Hello my dear happiness nerds, welcome (back)!
Today I’m finishing up my mini-series on love. If you haven’t read the previous posts in the series, no worries, each post should work on its own. But, of course, knowing the other ones helps contextualizing this post, so here a little overview: In the first post, I built a case for prioritizing true self-love, because it uniquely brings together giving love and receiving love in a harmonious and autonomy-enhancing fashion. In the second post, I described a way to increase one’s capacity to give love, which makes oneself more relaxed and gives one’s loved ones more space to breath. In the third post, I dug a little deeper into our loving relationships with romantic partners, friends and family, as well as ideas.
The last two open questions in this series concern the quality and quantity of love. As I have frequently touched upon the essential qualities of how I see “true love” in previous posts, I’ll mostly talk about quantity in this post. For this, I’ll describe how a groundbreaking theory in psychology lets you know thyself and thy loved ones better and by this create more fulfilling relationships for everybody involved.
But before we go there, one last point on quality. I think incorporating a wide variety of love qualities in your life will enrich it immensely. And by this I don’t mean cranking up the number of your love objects – quite the opposite, actually. Even though I have a high implicit motive to go wide (i.e., have a lot of connections, even if they don’t go super deep), I noticed that I’m happiest when I have a few very deep relationships where I live (in addition to the ones in other places and the local more casual ones). For my resources and lifestyle, this would mean something like having 1-2 romantic relationships, 1-3 very close friends, 1-2 activities or ideas I’m really passionate about (ideally one or both of them fulfilled in my work), regular access to fulfilling my 1 transcending love for nature, and, maybe most importantly, maintaining a loving relationship with myself.
Within this mix, I could experience and realize six of the many concepts of love that the ancient Greeks differentiated: Pragma (enduring love), philia (friendly love), eros (bodily love), ludus (playful love), agape (transcending love), and philautia (self-directed love). While this way of living may be a no-brainer for some, there are many forces in our societies that propagate otherwise. For one, Disney and Hollywood are preaching eternal ludus and eros as the ideal for romantic love, thereby mostly neglecting pragma, philia, and philautia. This not only plants unrealistic expectations in people’s heads and sets them up for guaranteed frustration, but it also impoverishes an image of love that could be so much more deeply satisfying. Additionally, diversifying one’s love portfolio in this way relieves one’s romantic relationships from being the by far most important sources of love. Hereby, one is neither too devastated when a romantic relationship ends nor too desperate to find somebody new in turn. On a side note: This rich panoply of love is another reason why I think living as a (Buddhist) monk is not the way to go. By focusing rather narrowly on agape and maybe philautia, they’re missing out on so much of what is most beautiful in life (or so I suppose).
So, to the main topic: How much love and where to find it? As expected, I didn’t find much on this topic in my research for this post. Yet, there is one psychological theory that is absolutely crucial for these questions: Attachment Theory. This theory was developed by John Bowlby and his colleagues from the 1950s onwards to explain the bond between mother (later: any primary caregiver) and child. In the late 1980s, it was applied to adult romantic relationships by Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver. So, in contrast to my post on how to love with less attachment, where I used attachment in a more Buddhist and Stoic way, in this post, I use the term in the psychological sense: As a profound and lasting emotional bond between two persons across time and space.
Psychologists theorize that we all need this kind of bond in some form or another and, depending on our attachment style, have our ways of communicating this need, calling for its fulfillment, and trying to fulfill it in others. Some concrete examples: How many and what kind of text messages make you feel secure and loved in your romantic relationship? Does showing yourself vulnerable in front of your best friend feel effortless and good or uncomfortable and like too much to ask? When feeling insecure, will you try to make your partner jealous? And it goes even deeper (we like to go deep on this blog): Our attachment styles impact the way we see ourselves, others, and close relationships in general; it impacts our confidence, trust, and self-efficacy; and it can even influence, which people we are drawn to. Knowing the different attachment styles and how they develop allows us to know and empathize with ourselves and our loved ones better. It will also help us get our needs met better and better meet the needs of those closest to us.
Simply put, there are three adult attachment types and every person falls mostly into only one of them: Secure, avoidant, and anxious.
Unfortunately, if you want to read up on the theory yourself, it’s not quite that simple, so I’ll give you some orienting pointers in this footnote1. So, what are the adult attachment types like? I’ll let you answer the items from an early questionnaire yourselves, so you get to know your own type. I’ll reveal which text corresponds to which type after the test.
Which of the following best describes your feelings?
- I find it relatively easy to get close to others and I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
- I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
- I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.
Which one are you most like, (1), (2), or (3)? Maybe not surprisingly, (1) is secure attachment, (2) is avoidant, and (3) is anxious. Secure attachment is generally considered healthy and desirable, while avoidant and anxious attachment are considered insecure, pathological, and maladaptive. Luckily, people can change their attachment styles with time, but more on that later.
In the “Western world,” roughly 50% are securely attached, while roughly 20-25% each are avoidantly or anxiously attached. There may be different distributions of the types in other parts of the worlds and researchers don’t quite agree yet, if these types are valid for non-Western cultures. I haven’t found strong evidence for gender differences in attachment styles, even though some stereotypes would make you believe that men tend to be more avoidant and women more anxious (some research does find this pattern, but other research finds the opposite, that is, women being more avoidant and men being more anxious).
Let’s look at the types in more detail:
- Securely attached adults usually have positive views of themselves, their attachment figures, and relationships in general. They feel confident, optimistic, and in control. They have no problem trusting others. They are able to balance intimacy and independence and feel comfortable with both. This type usually develops when parents are predictably there for the emotional and other needs of their child. The parents do this, for example, by asking how the child is feeling and taking its feelings seriously, by beings responsive in the interaction with their child, and by just meeting the other needs for food, hydration, touch, physical security, emotional warmth, etc. As should be apparent, if you’re of this type, you’re lucky. Not better, just lucky.
- Avoidantly attached adults usually have (on the surface) positive views of themselves and negative views of their attachment figures and relationships in general. They need close relationships like everybody else, but they distrust people, have difficulty letting them get too close, and usually have a secret emotional life they don’t share. They believe that relationships can’t really give you what you need and that, in the end, everybody has to cope with life’s hardships by themselves. Hence, they value autonomy, independence, and self-reliance (like many philosophers, btw – what might this tell us about philosophers’ attachment styles? More on that another day). If they feel like an attachment figure is getting too close, they tend to use deactivating strategies like growing cold, seeking physical distance, or introducing insecurity into the relationship (e.g., by starting an affair). Another way they might use to keep close ones at a distance is to idealize an ex-partner or possible partner and look for faults in one’s current partner. Naturally, they invest a lot in their own competencies and accomplishments, even though they don’t care too much about the opinions of others. They are especially hesitant to accept positive feedback from others (although, many narcissists, who care excessively about being viewed positively by others, are avoidantly attached; note that most avoidantly attached persons are not narcissists). This might be to avoid attachment, but also because they might feel deep down inside (so likely don’t know about this feeling themselves) that they’re not a good person and that their emotions and needs don’t matter. This type usually develops when one or more parents predictably neglect the emotional or other needs of their child. Hence, the child learns that turning to others for support is pointless. This continuous rejection by one’s caregivers may range from painful to traumatic. The parents themselves might have been raised to not value emotional closeness, they might suffer from a psychological disorder, or they might be too busy or incompetent. So, you can’t really blame parents for messing up their children. If you yourself, however, want to become a parent, you’d be well-advised to create fairly suitable conditions for raising a child and sort out your gravest issues to not pass them on to it in one form or another. On the other end of the spectrum, however, don’t drive yourself crazy by trying to get it perfect. Nobody does. Research suggest that even sensitive caregivers get it right only half of the time. But that is apparently as good as it gets and therefore good enough. Needless to say, if you have an avoidant attachment style, you’re relatively unlucky. Not bad, just unlucky.
- Anxiously attached adults usually have negative views of themselves, but positive views of their attachment figures (although not always) and relationships in general. They want a lot of intimacy, approval, and attention from their attachment figures – to the point of becoming dependent on them. They tend to show their emotions strongly and also experience them strongly. They tend to worry a lot, overthink everything regarding their close relationships, and read carefully between the lines, even if no hidden meanings were intended by the sender. Like the avoidantly attached, the anxiously attached don’t trust people easily. Anxiously attached persons might be overly jealous and controlling, and when they feel like their partner, for example, is growing too distant, they use activating strategies to regain closeness and security. These strategies include frequent and extensive texting or calling (even and especially without replies from the other side), making the partner jealous, or threatening to leave their partner. As the name of this attachment style suggests, there is a lot of anxiety associated with close relationships, specifically, the fear of rejection and abandonment. Unfortunately, the combination of hypersensitivity to possible signs of rejection and the sometimes-excessive use of activation strategies, which tend to be annoying for partners, can lead to self-sabotage and the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the anxiously attached provokes the break-up they ultimately fear so much. This type usually develops when one or more parents are unpredictable in whether they meet the emotional or other needs of their child or not. The child learns that close relationships are unreliable and might even end for unforeseeable reasons. The intermittent reinforcement of their closeness behaviors in childhood have cemented this behavior for adulthood and made it especially resistant to change. This means that sometimes the child could successfully gain closeness through its efforts, but sometimes not. Sometimes it needed a little effort, sometimes very much. So, the adult, facing a (perceived) threat in their current relationship, will move up the ladder of ever more intense closeness behavior, because it has to work at some unknown point, right? Again needless to say, if you have an anxious attachment style, you’re relatively unlucky. Not crazy, just unlucky.
An important note for helping insecurely attached individuals, who after all make up roughly half the population in the “Western world” and, depending on the strength of their insecurity, suffer immensely: Where I come from (and probably in most other places), anxiously attached individuals are shamed by being described as clingy, needy, or crazy, while avoidantly attached individuals – who are just as insecurely attached – are celebrated for their accomplishments and self-reliance. I think this shaming and celebrating has to stop, because it only makes the ones who were unlucky enough to develop these insecure styles dive deeper into their respective styles. What they need is to realize what attachment style they have, empathize with themselves for developing it without any fault of their own, and make the effort to develop a more secure way of attachment.
So how can one change one’s attachment style? There’s a lot to be said about that and maybe I’ll write a dedicated post for each of the insecure attachment styles, which have rather different remedies (you can also watch some great content on this question in this YouTube-playlist; just ignore the sporadic God-talk – or don’t, if it’s your thing). There’s one rather simple solution that works for both insecure types, though: In a nutshell, find a secure partner. They won’t trigger you as often and your brain has time to overwrite the old habit patterns with new ones. Unfortunately, avoidantly attached and anxiously attached people tend to attract each other, which is the worst possible combination. It’s far from impossible to make it work even with this combination, but the partners must get to know their attachment styles, develop empathy for themselves and their partners, and invest some hard, touchy-feely work. Because one’s own world view, which is greatly shaped by one’s attachment style, always seems so logical and self-evident. It’s not.
In sum, how much love do you need (in the form of attention, intimacy, and security)? If you’re really avoidantly attached, you probably think you don’t need any, even though you do, like all people do. If you’re really anxiously attached, you probably think you can’t live without it and you want all the love you can get – more than most people are willing to give. If you’re securely attached, you fall in a healthy middle between these extremes. And if you are a mix, like most people are1, you fall somewhere across the spectrum. Where do you find the amount of love need? That would be in a person with the same attachment styles as yours; they would get you. So, know thyself, know thy close ones, and act accordingly.
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1 As psychological typologies haven’t passed the test of time very well, modern research tends to see every person as having a unique combination of avoidant and anxious tendencies (if both are relatively low, one is relatively securely attached). I’ll stick with the simpler type-thinking, because for most readers it’s more intuitive and therefore easier to understand. Further, sometimes the same types have different names depending on the authors and whether one is talking about parent-child attachment or adult romantic attachment (even though the types roughly correspond to each other, that is, for example, secure attachment means roughly the same in both childhood and adulthood, even if the parent-child and partner-partner relationships are very different kinds of relationships). The avoidant type might be called insecure-avoidant or dismissive-avoidant and the anxious type might be called insecure-anxious, anxious-preoccupied, or anxious/ambivalent. Finally, sometimes there are four instead of three types (the fourth being kind of a combination of avoidant and anxious; it is often called fearful-avoidant in adults and disorganized/disoriented in children). Sorry, science, like the reality it investigates, is complicated.