Sunday, January 2, 2011

The science of attachment

Valentine's season is coming (apparently). Despite never having a date on Valentine's Day, one thing I like about this time of year is that the nerdy, scientific media starts talking about the science behind attraction.

I had time to kill at the bookstore and saw that this month's Scientific American Mind has an article about attachment. The sub-headline said, "Find your attachment style and make your match." I never saw this magazine before but I had to buy it, especially after browsing the heart-themed optical illusions in the middle of the magazine.

Well, the article wasn't anything particularly new if you've taken some psychology courses about human development (which I have). Levine and Heller referred to Mary Ainsworth's descriptions of three attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant. Later research says there might be a fourth attachment style: anxious/avoidant. I learned about these styles in relation to child development (particularly infant's development), not in relation to adult interaction. So that was a new twist. Now, are there only 3ish attachment styles? Who knows? But let's just roll with this idea for now.

Secure attachment means that the people in question are comfortable with intimacy and from their secure base, go out and explore the world. They can be separate from each other and be okay though they also like being together. Anxious people desire intimacy but when they are separated from their partner, they worry a lot about whether or not their partner will be faithful, will be there when they return. Avoidant attachment means people are very independent from their partner, keeping them at a distance, and often avoid intimacy. Of course, secure attachment is probably the ideal, but theoretically, that's not everyone's style (and early experiences influence the later attachment style).

Although the theories seem to make sense, I wonder two things. First, is there an "extrovert bias" to these attachment styles? I think about someone who is introverted (like myself). Introverts aren't always "open" about how they are feeling because introverts, theoretically, process internally. A "secure" person, according to Levine and Heller, has little difficulty expressing needs and wants to his partner. Some introverts don't verbally express what they want often, and is that necessarily "bad?" Avoidant people often don't desire as much intimacy as their partners, and introverts may not be as "intimate" as others. I can see how by these definitions, an introvert can be pegged as "avoidant." So what's the difference between introversion, which is okay, and avoidant, which is not okay? Where do we draw the line between personality trait and problem? And what exactly is "intimacy?"

Similarly, I also wonder if it's possible to be a mixture of styles. Does everyone fall neatly into one of these 3 categories all the time? Is it possible to change from one style to another (or is it pretty much set in stone based on early experiences with parent-child attachment)? Are anxious people only anxious if they match with an avoidant? Can an anxious person switch to secure if they match with another anxious person or a secure person? Of course, a magazine article doesn't have room to go into all these nuances, but I wonder if the actual research did?

My impression after reading, though, is that not having a "secure" style isn't as big a problem as matching up with someone whose attachment style is dissimilar to yours. You have to know your style and what you want from a partner (and your partner should be willing to give it). This can be a bonus for introverts who, because of their introspection, probably know this about themselves already.

Geez, matching up sure is complicated!

1 comment:

  1. i love this analysis. i reckon it's definitely possible to be a mixture of styles just like how things aren't usually ever black and white. as for your impression, i think you're onto something here.