Imagine that you’re on your way to the airport. You’ve been in a cab for just twenty minutes when you get a text from your partner: “Did you get there okay? Will you call me when you land? I miss you already!” You ignore it, thinking, “Ugh, so needy. Didn’t I just leave the house?”
Or maybe you’re the one sending the texts. You don’t hear back and you think, “That’s so inconsiderate! How much effort does it really take to text back? I shouldn’t have to put up with this!” By the time you finally do get a call, you’re ready to explode.
Either of those sound familiar?
Those are two examples of insecure attachment styles, and they represent a relationship dynamic that’s all-too-familiar for many of us. But by recognizing your attachment style and tapping into a “secure mindset,” you can improve your love life tenfold.
Know Your (and Your Partner’s) Attachment Style
How comfortable each of us feels with intimacy and independence in relationships is what psychologists call our “attachment style.” It’s essentially our way of relating to other people and it affects all of our relationships—from work and family to friends and flings.
There are two basic ways of being attached to others: securely and insecurely.
People who are securely attached are warm and loving, happy to be close but comfortable being alone. They’re rarely bothered by the little frustrations that might get under someone else’s skin and they’re harder to offend or upset.
The majority of people—about 60 percent—are secure. “It’s a silent majority,” says Amir Levine, M.D., psychiatrist and author of “Attached.” He explains that you rarely hear a peep from people in a secure relationship—they just go about their business. Not so for insecure couples, where friends and strangers hear about every fight, email, worry and text. “They’re a louder minority,” he says.
Insecurity comes in two basic flavors: anxiety and avoidance. You might be mostly anxious (known as preoccupied attachment, if you take our Close Relationships Quiz), mostly avoidant (dismissing attachment), or a combination of both (fearful attachment).
Anxious people worry about others leaving and try to pull them closer. They’re extremely perceptive, but tend to jump to conclusions, often imagining stories about why someone else did what they did.
Avoidant people are the opposite. They’re scared of getting close to others and tend to keep them at arms’ length. They feel easily smothered and are quick to assume that others are being hostile. Their approach is often glorified as independence, but Levine says that’s masking a deeper fear: “Their defensive approach is not coming from a place of strength.”
A secure person can actually help others become more secure. “They’re like the superstars of relationships,” says Levine. By providing a warm, loving presence with no strings attached, the relationship becomes less threatening.
The key for an insecure person is learning to do what the secure person does.
Tap Into a “Secure Mindset”
Imagine that you and your partner are on a romantic vacation in Paris. It’s dusk and the city is lit up beautifully, the lights reflecting in the Seine as you stroll by. Your partner is walking several paces ahead of you (an avoidant effort to get away from the intimacy of a stroll in the City of Lights). Levine explains that an anxious person would respond by thinking, “I can’t believe this. I didn’t come all the way to France for him to act like he doesn’t know me! What kind of life is this? I deserve better!” By the time you get back to the hotel, that anger has reached a boiling point.
The anxious reaction only reinforces the avoidant person’s fears (and vice versa). One clutches harder, one pulls away—it’s a big, familiar mess.
The secure person takes a totally different approach. They might think, “My partner just needs a little time. We’ll talk when we sit down for dinner.” The separation doesn’t upset them. While an anxious person might assume they’re getting walked on, that’s not the case at all. By giving the avoidant person a bit of space, the secure person communicates that they respect the other’s needs. “Over time, the avoidant person starts to feel that closeness is not so bad,” says Levine. “They become more secure.”
A secure person is equally calming for an anxious person.
Remember the example from the beginning of the person texting on the way to the airport? “A secure person would text them quickly beforehand to say, ‘On my way to the airport. Talk to you soon.’ They provide security, so that an anxious person has no need to be preoccupied with the relationship,” explains Levine. And seriously, the two seconds it takes to send the text is a lot less time than the two hours it will take the avoidant person to apologize for not texting.
Just recognizing what a secure person does can improve your relationships. “You can tap into a secure mindset,” says Levine. “It’s not a magical talent.” That mindset is all about recognizing someone else’s needs and helping to fulfill them, whether that means letting them walk a few steps ahead or texting on the way to the airport. “People are only as needy as their unmet needs,” he says.
Give Dependence Its Due
Our relationships have a huge impact on our wellbeing, so accepting that we have to rely on others to meet some of our core needs—and that they have to rely on us—is healthy.
“Dependence has gotten such a bad reputation in our society,” says Levine. “From a biological perspective, the whole idea of maintaining independence in a relationship doesn’t hold water. A good relationship can make your wounds heal faster; it can lower your blood pressure; it can even increase longevity and health. Others start to control things in our body that we don’t have control over. We are that connected.”
A good relationship is even, in many ways, the force that allows you to explore the world independently. “A secure base”—meaning a relationship you can count on—“lets us experiment and be more creative in our environment,” says Levine. Knowing that your partner supports you can allow you to flourish. Without that base, you are less likely to take risks and less likely to explore your world.
“Secure people have an innate understanding that my partner’s wellbeing is my wellbeing. That I am taking care of them and they are taking care of me,” explains Levine. “If you accept that as an axiom, it makes life so much easier.”
For anyone who’s been in an insecure relationship, “easier” sounds pretty appealing.
You can do it: Our Close Relationships Quiz has proven, tailored action steps to help you become more secure. “Attachment styles are not as rigid as one would think,” says Levine. “In fact, it’s one of the most malleable traits we have.” Becoming more secure is a gift to your sanity, your support network, and yep, your health and beauty.
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