Humans tend to be creatures of habit, and dating is no exception. Certain personality traits (humor, anyone?) and physical features (we’re looking at you, bearded men of the world) can attract us again and again.
That’s all well and good…until your habits land you with an incompatible partner again and again. At that point, it’s time to re-think your ways and start saying “no” to the wrong person sooner. And by sooner, we mean in five minutes flat. The secret to this may lie in attachment theory, which according to some, can help us weed out incompatible partners, stat.
“[Attachment theory has] become wildly popular for understanding individuals and relationships,” says Claudia Brumbaugh, Ph.D., a social personality psychologist who studies attachment styles. Established in the ’80s, attachment theory is all about how our interactions with attachment figures in childhood (for most of us, our parents) greatly determine our personalities, especially when it comes to love and intimacy.
In attachment theory, two of the three main attachment styles are “anxious” and “avoidant.” (The third is “secure,” which we aren’t going to go into here.). People with an avoidant attachment style are often distant, feel threatened when their partner gets too close, and are regularly criticized for being emotionally unavailable. Dating an avoidant is no walk in the park — and that’s especially true if you have an anxious attachment style. Anxiously attached daters tend to be jealous, frequently seek validation, and are often described as clingy.
Despite being like oil and water, anxiously attached and avoidantly attached people are often intrigued by each other right away. Katherine, a 31-year-old journalist with a more anxious attachment style, can relate.“[At one time], if I met someone who was a little hard to pin down and evasive, it made me want him,” she says.
After reading “Attached,” a book on attachment theory, Katherine was able to identify her patterns. This newfound perspective conditioned her to find avoidant characteristics less attractive. “Now, if someone doesn’t respond to my texts quickly or acts cagey about their weekend plans, I’m immediately turned off,” she says.
You’re more likely to have this reaction if you can pinpoint an avoidant right off the bat. A telltale sign is dodging personal topics in favor of talking about safer topics, like their politics or workday. They also may come off as less confident. “They might talk themselves down or say something self-deprecating in the first five minutes,” says Brumbaugh.
Part of what makes this anxious-avoidant combo so dangerous is that “the expectations of an anxious person might be fulfilled by the characteristics of an avoidant person,” Brumbaugh says. “An anxiously attached person might be drawn to those characteristics in a negative way because they confirm their expectations that they’re not going to get the attention they need.” At that point, both parties find it very difficult to walk away from the relationship.
“I’m not big on grand gestures or public displays of affection,” says Piper, a 27-year-old marketing associate who displays certain avoidant tendencies. “I find it hard to say ‘I love you.’” Piper has dated anxiously attached people in the past and in her words, it was a “low-key nightmare.” “I just can’t give them what they need,” she says.
According to attachment theory, she’s right. “Anxiously attached people tend to be constantly worried that their partner might stray,” says Brumbaugh. So, they need a partner who is willing to continuously validate the relationship with their words and actions.
By far one of the most refreshing aspects of attachment theory is that it’s not about how to make it work with someone. “People want to have a catch-all way of having a good relationship with anyone, but people are different,” says Brumbaugh.
Attachment theory isn’t about self-improvement — it’s about immediately paying attention to what your date says and does in the hopes of avoiding a situation where you’re trying to change something about a person that’s just not going to change. Not everyone is going to be a match — and it’s better to know that sooner rather than later.