As I look at the significant problems of the larger world I’m convinced that we need more connection, not separation and autonomy. – Allan N. Schore, PhD
Today I am sitting on an airplane next to a young couple with a child of about 12 months of age. She is doing what children her age are supposed to do – exploring her surroundings and turning to both of her parents for support when she gets tired or scared. They read to her, comfort her and effectively read her cues (sometimes bantering with each other about what she needs). The parents maintain a flexible view of what her cues could mean and do their best to give her what she needs, not just wants.
This week, the general public has been commenting on the NY Times article about attachment theory. It is a great overview but unfortunately, the author penned the title all wrong. In the 1950, 1960s and into the 1970s we really did think that the attachment research meant that parents had to be perfect or a child’s life would be difficult. Many women sacrificed going to work to stay home with their children. Others, who did not have the luxury to do so, felt guilty the entire time they raised their children. The pendulum swung in the ’80s and ’90s the opposite way to the point where many people no longer believed in the importance of attachment. Now in the 2000s, attachment research has been greatly assisted by neurobiology and we have convincing evidence that #RelationshipsMatterMost for brain development but we do not need to be perfect.
“…even the secure mother is only attuned about 30 percent of the time. The key is not only the misattunement, but the interactive repair. These misattunements are common.” – Allan N. Schore, PhD
How I Came to Study Attachment Theory
While I am now a dating expert, not everyone knows I was trained as an Infant & Preschool Psychologist as well as a Forensic Psychologist. My training heavily focused not only on child development but also on attachment research and the assessment of the attachment relationship between children and their parents. I was a court appointed expert whose main job was to assess the relationship and make recommendations to the court about custody. It was always difficult for two main reasons:
- What we have known for multiple decades – since the 1970s, that there is an intergenerational transmission of attachment status. We really do parent the way we were parented and we can assess it via how we talk about the relationship.
- This all changes if there is an intervention. Attachment style can change over time with the right relationship and with the right support.
According to most people’s understanding of attachment research – the infant as described above will automatically be an emotionally secure adult. It is a gift that her parents are giving her and that her future relationship well being should be easy to obtain. According to our original research, she should have no problems dating based on her experience with adults who taught her that her emotional needs were valid. She will have great skill at regulating her emotions and be relatively free of anxiety.
Or so we thought.
Contemporary Attachment Research: It’s not what you Think it Is
Attachment research has conducted multiple longitudinal studies (the gold standard of scientific research) and has followed infants into adulthood in many studies. The research has so much to offer us in understanding why and how relationships are meaningful for our brain development, ability to regulate our emotions and the overall importance of relationships for life success. Yet, it has only been relatively recently – the past 20 years or so that we fully understand that if you receive the gift that this infant is experiencing, that does NOT mean you will automatically became an emotionally secure adult. It means that it is more likely but not a certainty. It is like putting money into the market and barring a financial crisis, predicting the future of your financial investment.
In today’s world, that financial crisis is trauma, bad experiences with all types of relationships and life circumstances can take a child off track from being an emotionally secure adult – it wouldn’t be your parents’ fault at this point. If you had the gift your parents gave you, you may weather trauma in a more resilient manner but there are so many other factors that it seems more reasonable to assume that attachment status is not determined in infancy for the rest of your life. A bad relationship certainly can throw you off track but so can exposure to terrorism, war, natural disaster, and interpersonal violence of any form.
Why Attachment Research is Important when you are Single
If you are a single, actively dating adult – you need to learn about yourself. You have probably been rude, misinterpreted someone’s actions toward you, emotionally reacted in an extreme manner, blamed all men, talked about how all women hate men, ended a relationship that could have been a great one, not given people a chance to show what they are capable of in a healthy relationship, or avoided dating all together etc… These are mindless, misattuned, and non-reflective states of mind. No wonder many people find dating horrible!
Understanding attachment and how your style interacts with others will not only help you keep your sanity but will help you earn your emotional security and show the people you date some added respect.
“Earned secure” is the term that we bestow among those adults who have done the personal growth work necessary to become emotionally secure. They have either been in therapy or coaching and perhaps both at different times. They learned to not take other people’s behavior personally and they learned to seek out relationships with other emotionally healthy people. It is much easier said than done and it takes a mindset to value relationships in general to be motivated to do the work.
Earned security also paves the way for higher levels of flexibility, resiliency, gratitude, and happiness as an adult. Those adults who had difficult pasts and do the work are often more resilient later in life and reap the benefit of having worked through difficult life events at an earlier age (e.g. loss of a parent, some type of trauma, abuse etc…). Just because you had a crappy childhood does not mean that you have to choose an equally crappy adulthood.
Why does this all REALLY matter? Approximately 35% of our population at any given time is insecure emotionally. They are either highly anxious (a trend that seems to be increasing) or avoidant of emotional connections. This trend will not disappear as trauma, bad experiences, poor early life experiences and all other kinds of bad things will always happen. Our culture is currently rift with fear and a fear based existence can make raising emotionally secure children more difficult.
How does insecurity play out in the dating world? The anxious types are constantly staring at their phones trying to process WTF is going on and the avoidants are continually falling “in love at first sight” but later (usually in a 6-8 week window) change their mind. As we get older, there will be more of these types on online dating as the emotionally secure folks felt comfortable making a decision to commit at an earlier age.
Does that mean we are doomed? Absolutely not. Anxious folks actually become less anxious over time if they interact with an emotionally secure partner. They are loyal, care about relationships are eager to put it first – qualities that can be beneficial. Avoidant types may find themselves highly successful and wait to seriously date until later in life – traits that are rewarded in our culture. Rather than promoting interdependence our culture actually supports emotional avoidance and an over reliance on independence. It should, therefore, not be surprising why so many people are avoidant and look at others who are either emotional secure or anxious as in some way, “needy.”
There is no such thing as needy – just unmet needs. – Jennifer B. Rhodes, PsyD
Just because you do not like the behavior of someone does not mean that there is something wrong with him or her. It could just be a poor fit for your emotional needs. We do not need to judge. Each person has a life history of experiences that have taught him or her whether people have been there for them or not. If you continue to nit pick, be judgmental, only date men over 6 feet, obsess over babies (without realizing that that kind of anxiety won’t be good for your future baby!), or in otherwise not respect the person who sits across the table from you, you will remain single or end up unhappy.
What Dating Should Be
Dating should be seen as a pleasurable and enjoyable experience. It should also be treated with a high level of respect and consideration. Being vulnerable and trying to meet new people is not easy. Understanding that the reason why he didn’t call back has less to do with you than him or why she seems so “needy” (it’s in response to your avoidance – duh) and being compassionate means that we all can relax and not get stuck in unhealthy dating patterns. It actually requires a high level of flexibility and mentalization – the term we use to think about someone else’s thinking and his or her intentions.
Unless you are one of the lucky ones who had great parents and never experienced hardship or any kind of trauma, you need to work for your emotional security. It is not something that someone can give you – you need to earn it. That is why therapy, coaching and cultivating a life you love is necessary for you to eventually have dating success. Effective communication, owning up to your mistakes and repairing rifts in relationships lead to happy long term relationships. It doesn’t come without work – meeting someone should be the easy part. Making it last, requires work and commitment. You can’t blame your parents for that any more. A more reflective and less reactive approach is necessary for dating success.
“…having secure attachments is not about being a perfect parent or partner but about maintaining communication to repair the inevitable rifts that occur. In the daily battering of any relationship, if free flow of communication is impaired, the relationship is, too.” – Peter Fonagy, PhD