OTHER TOPICS
February 21, 2011

Attached

Amir Levine, M.D., and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A.

attached Editor's Note
Valentine's Day reminds us how important relationships are in our lives. Some days we may be tempted to believe they are more trouble than they are worth. Still, relationships bring joy and satisfaction and may even make us healthier. We are wired to desire social contact.

Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love by Amir Levine, M.D., a neuroscientist and psychiatrist and Rachel Heller, M.A., a social and organizational psychologist, will help you understand this very personal subject and the emotional responses we all have that arise from our feelings about attachment to others.

Along the way you may discover that much of what you have experienced in relationships is not just about you, it's about your attachment style and how it interacts with others' attachment styles.

Research has found there are basically three attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment, enjoyed by roughly half of the population describes those who are warm and loving and find it relatively easy to offer others a safe port in the storms of life.
  • Anxious attachment, according to Levine and Heller, characterizes roughly 21% of people. These people want to be very close to their partners and find it relatively easy to be intimate, but they often live in fear that their loved one doesn't love them enough.
  • Finally, an avoidant attachment style characterizes those people (25%) who feel an intense need to maintain their independence. Even though they may want to be in a relationship, they also need to keep their partner's at a safe distance.

If you are single and looking for the right partner, knowing what your attachment style is and finding a person whose style is a comfortable match with yours can help you form better relationships. If you are in a relationship, understanding attachment can help you understand the dynamics of that relationship better.

Feelings of attachment are related our ideas about dependency. In the following two excerpts Levine and Heller explore the idea of dependency.

Chapter 2
Dependency Is Not a Bad Word

A few years ago, on a TV reality show that features couples who race against each other around the world and perform challenging tasks, Karen and Tim were the show’s dream couple: beautiful, sexy, smart, and successful. In the face of the various challenges they encountered, intimate details about their relationship emerged: Karen wanted to get married but Tim was reluctant. He valued his independence and she wanted to get closer. At certain high-pressure moments during the race and often after an argument, Karen needed Tim to hold her hand. Tim was hesitant to do so; it felt too close, and besides, he didn’t want to succumb to her every whim.

By the last show Tim and Karen were leading the race. They almost won the big cash prize, but at the finish line they were beaten. When they were interviewed for the season finale, they were asked if in retrospect they’d do anything differently. Karen said: "I think we lost because I was too needy. Looking back I see that my behavior was a bit much. Many times I needed Tim to hold my hand during the race. I don’t know why it was so important to me. But I’ve learned a lesson from that and I’ve decided that I don’t need to be that way anymore. Why did I need to hold his hand so much? That was silly. I should have just kept my cool without needing this gesture from him." Tim, for his part, said very little: "The race in no way resembled real life. It was the most intense experience I have ever had. During the race we didn’t even have time to be angry with each other. We just dashed from one task to the next."

Both Karen and Tim neglected to mention an important fact: Tim got cold feet before a joint bungee-jump challenge and almost quit the race. Despite Karen’s encouragement and reassurance that she too would be jumping with him, he just wouldn’t do it. It reached the point that he took off all his gear and started walking away. Finally, he mustered the courage to take the challenge after all. Because of that particular hesitation they lost their lead. Adult attachment theory teaches us that Karen’s basic assumption, that she can and should control her emotional needs and soothe herself in the face of stress, is simply wrong. She assumed the problem was that she is too needy. Research findings support the exact opposite. Getting attached means that our brain becomes wired to seek the support of our partner by ensuring the partner’s psychological and physical proximity. If our partner fails to reassure us, we are programmed to continue our attempts to achieve closeness until the partner does. If Karen and Tim understood this, she would not feel ashamed of needing to hold his hand during the stress of a nationally televised race. For his part, Tim would have known that the simple gesture of holding Karen’s hand could give them the extra edge they needed to win. Indeed, if he knew that by responding to her need early on, he would have had to devote less time to "putting out fires" caused by her compounded distress later—he might have been inclined to hold her hand when he noticed that she was starting to get anxious, instead of waiting until she demanded it. What’s more, if Tim was able to accept Karen’s support more readily, he would probably have bungee jumped sooner.

Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs. When their emotional needs are met, and the earlier the better, they usually turn their attention outward. This is sometimes referred to in attachment literature as the "dependency paradox": The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become. Karen and Tim were unaware of how to best use their emotional bond to their advantage in the race...

Finding The Right Person To Depend On

The question is, what happens when the person we rely on most – and in fact depend on emotionally and physically – doesn’t fulfill his or her attachment role? After all, our brain assigns our partner the task of being our secure base, the person we use as an emotional anchor and a safe haven, the one we turn to in time of need. We are programmed to seek their emotional availability. But what if they aren’t consistently available? In the Coan MRI experiment, we saw that physical contact with a spouse can help reduce anxiety in a stressful situation, and we also learned that those who reported the highest satisfaction levels in their relationship benefited most from spousal support.

Other experiments have produced even more far-reaching results. Brian Baker, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Toronto, studies psychiatric aspects of heart disease and hypertension and, in particular, the way in which marital discord and job strain affect blood pressure. In one of his studies, Dr. Baker found that if you have a mild form of high blood pressure, being in a satisfying marriage is good for you; spending time in the presence of your partner actually benefits you by lowering your blood pressure to healthier levels. If, on the other hand, you are not satisfied with your marriage, contact with your partner will actually raise your blood pressure, which will remain elevated as long as you are in physical proximity! The implications of this study are profound: When our partner is unable to meet our basic attachment needs, we experience a chronic sense of disquiet and tension that leaves us more exposed to various ailments. Not only is our emotional wellbeing sacrificed when we are in a romantic partnership with someone who doesn’t provide a secure base, but so is our physical health.

It seems, then, that our partners powerfully affect our ability to thrive in the world. There is no way around that. Not only do they influence how we feel about ourselves but also the degree to which we believe in ourselves and whether we will attempt to achieve our hopes and dreams. Having a partner who fulfills our intrinsic attachment needs and feels comfortable acting as a secure base and safe haven can help us remain emotionally and physically healthier and live longer. Having a partner who is inconsistently available or supportive can be a truly demoralizing and debilitating experience that can literally stunt our growth and stymie our health. The rest of the book is about how to go about finding a partner who can become your secure base, becoming that kind of partner yourself, and helping your existing partner take on this life-altering role.

From the book, Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Fine – And Keep – Love. Copyright ©2010 by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. Reprinted courtesy of Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin Publishers.

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