A few years back, when I was single and had the common affliction of always going for the wrong kind of guy, a well-meaning friend gave me a paperback called The Complete Book of Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right.
It promised much: All a girl has to do is hold back and let the guy do the running. Make sure he knows you’re too busy to see him. Don’t call him, and it will make him desire you more. I’ve now come to realize that while there’s a little bit of truth in this stuff, it's mostly nonsense.
Mairi Macleod Ph.D. is a science writer and speaker, writing and delivering presentations and workshops on sex and attraction, relationships and reproduction. She also talks at conferences and coporate venues on taking an evolutionary approach to improving working relationships, particularly for women. She writes for New Scientist Magazine and several UK national newspapers, she lectures at the University of Edinburgh and is involved in research at the University of Dundee.
Editor: Arman Ahmed
Yes, if you show that you’re confident and you don’t “need” somebody, you appear like you’ve got lots of options and so you must be a good catch. The trouble is, though, that if you pretend you’re not fussed about having someone there for you, you’re going to be an attractive choice for a guy that’s not that into commitment. Or in developmental psychology parlance, you’ll end up with someone who’s avoidantly attached. When you eventually choose to reveal that you would in fact quite like a nice intimate relationship, a potential partner with an avoidant attachment style will run for the hills.
Patterns of attachment were first studied by psychologists in infants, rather than adults. The more secure a child is in his or her emotional bond with a parent, the more they can go out into the world with confidence and independence. It turns out, though, that attachment styles extend into adulthood and lead to predictable behaviors in romantic relationships. The most successful couplings are those in which at least one partner is securely attached, because "secures" aren’t afraid of commitment, and are good at communication and compromise. The rest of us are insecurely attached—either anxiously, meaning that we tend to obsess about our relationships, worrying about whether or not our partner loves us and constantly playing games to test the relationship, or avoidantly, meaning that we worry about losing independence and keep partners at arm’s length.
It makes perfect sense—we’re simply adjusting to what our relationships are telling us about how much we can trust others, and then behaving accordingly. If experience tells us that we can’t rely on others to care about us, then we either try like crazy to make sure new prospects do care, or we withdraw and try to look after ourselves.
There is a bit of a sex difference, with insecure women being slightly more inclined to be anxiously attached, and insecure more likely to be avoidant, which could explain the stereotype of clingy females trying to pin down commitment-phobe blokes.
“The trouble is, anxiously attached people have a habit of getting together with avoidants,” says Amir Levine, psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University, and one of the authors of Attached: Identify Your Attachment Style and Find Your Perfect Match.
This is exactly the wrong thing for them to do, because avoidants just exacerbate their anxiety, and it happens partly because avoidants circle more quickly in the dating pool. Like sharks, I think. While securely attached people tend to stay for the long term, avoidants have shorter partnerships and become available again more quickly.
Although avoidant people do want relationships, they’re not comfortable with too much closeness, so they have a lot of what Levine calls "attachment deactivation strategies"—basically ways to maintain their distance. Like not saying "I love you," being vague about the future, or walking a couple of steps ahead of their partner.
So how can people who are a bit anxious make better choices? It’s clear who the secure people are, but they never seem quite so interesting. That’s partly because they don’t play games and you don’t get the emotional roller coaster, Levine says, but give them a chance and you get a very different, much more rewarding experience. “People who are anxious have a very reactive attachment system," Levine says. "They get attached very quickly, even after just one night.”
The trick is to maintain a bit of distance when you first start seeing someone while you're making a judgment about whether they are right for you. Rule out avoidant types early on by checking out how interested prospective partners are in emotional intimacy: If they don’t like it when you ask what they want from a relationship, chuck ’em.
Once we’re armed with knowledge about attachment styles, Levine says, it’s not so much, "Is this person going to like me?” it's more like, "Has this person got what it takes to be in a relationship with me?"
So if I’m with someone who blows hot and cold, then it’s not me, it really is them. Excellent.
Happily we don’t have to be stuck with our attachment styles, though, and the best way to change if you’re anxious or avoidant is to get involved with someone secure, or at least copy them.
“That’s because with a secure person you’ve got a built-in relationship coach that teaches you how to communicate effectively,” Levine says. “These people, and they account for more than 50 percent of men and women, have an innate talent for being better partners.
"Let’s say your partner is going to the airport to catch a flight. If you’re anxious you’ll be unsettled by the separation and want to hear from them,” he says. “If you’re with someone secure, they know about this and they’ll text you from the plane before they take off, and then again as soon as they land at the other end, so you never really get a chance to be anxious.”
But if your partner is avoidant, it’s another matter. They’re not calling so you call them, and they get fed up that you always call them so they hit ignore. And you know they’re hitting ignore, so by the time you finally get to talk to them you’re upset, and you have a fight. And it was completely avoidable, if only they’d just texted before they took off.
“That’s one of the things we tell avoidant people,” Levine says. "If you understood that your partner’s well-being is your responsibility and you take care of it early on, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble and you’ll both be happier.”