Don't Be So Attached to Attachment Theory

Are you anxious, avoidant, or hoodwinked by shaky science?

Woman hiding under the blanket, chatting and surfing the internet with smart phone at late night on ...
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Danielle Carr
Why Won't They Text Back

It requires no special insight to conclude that they fuck you up, your mom and dad. Still, attachment theory is having a new moment, laundering the observation through its Duplo-sized conceptual vocabulary. The 2010 hit Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, by Amir Levin and Rachel Heller, has climbed back on the best-seller list, accompanied by a slew of related articles. A recent piece in the New York Times noted a “hockey-stick-like surge in sales” of the book during the last year, which the author attributed to a Tik-Tok trend cycle, and that people in lockdown had more time on their hands to consider their emotional lives. Attachment theory now seems to be the framework through which the millennial women and men who mention their therapist in their Tinder bio apprehend their romantic lives.

Attachment theory was first formulated by the British psychologist John Bowlby in 1958. As multiple critics within the discipline have noted, the theory is less a single system than an archipelago of categories built on his original work. Bowlby was interested in how an infant’s relationship with its mother shaped its subsequent approach to the world, and his breakout study of 40 delinquent boys in a juvenile prison attributed their dysfunction not to social factors like class, but to a deficient attachment with their mothers during infancy. Bowlby, in collaboration with American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth, observed dozens of mother-infant pairs — many of which were unreplicated studies — and elaborated the three major types of attachment: anxious, avoidant, and secure. The psychologists’ followers continued to add categories, including “anxious avoidant” and “disorganized,” with each subsequent generation of attachment theory psychologists adding new hybrid categories.

The first use of attachment theory to explain romantic relationships came via a 1987 paper by then-University of Denver psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Sharer. Their turn to romance was part of an attempt by attachment theorists more generally to expand the system to explain tenuously plausible social conditions, including employment and incarceration. But while blaming larger social problems on mother-infant interactions was dubious to anyone but the most enthusiastic believers, romance-themed attachment theory seemed more saleable. In the early 2000s, multiple researchers noted that the revived field should now be called “Modern Attachment Theory” or “Contemporary Attachment Theory” to reflect the drift from Bowlby’s original work to romance and intimate relationships. This was the context in which neuroscientist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel Heller wrote Attached, which went on to sell in record numbers.

Needless to say, the academic debate about the validity of attachment theory has been minimized in its popularization. Several studies have found that an individual’s attachment style with romantic partners is not congruent with their attachment style with their parents, a finding consistent with the many other studies that suggest people have different attachment styles in different relationships. The idea that all relationships can be explained through a set of expanding and compounded attachment categories was beginning to raise eyebrows in the research community by 2003.

As one critic noted in a 2003 special issue of the Journal of Developmental Psychology devoted to the attachment theory debate, “In view of the importance of the classification system, it is surprising that attachment theorists have paid so little attention to whether these categories represent a true taxonomy or a mere measurement convention. It is also surprising that there has been so little discussion of mechanisms that might produce truly distinct patterns of attachment.” Put more simply, the problem is that attachment theory’s categories were derived by observing some mother-kid pairs, and just kind of riffing. This has not stopped attachment theory aficionados from using these categories like a blunt-edged ax to whack mightily at the core mysteries of the relations between human beings.

Love problems are such a universal part of the human experience that they have occupied the better part of artistic expression for the last several centuries. Undaunted, attachment theory casts its phrenological eye on the vast sweep of human history and concludes that all bad romance is caused by one of two types of insecure attachment: the anxiouses and the avoidants. The avoidants were neglected by their parents, leaving them to conclude that they can meet their own emotional needs better than anyone else, and tend to feel stifled by attempts at connection.

The anxiouses got mixed messages from their caregivers, who sometimes responded positively and sometimes pushed them away, leaving the young anxiouses distraught that any fulfilling relationship will evaporate. They tend to fixate on a relationship, convinced that any brief lull in connection heralds catastrophe; they are the wounded Tinder warriors and tortured triple-texters of the dating universe. Such is the doomed cast of characters in the bedroom farce of attachment theory, with guest appearances by the “anxious-avoidants” (they can’t make up their mind!) and minor cameos from the “disorganizeds” (who have actual trauma as opposed to the normal kind.) If this sounds grim, the prognosis is worse: the anxiouses and avoidants are destined to attract each other, each reinforcing the others’ worst instincts about human relations. The anxiouses are forever pissing off the avoidants with their demands for attention, and the avoidants are perpetually seducing the anxiouses with an unavailability that only confirms the anxiouses’ core belief that anyone worth loving would find them vaguely annoying.

(Of course, there’s also the “securely attached,” children whose parents consistently gave them love and attention. If attachment theory is to be believed, the secures are barely fucked up at all. When it comes to the secures, one is left asking the same question I have about the “reconstructed Stalinists” — has anyone ever met one? Where are they?)

The problem is that attachment theory’s categories were derived by observing some mother-kid pairs, and just kind of riffing.

Attachment theory enthusiasts will likely find the exposition above reductive and oversimplified, to which I would respond, Have you heard yourselves? It should raise a few questions that, if the comments on attachment theory Tik-Tok videos and Instagram hashtags are any guide, the majority of the theory’s aficionados are — it cries for acknowledgement — self-diagnosed anxiouses who found out about attachment theory in the first place because they were anxiety-googling why their crush isn’t texting them back; presumably the avoidants are too busy doing whatever it is they do instead to spend time learning about their “dysfunction.” No surprise, either, that the anxiouses are attachment theory’s most fervid proponents. What could be more appealing than a theory that claims that the person leaving you on read is suffering from an indelible psychic wound at the core of their ability to relate to the world? “Guess who’s the fucked up one now?” the anxiouses crow, brandishing a screenshot of an Instagram infographic.

It all raises the glaring question: If attachment theory were fake, how would we know? It’s not only the fact that most of attachment theory’s “knowledge community” are auto-didacts fervently reinforcing each others’ analyses that should trigger alarm bells. What are the odds that the vast majority of heterosexuals would sort so neatly into what look like gender-coded slots — the women frantic for explanations for their romantic woes self-identifying as “anxious” and slapping the “avoidant” label on guys who seem to be just not that into them? Does this remind you of anything? Targeted Individuals Reddit forums, perhaps, among other notable instances of Group Think elevated to the level of Group Cope? The whole thing smacks of gender.

While less soothing, the truth about contemporary dating is very simple: It’s the libidinal economy, stupid. After all, everyone is anxious about a relationship where they like the other person more than the other person likes them back, and avoidant about relationships where they like them less. Add to the mix the fact that straight women in the attachment-pilled age range are entering a weakened position as their sexual value begins to drop throughout their 30s, and it’s clear why the girls have got to strategize more than the men. The mental energy this maneuvering requires often means that the woman doesn’t take the time to ask herself whether she likes the guy that much in the first place — after all, she must be anxious if she’s spending this much time thinking about it. Just like that, she’s psy-opped herself into believing her own game.

And let’s cut her some slack. In terms of reducing cognitive dissonance, falling for your own con can be less disgusting than looking straight at the ruthless stock market logic of the sexual economy increasingly mediated by apps. But more helpful than attachment theory’s typology might be the insight that the anxiouses are gaslighting themselves into eroding their own negotiating position in a new relationship. Self worth can be faked as easily as anything else in an economy where value, social or financial, bears an increasingly tenuous relationship to “reality.” At the end of the day, the libidinal economy is just as prone to panicked valuations as crypto. If someone seems too eager, who wouldn’t suspect that it signals a faulty valuation? While these dynamics are intensified by the ubiquity of dating apps in urban cities, they’re far from new, intensifying the same old logic of the sexual economy that has rarely given women the upper hand.

The billboard-sized implication here is that attachment theory is a way to describe the games people play with each other to get what they want, and not even a particularly apt one for explaining the dynamics it purports to describe on its own terms. At the end of the day, isn’t it the anxiouses who are the real avoidants, since they keep picking love objects who are certain to reject them? Wouldn’t this indicate that the real avoidant is not the indifferent crush, but the “anxious” who not only doesn’t want intimacy, but has to locate the cause of this lack of externally? What if, in a god-tier self-own, the anxiouses are in fact getting exactly what they want — to blame someone else for their fear of being seen, or maybe to engage in the weird but existentially noble hobby of being in unrequited love?

But of course, to those tortured by uncertainty, any explanation, however simple, comes as a balm. Seen in this way, certainly, attachment theory offers the consolations of the heuristic. This is true of almost any Grand Theory of Everything that explains the unknowable — in this case, the interiority of the other — using a few rough-hewn concepts. Other examples that spring so immediately to mind that ignoring them requires active cognitive suppression include astrology, early modern witchcraft trials, structuralism, Myers-Briggs, and men at their dude’s night poker game complaining that their wives are “crazy.” The problem is that you get what you pay for, analytically. While it may be comforting to make sense of the world and others’ motivations by resorting to immutable identities to provide a causal deus ex machina for complexity, the danger is that this tends to spit out answers that only confirm your priors. This type of thinking feels good to exactly the same extent that it buffers you from the terrifying unknowability of reality.

There’s no escaping that love is going to hurt. Using oversized labels to retcon why someone isn’t giving you what you need may provide a temporary anesthetic, but also strips the inevitable pain of the richness that makes love worth suffering through at all. The best advice? Act normal, even if you don’t feel like it. Who knows if true love will indeed find you in the end, but it certainly boosts your chances if you can pull off functional optimism. It helps to remember that everyone hates themselves, at least a little bit, and the more you can refrain from projecting that hatred onto the world the less annoying you’ll be. In the meantime, the best we can all do is endure each others’ grating tendencies with as much grace as we can muster, even as they endure ours, while urging our friends to refrain from acting too visibly insane.

Danielle Carr is a writer in Manhattan.