Attached (Amir Levine M.D., Rachel Heller M.A.)
June 21, 2017
In Attached psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel S.F. Heller break down our current understanding of Attachment Theory, how it shapes our relationships and provide us with practical instructions on how to make changes. Attachment Theory is the idea that we evolved with an innate system, the attachment system, that leads us to develop dependencies on significant others. Throughout evolution, these attachments provided our ancestors with a survival advantage.
Levine and Heller put it this way:
In prehistoric times, people who relied only on themselves and had no one to protect them were more likely to end up as prey. More often than not, those who were with somebody who deeply cared about them survived to pass on to their offspring the preference to form intimate bonds.
They explain how our attachment system evolved and how it helped our ancestors survive. Attachment is a mechanism through which we develop a dependency on a significant other. The authors stress that dependency might have a negative connotation in today's society but it is part and parcel of our biological make up and cannot be ignored.
There are three main attachment styles we can exhibit. When our attachment system tends to go into overdrive we are anxiously attached and we crave intimacy. When we exhibit behaviors that avoid intimacy and suppress the attachment system we are avoidantly attached. When we are securely attached we are programmed to expect our partners to be loving and responsive and we don’t worry much about losing our partners’ love.
As the authors continue to explain, our attachment patterns are not cast in stone. Rather, they are more like "plastic" -- they are stable, but can be changed. The authors also make the point that attachment patterns are not, as is often assumed, determined solely by our childhood. Instead, they argue, there are many factors at play:
...it seems that an entire mosaic of factors comes together to create this attachment pattern: our early connection with our parents, our genes, and also something else—our romantic experiences as adults.
After being told we have the capacity to change our attachment pattern, the book becomes more practical. We are taught how to identify our own attachment style and that of our partner's and we learn, through stories, how these attachment styles manifest themselves in real life situations.
In the third section of the book the authors cover the potential clashing of attachment patterns. The clash, or "trap" as they refer to it in the book, between anxious and avoidant is covered in great depth. Again, the theory is followed by practical advice, in this case on how to avoid this trap. The behaviors and communication style associated with secure attachment are repeatedly put forward as the most productive and stable way to approach situations.
I love how the book gives us a very understandable overview of attachment theory and how the authors include very new research. This is a good resource if you want to get a basic understanding of attachment theory, but it is not cover attachment theory in depth. Instead the focus of the book is on the practical side on how one can use the science of attachment to their own benefit.
On the one hand I agree with the authors when they say that self-help literature often idolises a completely independent self and that the dating industry in particular pushes us towards behaving according to an avoidant attachment style. The authors rightfully say that this separation has no basis in biology and can be counter-productive (as we may end up attracting anxious individuals).
The author are a bit ambiguous with regards to what one's motivation might be to change one's attachment style. On the one hand they state that no attachment pattern is "wrong" but at the same time all the practical advice they provide amounts to the emulation of a secure attachment style at the expense of the others.
Some important concepts and citations from the book:
The attachment system
In fact, the need to be near someone special is so important that the brain has a biological mechanism specifically responsible for creating and regulating our connection with our attachment figures (parents, children, and romantic partners). This mechanism, called the attachment system, consists of emotions and behaviors that ensure that we remain safe and protected by staying close to our loved ones.
The dependency paradox
Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs. When their emotional needs are met, and the earlier the better, they usually turn their attention outward. This is sometimes referred to in attachment literature as the “dependency paradox”: The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become.
Attachment appears similarly in adults as it does in children
The emotions, thought patterns, and behaviors automatically triggered in children in attachment situations appear similarly in adults. The difference is that adults are capable of a higher level of abstraction, so our need for the other person’s continuous physical presence can at times be temporarily replaced by the knowledge that they are available to us psychologically and emotionally.
We regulate our partner's physiology
Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities. The emphasis on differentiation that is held by most of today’s popular psychology approaches to adult relationships does not hold water from a biological perspective. Dependency is a fact; it is not a choice or a preference.
...when two people form an intimate relationship, they regulate each other’s psychological and emotional well-being. Their physical proximity and availability influence the stress response.
Chronic activation of the attachment system
It turns out that people with anxious attachment styles are particularly susceptible to falling into a chronically activated attachment system situation.
In other words, the brains of people with an anxious attachment style react more strongly to thoughts of loss and at the same time under-recruit regions normally used to down-regulate negative emotions.
Equating Activation with Passion
You now live in suspense, anticipating that next small remark or gesture that will reassure you. After living like this for a while, you start to do something interesting. You start to equate the anxiety, the preoccupation, the obsession, and those ever-so-short bursts of joy with love. What you’re really doing is equating an activated attachment system with passion.
If you’ve been at it for a while, you become programmed to get attracted to those very individuals who are least likely to make you happy.
Meeting a secure individual as an anxiously attached person
Ambiguous messages are out of the mix, as are tension and suspense. As a result, your attachment system remains relatively calm. Because you are used to equating an activated attachment system with love, you conclude that this can’t be “the one” because no bells are going off. You associate a calm attachment system with boredom and indifference. Because of this fallacy you might let the perfect partner pass you by.
The Anxious-Avoidant Trap
People with an anxious attachment style (lower circle on the right) cope with threats to the relationship by activating their attachment system—trying to get close to their partner. People who are avoidant (lower circle on the left) have the opposite reaction. They cope with threats by deactivating—taking measures to distance themselves from their partners and “turn off ” their attachment system. Thus the closer the anxious tries to get, the more distant the avoidant acts. To make matters worse, one partner’s activation further reinforces the other’s deactivation in a vicious cycle, and they both remain within the relationship “danger zone.