Last year, Tara, 27, an account manager from Chicago, thought she had found a near-perfect match on the dating app Hinge. “The [first] date was a marathon,” Tara says. “We got dinner at this sushi place, and we were having a great time.” Her date suggested they head to a romantic spot for drinks, and then to an 11 p.m. movie.
Tara is usually not one to stay out late on a work night—it’s a “rare” occurrence, she says. But since the world of online dating can feel somewhat like a dumpster fire, she made an exception for a romantic start that seemed so promising.
When the date was finally over, Tara’s match proceeded to text and call her regularly. For the next two months, they had a somewhat standard Internet-dating courtship of weekly dates: dinners, drinks, Netflix, the usual. But things quickly devolved when Tara’s parents came to town for a visit. Her new boyfriend was adamant about meeting them. “He kind of weaseled his way into an invite,” she says. What should have been an exciting, intimacy-enhancing milestone in a new couple’s budding relationship quickly devolved into a big, stressful mess.
According to Tara, a “switched flipped” that spring morning, as his initial strong pursuit turned into a total shutdown. “He was a total asshole to my parents and sister, and would barely make conversation,” she says. “I was so mad—and then he tried to ghost after that. … He told me he’d actually not liked me for a while, and had wanted to call it off.”
At the time, she doubted this was true; all of it felt too sudden. But even as Tara was hurt, she wasn’t totally shocked. She had gotten used to relationships ending this way: men going from “lovey-dovey” to self-destructive in a literal minute. “Lots of guys love to talk about how they ‘see a future’ and allude to things like meeting the family and traveling together, when in the end, it becomes clear that they had no intention of doing so or get scared off,” Tara says.
As she relaunched her dating search, Tara began to wonder—like many single people do— just what exactly was going on.
According to the laws of attachment theory, Tara and her ex may have had clashing attachment styles. Relationship experts would call Tara’s former flame an avoidant attacher—not comfortable pursuing a relationship as it progresses to a deeper stage. These types are often serial ghosters, the faders who return, the singles who crave autonomy regardless of whom they’re dating. Tara, on the other hand, has tested as an anxious attacher. She desires a relationship in which intimacy is high, emotions are openly expressed, and vulnerability is met with closeness. You can probably see where the tension lies.
Attachment theory may play a significant role in a lot of relationship woes. In the 1950s, psychologist John Bowlby was the first to explain how humans look to form secure attachments with a few significant figures over the course of their lifetimes. Think about it like this: If someone cares for you and has your back, you are more likely to survive and pass your genes to offspring.
You can see the remnants of attachment theory in everyday life. It starts in early childhood, when you’re dependent on a caregiver for all your physical and emotional needs. If the relationship is reliable and kind, a child is more likely to develop into a secure adult. If the caregiver is erratic or unable to meet the child’s needs, a child may be indifferent to their attachment figure (avoidant), or they will desperately attempt to reestablish contact with their caregiver with attention-seeking behaviors like crying or screaming (anxious).
In romantic relationships, the attachment styles transfer from caretaker to partner. A secure attacher will feel comfortable in relationships, forming and nurturing bonds with relative ease; they’ll provide reassurance of their interest, respond to communication in a timely manner, plan thoughtful time together, and generally approach partners with compassion and kindness. An anxious attacher will worry about their partner’s investment and try to remain close to them; they might communicate with partners a lot to avoid overthinking, need more reassurance from partners than most, and misread their partners’ cues as signs of disinterest. Avoidants will attempt to maintain their independence, though often it may seem like they want something more; they’ll be the classic hot-and-cold partner, who’s all in one day and totally gone the next.
And when all of these people end up wading the dating pool together, without any awareness of their own or anyone else’s attachment style, there can be a lot of chaos and confusion about why relationships play out the way they do.
Kayla, a 27-year-old Pasadena, California, resident, has been single for seven years, and she’s what experts would call an anxious attacher. She’s tried online dating, has met a bunch of prospects, and yet nothing has stuck. In her experience, everyone just seems to want to hook up. “I’ve constantly said to my friends that ‘all the good ones are taken,’ because I feel like they genuinely are,” she says.
Kayla’s parents divorced when she was a baby, and her mom had full custody, meaning she was separated from her primary caregiver every other weekend or so when she was a child. “And my parents did not get along at all when I was little,” she says. “I remember them arguing when my dad would come to pick us up, or sometimes he wouldn’t show up at all, and then my mom would get really mad.” Because of the nature of her parents’ custody arrangement and their volatile relationship, Kayla’s primary caregivers were not always fully available to her. And by the laws of attachment theory, this history may be potentially impacting her love life as an adult.
Researchers have concluded that attachment behaviors in childhood are mimicked in adulthood with romantic partners—and many are totally unaware of it. If you’re a secure attacher, you feel confident in relationships and form them easily. If you are an avoidant attacher, intimacy makes you feel uncomfortable and attachment makes you feel weak, so you are protective of your independence. If you are an anxious attacher, you are preoccupied with your partner’s feelings, needing ample attention and consistency to feel safe in relationships.
Though insecure women are more likely to report anxiety and insecure men are more likely to report avoidance, there are still plenty of men who worry and overanalyze. Vincent, 32, an anxious attacher from Los Angeles, feels this need for positive affirmation intensely. He describes two caregivers who were “more comfortable as psychologists than parents” (their chosen career paths) and didn’t always provide him with the warm stability he craved growing up. Now, in dating, he seemingly chooses women who keep him at a cool distance and often sabotages relationships at the slightest hint of emotional unavailability—like if a dating prospect is busy or makes a comment that’s hard to interpret. “The emotional intimacy dimension of my relationships has always been challenging. I find myself pushing an outcome, even if it’s negative,” Vincent says. “If I create an answer for myself, at least it relieves the anxiety.” But, of course, it doesn’t relieve the desire for a stable partner.
Kayla’s and Vincent’s unsuccessful romances are not for lack of effort; they’ve both been trying hard to find their long-term partners. They’ve just been securing instead an abundance of incompatible matches.
Why there are so many skittish, perpetually single people on dating apps might come down to three simple reasons, according to the authors of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. Exploring how the theory applies in the early stages of relationships, Amir Levine, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, and Rachel S. F. Heller explain.
1. Avoidant attachers tend to end their relationships more quickly and cycle back into the dating pool.
2. Secure attachers, who are just more than 50 percent of the normal population, tend to date efficiently and take themselves out of the dating pool; when they find someone they’re happy with, they commit and build a relationship.
3. Avoidants don’t date other avoidants, research has found, because they don’t have enough “emotional glue” keeping their relationships together; they are too independent for a relationship with each other.
So what does that mean? “When you meet someone new, the probability that they have an avoidant attachment style is high—much higher than their relative size in the population—25 percent,” write the Attached authors. “Not only are they recycled back into the dating pool more quickly, but they are not dating one another (at least not for long).” In fact, they’re more likely to be calling up anxious attachers.
Phillip, 35, from Dallas, feels that reality. He’s tired of the hookup-seeking and one-off encounters on gay dating apps like Grindr and Chappy. “At this point in my life, I’m looking for a partnership—someone independent with their own goals and ambitions,” explains Phillip. Still, he keeps falling for unavailable men. Recounting his most recent flame, Phillip says it fizzled after he put himself out there and the guy he was seeing remained aloof—wholly focused on discovering what he wanted in his career, and ultimately distancing himself. “I attach quickly,” Phillip admits, recalling the signs of avoidance he ignored in retrospect. “Now, I’m like, ‘I need to be 100 percent sure you’re fully interested before this is a go—but, of course, I say that, and then I turn to mush again.”
It doesn’t help that the avenues for avoiding intimacy have increased dramatically with technology. Avoidant-type daters have more mechanisms than ever to connect (and then dodge) prospects, with apps like Tinder, while anxious types’ abandonment fears flare up with each new ghosting episode over text message. That said, Levine says understanding attachment theory, and using its principles while dating, can be “enormously helpful”—especially if you keep winding up in the super-common “anxious-avoidant trap.”
Levine says a lot of dating advice will tell you to establish boundaries: Don’t be needy. Play hard to get. Make the other person chase you to convey interest. All of these behaviors draw up walls, which runs counter to attachment theory. “There is so much advice out there, and a lot of it can be harmful,” he says. “In an attachment model of relationships, the saying is true: ‘Love knows no bounds.’”
If you’re an insecure attacher, afraid of being left (anxious) or worried you’ll be smothered (avoidant), a secure person is the best fit in the attachment model. “A person with secure attachment is comfortable in relationships,” says Marisa T. Cohen, a psychology professor in New York. “The securely attached individual is capable of forming relationships and letting their guard down. They can give the anxious person the reassurance they need; they can also give an avoidant person the proper amount of space.” Secure attachers actually make insecures more secure over time.
There’s just one problem: Avoidant and anxious types are often drawn to each other. Superficially speaking, they often seem to have the very thing the other wants. “The avoidant person doesn’t want to be controlled, so they might find someone who needs them appealing,” says Cohen. “The anxiously attached person needs to feel cared for and may not try to jockey for top position, which is viewed positively by the avoidant person.”
This is attractive for both insecure types while dating, and the person is new and exciting. When the time comes for true intimacy and vulnerability though? Cue the tango. “The anxiously attached person eventually starts to cling, while the avoidantly attached partner pulls back, which then exacerbates the fear of abandonment held by the anxiously attached person,” Cohen explains. “It becomes a vicious cycle.”
Nisha, 34, a marketing manager from Philadelphia, has fallen for the passion of avoidant partners; she is also a classic anxious attacher, shy as a child, clinging to her mother growing up. She recently dated a guy and allowed herself to have a little more hope than usual. They matched on an app, had a mutual friend who bestowed a solid review, and even kept in touch while she visited Morocco for more than a week. Their first date was the best she’d ever had. “There was an instant connection,” Nisha explains. “I remember him telling me, ‘I want a partner, a wife, a mother to my children.’ Normally, men are like, ‘Ah, well, let’s see where it goes.’ I think we moved quicker, because it seemed like we were on the same page.”
After six weeks of frequent, daily contact, he disappeared for a full weekend without a word. He didn’t answer Nisha’s texts or calls. He blew off casual plans they’d discussed the previous week. Days later, he returned to apologize. Nisha was upset; at this point, her desire for closeness was in full swing, and she just wanted to see him, so they planned to talk at her place. Forty minutes after he was supposed to show up, he called. “He said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’ve been seeing someone else, and I think we have more in common. I’m going to pursue her instead,’” Nisha recalls, devastated.
Around 10 days later, her phone buzzed with a text. “He said he’d left sunglasses at my place and wanted to pick them up,” Nisha says. “These were, like, $10 sunglasses; I ignored it.” After a few more days, he said he thought he’d made a mistake ending things with Nisha.
This maybe-interested-maybe-not cycle is common; an anxious and an avoidant hit it off, but the avoidant “pulls away drastically” at increasing closeness, to use Nisha’s words. This behavior is not unlike how Tara’s ex pleaded to attend a brunch he later sabotaged.
Sometimes these relationships can be tough to break off too. When an anxious person makes an emotional connection with a romantic partner, their attachment system is activated during periods of abnormal separation—and they desperately want to reestablish contact to soothe their nerves. Nisha says she still “craved seeing” her avoidant ex in person, despite having “no idea what would happen.”
Eventually, Nisha would have to let go, but that doesn’t mean she would easily stop craving her ex. Levine says insecure attachers, often accustomed to the highs and lows of anxious-avoidant dating, come to expect unhealthy emotional sparks in their early relationships—and worry when they meet a secure who is consistently able to meet their needs. Maybe there isn’t enough chemistry, they might think (mistakenly, tragically). “If you know your partner has your back, that they love you and they’re there for you, you are not going to overthink a relationship,” says Levine.
The lack of crazy emotion is good. Yes: It’s good if you obsess less about your partner. Levine suggests the acronym CARRP for those who tend to overanalyze and worry. “You need someone consistent, available, reliable, responsive, and predictable,” he says. “Don’t give up immediately if that person isn’t meeting your needs, but state them clearly early on: ‘Maybe we can find a way to be a little more in touch.’”
Happy endings are possible. Take Tara, for example, who’s finally found someone nothing like her exes. He’s secure in their relationship and able to give her the reassurance and stability she needs. “He seems genuinely appreciative of every part of my personality, and I don’t feel compelled to downplay or hide elements of who I am; he made me feel at ease from date one,” she says. Most importantly, Tara says, she doesn’t worry her boyfriend will see her as needy and controlling if she wants more time with him. “I don’t have that fear at all, which is liberating,” she explains. “There is a mutual respect, a give and take, as opposed to me trying to come across as ultra-chill. Most of all, he responds to all my texts in a timely manner.”