What to Keep in Mind about Attachment when You're Dating

When I first posted this video to Facebook, I got a few really good questions in response. Below are both the questions, and my responses to them. 

Q: How can an anxious attacher recognize secure vs avoidant attachment in the beginning of dating someone as you’re slowly getting to know them? It can be a bit confusing to know whether you’re anxious is triggered because of avoidant signs or just natural space that’s there as you’re getting to know someone.

A: This is a great question, and I was actually considering making a part 2 video to talk about it! I probably will do that, but for now, here's what I'll say: feelings of anxiety/insecurity are RARELY there for absolutely no reason. Folks with more or less anxious attachment styles are going to be quicker to feel that way, and the size of the response may be out of proportion, but it is almost never for absolutely no reason. This takes us back to the image of the rope, because it symbolizes how the TWO NERVOUS SYSTEMS BECOME ONE - that is the key point I wanted to make in this video. Once an attachment bond is there, one partner's actions will have a direct impact inside the nervous system of the other partner. This mechanism can be used for good or for harm, consciously or unconsciously; it is what makes intimacy so nourishing, but also what makes it so risky. So please realize that once you've come into such close bonding with someone, you've given them the keys to your entire nervous system - if you're feeling all jangly and not okay in there, it is NOT just you. There is absolutely something happening on the other end of the rope as well. However, it's not your job to figure out what that is or to prod them into figuring it out. You can't do that work for them. If you read Booster's second comment below, he makes another fantastic and important point: these attachment styles aren't totally fixed traits (like eye color, for example). Most of us cycle through different patterns of behavior for a zillion different reasons -and- no attachment bond is going to be without some of these dynamics happening at least some of the time. We all have leftover traumas, wounds, bad habits, dysfunctional patterns, and so on. So I encourage folks to think about attachment not in good/bad terms, but in frequency/severity terms. How frequently are you feeling icky, even if it's low-level icky? And how severe is it? What's the overall ratio of easeful and enriching to challenging and energy-asking?

 

Q: My ultimate fear is classically Avoidant, feeling “trapped” inside a relationship that I don’t feel is right for me. So consequently, I feel like I have to be very picky and selective in the dating process. Which means that I hold back emotionally while I'm attempting to discover if this person is someone with whom I genuinely want to dive in deep. 

A: What stood out to me was your description of the parts of you that fear becoming trapped in a relationship that isn’t right for you. Firstly, I love that you said it all without shaming yourself or the avoidantly attached in general. I see some avoidant-shaming out there, and that doesn’t help anybody. And I’m sure you already know this, but no adult person actually *can* be trapped in a relationship (in the literal sense). Even if the process of extricating yourself would be incredibly dramatic, painful, complex, etc., you’re still always at choice. The part of us that fears entrapment (or abandonment, for that matter) is usually the little one inside, the four- or five-year-old who has hijacked the bus and is now steering the adult’s brain and body according to his/her perceptions of the world (which usually leads to a crash, as you’ve seen). The thing is that when we were children, we actually WERE trapped. Children don’t notice their captivity or dependence unless things are bad with mom and dad, but if they are… man, it’s like being a prisoner of war. We forget how freaking intense it is to be a child: completely and utterly dependent on the giant God and Goddess who created you, completely at the mercy of their moods and decisions, with absolutely nowhere to go and few internal resources to advocate for yourself. No wonder we’re all so bent out of shape when it comes to bonding - even *inter*dependence smacks of that early captivity. And those little ones figured out exactly how best to handle their situation, they have an arsenal of strategies at the ready to protect us, and they’re going to do that so long as they thinks that’s the only option.

So what I would recommend to anyone having the experience you described is to get really, really good at saying “No.” Because the more we can do that, the more that little one inside can trust the adult to handle things and keep us out of situations that don’t feel good or right. It can also be helpful to get really familiar with the somatic markers of the icky, fearful experience - what is it, actually? A sour belly, a tight throat, a racing heart, a rush of rage? It’s usually a similar constellation of markers each time. When this experience erupts in the body, what’s actually happening is the activation of memories from the past (usually traumatic memories). The past and the present blur and become one perception, the body becomes full of the same awful experience the five year old self used to have, and we become compelled to utilize the same behavioral strategies that kept us safe once upon a time. When we know this, that our physical experience is coming from memory and not the present moment, then we’re empowered to reach for what would *actually* help (rather than allowing the inner child to crash the bus once again, which isn’t good for anybody). We can also remember that our partner isn’t the ultimate cause/source of the icky feelings. And when we can stay in connection with our partner *while* all of this is happening and *with* all of this awareness, that’s where we can do the work of reprogramming our attachment systems. 

If you can go into a dating situation feeling super strong and empowered around your “No,” fully knowing that no matter how far you get into this connection, you are always at choice, that kid inside will be able to take a backseat, which is where he belongs in the first place. And when you’re not holding part of yourself back, or giving off the signals of ambivalence, you’re far less likely to instill insecurity/anxiety in the people you’re dating.

 

Q: I notice I'm a little worried about this causing me to hold back around people, especially women I'm attracted to, for fear of creating an attachment bond one of us isn't ready to tend to. I've made a lot of progress in the last few months around not holding back when relating to people - Pete Michaud hit me right in the chest with the mantra "connection is not a promise" a year ago and I've been integrating that a lot - but there does seem to be something genuinely irresponsible about creating an attachment bond and then not tending to it, and that seems like a real reason to hold back in some ways. 

A: I see where your friend was coming from in saying, “Connection is not a promise,” and I mostly agree with that statement, but I get curious what kind of promise, specifically, he’s referring to. In my own internal ethics/integrity, having deep/intimate connections (especially over time), IS a promise that I will tend to whatever degree of a bond that starts to form, which means that I will be aware of it, I will be respectful of it, and I will bring kindness to the way I relate with it. It does not mean that I am bound to someone else’s expectations, it doesn’t mean I’m beholden to promises someone else wants me to make. What it does mean, in my world, is that I will be mindful/aware of what’s actually happening in the space between us, I will communicate about it directly, and I will bring respect and kindness into how I relate with it all. It might look like this:

“I want to check in again about our connection and what’s coming up for me within it. What I’m noticing is that I’m really enjoying getting to know you and becoming closer. I often feel excited about it, because I feel lit up in all the ways: emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually, and sexually! But I’m also noticing some fear come up because I’m not yet ready to enter into more specific relationship structures or agreements. I’m aware, though, that the connection between us is growing, and I want to relate to that in a good way. I wonder what your experience of our connection has been, and how it feels to you to hear about where I’m at right now?” 

It may be that the person responds with, “Well, it’s hard for me to hear that, because I really am ready to shift gears into a more structured, committed form of relationship with you, but I’m willing to hang in here with you for a while longer.” 

But they could just as easily say, “I’m so relieved to hear that. I also feel super lit up and excited about our connection, but my pace is matching yours right now. I also am not ready to start braiding our lives together in a more explicit way.” 

It seems like the combination of awareness, communication, and kindness will get you a long way… I think we have trouble a lot of the time because we just don’t know how to talk about what’s *actually* happening, and we make up meanings and stories that aren’t totally accurate, and then we take it all personally when it really isn’t. The whole thing requires us to be so freaking vulnerable and exposed, too, so yeah.. it’s hard because it’s hard!

Also, the rope metaphor has another implication that might be helpful here. The rope is made up of hundreds of fibers that are woven together, right? When we’re forming attachment bonds with one another, it’s like we establish them only one fiber at a time. If you’re connecting with someone who has a more intensely anxious attachment style, or who has a lot of trauma (especially of the abandonment sort), they’re likely to have a much stronger reaction if you should decide that you want to dissolve the few fibers that did form. 

Perhaps I should do part 3 where I talk about how to UN-DO the attachment bonds in a good way? This is equally important because in reality, we’re going to un-do just about 100% of the bonds that get formed sooner or later. And we all have the right to enter into connection AND LEAVE IT, at the time of our own choosing. There are just better and worse ways to go about it.