I Am a Border Collie – Attachment Theory Pt. 1

Grace & Bubbles by Bill Blevins (sailorbill @ Flikr)In my role as editor of RatedGRomance.com, I hear from a lot of women who ache to find a romantic heartmate. They are looking for the kind of guy who craves intimacy; a man who is super attentive – the kind of lover who seems to have a freaky hyper-sense of a woman’s emotional state; a heartmate who believes they must work hard to keep their lover’s interest and are committed to doing so; a mate so tuned into her that he lets her set the tone of the relationship.

When asked, these same women probably would tell you that they don’t want a man who plays games to get attention; a guy hypersensitive to even the possibility of rejection; someone who clearly has the ability to be “needy.”

I am that guy – both of them – or at least I have the potential to be and I never truly understood why until I started exploring the field of attachment theory.

Attachment theory traces its roots back to researcher John Bowlby who posited that we’ve all been programmed “to single out a few specific individuals in our lives and make them precious to us” and that “from a biological perspective … dependency is a fact; it is not a choice or a preference.”

For me, this was a big “duh.” However, it is actually a very counter-cultural notion as it puts the theory squarely at odds with the codependency movement and many other popular self-help approaches to relationships. In their book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love, Dr. Amir Levine and co-author Rachel Heller summarize this by pointing out most current self-help works encourage us to “ ‘keep the focus on yourself,’ and stay on an even keel. If you can’t do that, there might be something wrong with you. You might be too enmeshed with the other person, or “codependent,” and you must learn to set better “boundaries.” ”

Levine and Heller further argue that research in the field of attachment theory tells us that this one-sided, solo approach to relationship success is deeply flawed. Instead, they point out that the research shows that it is the quality of our attachments that is at the root of our happiness and relationship success. “Getting attached means that our brain becomes wired to seek the support of our partner by ensuring their psychological and physical proximity.” We need each other. “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.” Ironically, this means, “If you want to take the road to independence and happiness, first find the right person to depend on.”

If, like me, you grew up with marriage described as “two becoming one flesh,” the notion that we are wired this way is not really news. However, what I didn’t know before reading Attached was that, not only are were designed to be attached to a few key others, we are also predisposed to be attached in one of three major ways: “Secure [~ 50%], Anxious [~20%], and Avoidant [~25%]. Basically, secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back; avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness.” In Attached, these attachment styles are presented as neither good nor bad, but rather that they just are.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but when describing the concept to others, I’ve been using the analogy of the “attachment” dogs. Imagine three dogs in the backyard that find the door to the house has been shut on them. The “secure” Labrador lays down at the door and patiently waits to be let in. The “anxious” Border Collie is hyper-vigilant, notices the door closing before it is even all the way shut, runs at it and barks to be let in. Once let in, it calms back down in happy contentment at the feet of its attachment figure. The “avoidant” Pomeranian sees the closed door, has an epiphany and says to itself “I didn’t want all that attention anyway. Why should only cats be free spirits,” and escapes by digging under the fence. Each dog is just behaving according to its nature.

It turns out that I am that Border Collie – hyper-vigilant, loyal, high strung. As described in my intro, I am overtly romantic & attentive but it turns out I also have the potential to be very needy. However, given that I am surrounded by so many “secure” people and I am married to an amazing secure woman, I didn’t really know that I was “anxious” until very recently. As the authors state, “Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs.” Protected in my “secure” bubble, I had no idea I even had a needy side.

However, it turns out problems can arise when people with different attachment styles interact. In my metaphor above, imagine what would happen if the “Anxious” Border Collie tried to maintain its attachment to the avoidant Pomeranian by herding it and pulling at its coat to keep it in the yard. You can just imagine the fur flying. In the book, this exact phenomenon is described in the chapter called “The Anxious-Avoidant Trap” and sadly, it described to the letter a relationship implosion I experienced with an “avoidant” friend. The more I tried to mend the relationship and seek out face-time to resolve things I perceived as problems, the more my friend distanced. The cycle spun out of control and ate at my soul. In the end, we parted ways. My friend couldn’t handle my neediness; I couldn’t handle the perceived shunning. Had I read the book earlier, I could have identified the avoidant behavior, made the decision to part ways much sooner or (more likely) could have prepared myself to “settle” for a more distant, acquaintance level relationship without inciting all the drama.

As I read through Attached, I felt validated and understood. Knowing myself as a textbook “anxious” helped me understand and embrace the good parts of my insecure attachment style while leaving me with the understanding of myself I needed to avoid future “drama.”

Reading the book ignited my passion for relationship science and, specifically, attachment theory. My key “take-aways:”

  1. Attachment is a programmed human need as real as hunger.
  2. There are three main attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant and I am definitely an “anxious.”
  3. While not outright said, I inferred that that each of us is genetically predisposed to one of the three attachment styles. Like having long arms, this is neither good nor bad but does have implications for how we deal with others and the skills we must learn.

That’s what I got from the book. However, upon exploring more of the primary research from the field, I discovered things aren’t necessarily that cut and dried. In fact, there are attachment researchers who would definitely take exception to one of those points; some, even two.

I’ll talk about those points of view in more depth in a future blog post.

(Note: Much of the information in this post initially appeared in my previous review of the book Attached. The original article and a follow-up interview with the authors can be found at http://ratedgromance.com/2011/03/27/attached/).