How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Dating Life
In today's dating culture, it's commonplace to encounter lots of different people: the ghosters, the self-sabotagers, the stage-5 clingers, the emotionally unavailables, the players, etc. It's easy to write them off as bad relationship experiences, but there's no value in glossing over it and attributing their unpredictable behavior to mysterious forces. However, attachment theory can offer insights into these patterns.
Based on our early childhood experiences with our caregivers, we theoretically form four unique attachment styles: anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, fearful-avoidant, and secure. These styles profoundly alter the way that we bond and respond to future relationships. In this case, it can also impact who we are attracted to at first glance.
"Our attachment styles are so important when it comes to dating because it's the rules we have to relate to others. It can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship. Attachment styles influence how each of us reacts to our needs and how we go about getting them met. It affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end," says Australia-based therapist Nabill Zafir.
If you don't know your style, take the quiz here. Then, read on to see how these attachment styles may present themselves during the early stages of dating—and how it may be influencing your relationship point of view.
Anxious-preoccupied's dating style
"Those with an anxious attachment style tend to be incredibly attentive, kind, and generous. They focus more on the needs of others than their own. They tend to be preoccupied with gaining and maintaining the affection and interest of their dates. Their fear may likely be visible. There is a speed in the anxiety that can drive the need for things to happen and for a relationship to be established quickly," says Rachel Nguyen, a London-based trauma-informed and humanistic therapist.
Zafir says that anxiously attached individuals are likely to develop strong feelings after a few dates since they want closeness and validation. They may ruminate and overanalyze the relationship, which, in turn, gives them anxiety. "They are preoccupied with seeking validation and getting chosen by a potential partner. Because needs of emotional attunement and consistency were unmet in childhood, individuals who are anxiously attached have this perceived fear of abandonment and rejection, so they may be triggered when there are distance and space—for example, a date does not respond to their calls or texts in a reasonable time."
Since anxiously attached individuals are hyper-vigilant about how people behave towards them, they can negatively interpret their partner's independent actions to mean that they aren't interested, ramping up feelings of possessiveness and jealousy. To help soothe their concerns when their attachment system is activated, anxious daters need to feel anchored and reassured.
Dismissive-avoidant's dating style
Dismissive-avoidants can be harder to suss out at the beginning. Nguyen says they present as composed, confident, and together, almost coming across as a secure attachment style. "Their insecurities can be pretty hidden. This type can be overly self-reliant and slower to attach as they may associate intimacy and relationships with a loss of independence or self and are happy to allow for a lot of space. It will likely not feel natural for them to initiate sharing about themselves, and they may be more comfortable if it's a shared experience," she notes.
According to Zafir, dismissive-avoidants usually grew up in a home that was emotionally neglectful, so they learned to self-soothe independently and repress their emotions. "Dismissive-avoidant individuals are slow to warm up, they prefer to talk about surface conversations or prefer to text. They may use this as a coping skill to deflect emotional intimacy. When a date expresses too much interest or affection too early, they can feel overwhelmed and abruptly leave relationships. Closeness can trigger subconsciously stored feelings of being trapped," Zafir says.
As intimacy increases, their avoidant behaviors slowly surface. This is the type likely to ghost and walk away. It's not an indictment on you as much as it is a coping mechanism for them to feel safe. Dismissive-avoidants need time to self-regulate when they feel activated. When dating someone, they need patience and space to attend to their individual needs.
Fearful-avoidant's dating style
Because the fearful-avoidant attachment style is a blend of anxious and avoidant styles, they can be unpredictable and not easily defined. Similar to the avoidant, they initially come across as secure and emotionally available, making it destabilizing for their partner when they switch gears later on. Fearful-avoidant daters are simultaneously afraid of being too close and being too far, so they'll do best with partners who can offer emotional support, stability, and unconditional acceptance.
"People with this attachment tend to experience a dual state of wanting closeness (unlike the dismissive type) but also wanting to pull away. There tends to be a mistrust of people and vigilance around any signs of being let down or unwanted. It can be incredibly painful and shame-inducing for them and confusing for those around them. Falling in love can feel frightening as a result. They may find themselves in a cycle of start-stop-start. The anxiety that arises from being in a relationship and depending on another can also make them retreat or bail," Nguyen says.
"Once they start to feel a connection, this is where they self-sabotage. They become hot and cold in relationships because they have an extreme desire for connection, but at the same time they don't trust it, so they reject it. They have deep trust issues and fear of enmeshment from violations in childhood," Zafir explains.
Secure's dating style
The securely attached individual will say what they mean and mean what they say. They are comfortable with intimacy and escalating the connection to a relationship as it makes sense. But because these secure and steady types don't play head games on the first few dates, they may be perceived as too boring and not exciting enough to keep seeing.
"Those who are secure tend to recognize their inherent worth and have a sense of trust in themselves; they are usually comfortable being warm and loving; they respond to bids for connection and ask for their needs to be met. They tend to be willing to communicate and reciprocate. They tend to be uninterested in mixed signals," Nguyen says.
The even-keeled relationship might not be characterized by the addictive feeling of those highs and lows, but it can bring a sense of peace to anxious and avoidant daters who are looking for a fireplace in a relationship—a place that evokes feelings of safety and comfort—instead of looking for the immediate gratification of the fireworks and instant sparks.
Which attachment styles are commonly attracted to each other and why?
Nguyen says that anxious and avoidant styles are most likely to engage in games in their dating strategies, making it easier for them to get into entanglements with each other. "There's a need to self-protect and manage the behavior of their potential partners. This usually results in a pursuer/pursued dynamic. Unfortunately, [lots of] age-old dating advice encourages this dynamic of playing games," says Nguyen. "It's hardly fun for those who feel the need to do so. It promotes us not to display our true desire and needs for a relationship and to remain in power so as to not risk rejection (or at least reduce the pain)."
However, this doesn't mean that all is lost. The point of learning about your attachment style isn't to be resigned to it and accept it as an indictment. Nguyen wants to emphasize that attachment styles are not static and should be viewed as frameworks to understand our behaviors and styles of relating. "We are complex and nuanced beings. We must be careful to not take a reductionist approach in understanding ourselves," she says.
Learning your style and what you're attracted to can reveal your behaviors on a first date, explain the reasons behind your actions, and help you find the qualities that are important in a relationship.
Zafir recommends looking at dating as a personal growth exercise to learn more about yourself and dissolve your fears. "We make it a very intrinsically oriented process and become attached to the outcome rather than the process, and this can cause unnecessary pain," Zafir says.