they can change. The authors provide a quiz to find out your own attachment type as well as one for figuring out your partner's type.

4. People with anxious attachment systems are afraid of being left more than others. They often don't speak up for what they need because they are afraid of being seen as clingy. Unfortunately, when they don't speak up for what they need, they don't get what they need, and then they actually do get clingy.

Calling your partner a million times, threatening to break up, trying to make your partner jealous - these are behaviors anxious people engage in when they feel threatened. The good news is when they feel safe, anxious people calm down and make good partners.

There are two big pieces of advice for anxious people: one don't get involved with avoidant people (more on this below) and two, communicate your needs. As an anxious person, who really need someone who is going to show up for you, otherwise your attachment system will go haywire. Therefore, be straight up about what you need to feel secure. Whatever anyone tells you, don't try to downplay your needs to try to win someone over. This strategy will backfire in the end.

If you are in a relationship with an anxious person, it is your job to make them feel secure. When you do, they will calm down. Don't try to wait for them to give you space and then give them the security they need. It works the other way around.

5. People with avoidant attachment systems fear having their independence taken away. When they don't get the space they need, they tend to put their partners down, to put up roadblocks to closeness, and to send mixed signals about what they want. According to Levine and Heller, avoidant folks are the roughest to be in relationship with, but they can learn to be close if they really want to and if they learn to communicate their space needs and these needs are met. 

People with an avoidant attachment system should not date anxious people, as anxious folks will have difficulty giving them the space they need. Avoidant people almost never date each other because, as the authors say, there is not enough glue to hold two avoidant people together.

Interestingly, twenty five percent of people are avoidant, yet they make up a greater portion of the dating pool because they tend to be single more than other types.

6. People with secure attachment systems are comfortable with closeness, communicate directly, and are generally pretty mellow in relationship. They make for the most reliable partners, and if there is a drawback it is that their stability might seem a little boring at first.

Secure people will find it easiest to date other secure people, but they can help anxiously and avoidantly attached people move toward being secure. However, anxious and avoidant folks can push secure people away from security as well, so beware.

7. Ever been in a relationship where one partner is desperately trying to get close and the other is desperately trying to get space and both are miserable? You were likely stuck in what the authors call the anxious-avoidant trap. The best way to avoid this trap is for anxious and avoidant people not to get together. Not so easy because these two types are quite attracted to each other. The authors do give guidelines for dealing with the anxious-avoidant trap if you are caught in one.

8. Everyone should try to communicate directly about their needs. Secure people seem to have a knack for this while anxious and avoidant people have a harder time being straight up about what they want. Anxious people don't want to come across as too needy and often try to play it cool, until such time that they get hurt, and then they act out or get manipulative. Avoidant people often don't recognize their needs for space and instead start to feel less attracted to their partners instead of realizing what is going on inside.

The thing about communicating your needs is that it may not get you the result you want, but it will reveal the truth. Thus, if you want to get serious with someone pretty fast and are up front about this, you may scare away some potential mates, but in so doing you will be screening out folks who would probably make you unhappy.

The strength of this book is its clarity and readability. On the flip side there is some complexity left out. Though the authors note that attachment style is stable but plastic, but don't say much about how one changes type.

I also wonder about how different relationships bring out different tendencies in us even if we do have one basic type. I for one have found myself displaying traits of all three types at different points in the same relationship. Did I change my type several times? More likely, different aspects of myself came out in response to the relationship at different times. My point is that though there are three distinct types, I think that relationship can be more nuanced than the examples provided by the authors.

Sometimes the authors seem to imply that all you need to be happy is to find yourself someone secure. Though the book does not purport to be a complete relationship book, attachment style is only part (though a very important part) of a relationship. There are a host of other factors that go into choosing a partner including mutual interests, sexual compatibility, values, and religion/spirituality, to name just a few.

All in all though, I highly recommend this book. It will help you with romantic relationships, one of the most important parts of life.