How Attachment Styles Influence Romantic Relationships

Columbia psychiatrist’s groundbreaking book returns to the best-seller list 11 years after publication as attachment theory gains popularity on social media

Valentine's Day is a happy occasion for many, a time to show your love or feel loved. But for others, it's anything but. People in search of romance can be lonely, those in troubled relationships may feel even worse. But while finding a lasting love may not be easy, understanding the science of adult attachment could help you find the emotional intimacy you’re looking for. 

Relationship attachment styles are a hot topic these days, thanks in large part to the research of Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University. In 2010, he teamed up with longtime friend and psychologist Rachel Heller, who studied at Columbia, to write a book called Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - and Keep – Love (Penguin Press).

The authors popularized attachment theory—the idea that early emotional bonds with our caregivers impacts our future relationships—exploring three distinct attachment styles that affect the way we deal with relationship conflicts, our feelings toward sex, and our expectations of romantic intimacy.

People with anxious attachment styles tend to be insecure about their relationships, fear abandonment, and often seek validation. Those with avoidant styles have a prevailing need to feel loved but are largely emotionally unavailable in their relationships. And a securely attached person is comfortable giving and receiving love, can trust others and be trusted, and gets close to others with relative ease.

While consistently popular with readers, Attached has recently enjoyed a resurgence. Increased social media mentions and renewed interest from the press have sent sales soaring during the past few years.

“I think it’s because many who read Attached experience the scientific content as a revelation, and it’s then hard to resist not to share with others, so they too can be helped by this information,” Levine said.

Columbia Psychiatry News asked Levine how he got the idea for Attached, if we should all aspire to secure attachment styles, and whether couples with different attachment styles are doomed to fail.

You were working at a therapeutic nursery helping mothers with PTSD bond with their children. When did you realize that this research could also benefit adults engaged in romantic relationships?

I found the work at the therapeutic nursery so meaningful that I read all the suggested material for that rotation, which included textbooks about attachment. In there, I came across the information about adult attachment and  attachment styles. At the time, I happened to also be going through a breakup and the information gave me a whole new understanding of what went on in the relationship and what lead to the breakup. Adult attachment theory posits that your attachment style as an adult affects how you behave in close, romantic relationships, and indeed it cast so many things that happened in that breakup in a different light. It was an eye-opening experience.

Do any of the three adult attachment styles (anxious, avoidant, and secure) trend higher with a particular demographic or do they shatter any perceived notions we may have?

People all the time equate avoidance with men and masculinity and anxious styles with women, but that's not true at all. That's why I love science so much, because it helps dispel those types of myths. There are plenty of women who are avoidant and there are men who are anxious. And there a lot of women and men who are secure, which I think is the really good news because secure people can influence insecure people to become more secure.

Should people with anxious and avoidant styles aspire to become secure?

We can become secure, and I think that’s very promising. That capacity is one of the reasons I chose this field, which allows so much room for change and growth. There's a study that came out recently that shows that simply knowing about one’s attachment style can help people become more secure if they aspire to. It’s not about being healthy or non-healthy from an attachment perspective. It’s more about an effective or ineffective way of being in a relationship, about whether your style is working for you or isn’t.

At what stage in a romantic relationship is it OK to evaluate the attachment style of your partner?

Knowing how you and a romantic partner form attachments can be beneficial in all stages of relationships, and especially in the beginning of a relationship. Think about it as interviewing somebody for probably the most important role of your life, so you want to be in touch with all the cues and listen to see if there’s going to be good compatibility between the two of you. 

If you discover your romantic partner has an attachment style that you were not seeking or even trying to avoid, can you salvage the relationship or is it better to move on?

People who have anxious and avoidant attachment styles and get together doesn’t mean they’re not going to love each other; it doesn’t mean they can’t have very happy moments together. But it also means there’s going to be some incompatibility that they’re going to have to deal with. That’s a big part of what I do in my private practice. I try to help people align themselves better.

What impact does the dominance of digital technology—social media, texting, and messenger apps—have on our attachment styles and romantic relationships?

Social media can actually be helpful in relationships because it’s another tool of engaging or connecting or disconnecting. We feel safe through our connections with other people and through their availability. So, if we know how to use texting and social media in a way that helps the other person feel connected to us, we can use it to our advantage. It’s less awkward than before when you would have to call someone on the phone and talk. Now, you can connect in a text very quickly and maintain that connection until the next time you see or talk with them.