Has Attachment Theory Gone Too Far?

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
"They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you." These are the words of poet Philip Larkin, penned in his 1971 poem "This Be The Verse"
Simplistic as it is, the idea that your parents and your childhood experiences shape your emotional life is hardly new. If your parents were happy and kind to each other, you will likely have a positive view of romantic relationships. If they were not, you are, to borrow a Larkinism, "fucked". This is the premise of attachment theory which, though it first entered the vocabulary of popular psychology over a decade ago, is currently everywhere.
Attached: Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How the science of adult attachment can help you find – and keep – love, written by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, was first published in 2010. In recent years it has made it back onto international bestseller lists as well as into the orbit of journalists who have written explainer after explainer on the different attachment styles suggested by Levine and Heller: anxious-preoccupied, avoidant-dismissive, disorganised/fearful-avoidant, and secure.
From conversations in the pub to dating app profiles and online quizzes, from Instagram (where unqualified therapists offer attachment style advice) to TikTok (where videos on the subject have racked up 1.1 billion views and counting), attachment theory has entered mainstream discourse to become the framework through which increasing numbers of people conceptualise dating and their approach to relationships, with mixed results.
I have listened to my friends as they diagnose people they've matched with on dating apps, as well as the partners – short- and long-term – of other friends: "oh, he sounds avoidant", the group will say while pouring over a Hinge back and forth where a perfect stranger has been non-committal. "Seems like she's just anxiously attached," someone chimes in response to a story about a friend's girlfriend who has asked for more emotional communication.
This cod psychology feels uncomfortable to witness. Yet, I have also spoken to people who have told me that reading about attachment theory has 'changed' their lives either by helping them to leave relationships that weren't 'serving' them or to understand their own behaviour. 
Take 34-year-old Jess (not her real name). "I had a positive experience with attachment theory when I was in a push/pull cycle with my boyfriend," she explains. "I would become anxious and he would pull away. Recognising my own tendency for anxious attachment helped me to get out of the cycle."
Or 33-year-old Michael (also not his real name). "The book Attached helped me to zoom out from my impulses as an anxious person," he explains. "I wouldn’t get into a relationship if I felt even a sniff of avoidance now. My therapist now advises me to sit back, go slow and pick up on the other person’s attachment style."
In 2021, The New York Times reported on the freak publishing phenomenon that is this resurgence in the popularity of Attached. In the same year the book was a top-ranked book on Amazon in the Social Science, Cognitive Psychology and Love and Romance categories. It was rarely out of Amazon’s top 200 books. It has now been translated into 20 languages and is the rare book that sells an increasing number of copies year to year since its release.
Attached itself is full of disarmingly generalising but specific quotes such as "most people are only as needy as their unmet needs" and "true love, in the evolutionary sense, means peace of mind". These work as neat Instagram aphorisms; they’re inherently quotable and shareable which, surely, has contributed to the theory's unstoppable rise as the dominant thesis on modern dating.

If we’re using Instagram posts to label and diagnose our partners, that’s a slippery path to losing some empathy.

Eleanor morgan, trainee psychotherapist
The characteristics of each 'type' of person are summed up in Attached as follows: "Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back; avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimise closeness."
The implication here, of course, is a hierarchy of personalities. A secure person exhibits the gold standard of behaviour in their relationships. Anxious people are hurt and damaged while avoidants are cold fishes. Can people in all of their complexity really be so neatly categorised? Is there not a danger that boxing people in like this, at best, limits our interactions with them and, at worst, colours how we see them? And surely when it gets to the point that you’re diagnosing the attachment style of people you’ve barely or even never met, something has gone very wrong. 
On Instagram and TikTok dating "experts" rehash attachment theory. On one account named The Attachment Project, for instance, cutesy pink and purple hued posts labelled "I think I might be dating a narcissist? Now what?" sit side by side with shareable slides which purport to explain why "avoidant people act as though they are self-sufficient and superior to others."
The ideas of the book Attached deserve critique in and of themselves but the way that they are being packaged up and commodified on social media where follows, likes and shares increase any creator's reach and, therefore, commercial viability, should give us pause for thought. Who is sharing these ideas and why? Who is seeking them out?
Like labelling someone who has broken up with you as 'narcissistic', endlessly scrolling in an attempt to confirm to yourself – an anxious person – that the person who has broken your heart/not asked you for a second date/texted you back is avoidant and, therefore, inherently damaged, is a myopic attempt to force another person to conform to your narrative of the relationship you had with them. Are the 'secures' (if they exist), I wonder, reading up on attachment theory and sharing the memes it spawns? And, thinking back to those slides, what if an avoidant person is "self-sufficient"? What's wrong with that? Isn't that an admirable quality in a partner?
Eleanor Morgan is a trainee psychotherapist. She says she is troubled by how this boiled down psychologese has been removed from context and disseminated by unqualified self-appointed dating "experts" on social media.
"It’s the biggest ‘open access’ platform there is," she explains. "This means that people can build very compelling narratives about our partners without necessarily taking the time to look inwards. On social media, because the graphics are so clear-seeming and shareable more and more people carry those narratives into their relationships."
"If attachment theory can be a gateway into deeper work with a therapist or individual research, great," Morgan concludes. "If not – if we’re using Instagram posts alone to label and diagnose our partners – and that’s a slippery path to losing some empathy."
As human pursuits go, love – finding it, holding onto it, grieving the loss of it – is as universal as it is ubiquitous. That’s why art and literature has depicted it since time immemorial. The Attached book's subtitle speaks directly to this; it is promising the reader the holy grail: that they will be able to "find" and "keep" love. To that end, the appeal of attachment theory is easy enough to understand: it offers a psychological framework for understanding an experience, that is to say the intimate encounter of other people in all their complexity, which so often seems to defy logic. 
Heather Sequeira is a consultant psychologist. Like Morgan, she has concerns about the online afterlife of attachment theory. She notes that attachment theory has its origins in the 1950s. The concept was thought up in 1958 by a British psychologist named John Bowlby who was interested in how a child’s relationship with their mother shapes their subsequent approach to the world. Along with American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby developed the categories of attachment styles after observing mothers and children in various studies.
The behaviour of mothers as the primary caregiver was central to Bowlby's hypothesis. If a mother was what he called "affectionless" and not able to fulfil the feminine maternal ideals of being present and emotionally supportive her child would be damaged and experience long-term cognitive, social and emotional difficulties. Followers of this work continued to add categories in later years. 
The gendered nature of Bowlby's initial studies is obvious. Like Philip Larkin, it's tempting for us all to blame everything in life on our parents. And, particularly, on our mothers. There is nothing society loves more than pillorying women who are not behaving in a socially sanctioned maternal way. But are we really going to turn our mothers into our own personal Eves, demonising them and holding them responsible for our anxious and/or avoidant expulsion from the securely attached emotional Garden of Eden because they were busy or distracted by, oh I don't know, going out and earning enough money to feed us during our childhoods?
Indeed, to Sequeria's point, as early as 1962 psychologists were criticising Bowlby's theory for being "single factor" because it focussed so much on the behaviour of a child's mother. There are also studies which directly contradict attachment theory and have found that a person’s attachment style in romantic relationships doesn’t mirror the relationship they have with their parents. And there is also much research which suggests that a person’s attachment style and behaviour is different in their professional relationships, in their friendships and with their love matches and, therefore, debunks the all-encompassing nature of attachment theory.
Added to that, as Judith Rich Harris wrote in a study published in The Journal of Behavioural and Brain Sciences (which is published by Cambridge University Press) in 2009: "attachment theory underestimates the child."
"The problem with elaborations of attachment theory is attachment theory itself," Harris continued. "How would a mind that works the way the theory posits have increased its owner's fitness in hunter-gatherer times? The child's mind is more capacious and discerning than attachment theorists give it credit for." 
The notion that all human relationships can be understood through one framework is not only simplistic, then, but psychologically questionable. It also encourages adults to abdicate from the responsibility of controlling their own emotional lives.
"Although nobody would deny that negative early experiences such as abuse, emotional neglect and poverty are strongly associated with anxiety or even withdrawn adult personality characteristics, there is actually thin and inconsistent evidence that 'attachment style' influences a person's adult personality," explains Sequeira. "At best, attachment theory could be regarded as one factor among a hundred other factors with its effect vastly exaggerated in the public mind; at worst, some leading child development researchers suggest that is plain wrong."
For their respective parts, Michael and Jess both acknowledge the flaws in the theory they credit with helping their approach to romantic relationships. "I think attachment theory is too binary to offer an answer for everything," Jess says. Michael adds: "I do think the ideas in the theory and the styles of attachment must feel alienating to avoidants who are so often singled out as problematic."
Knowing that attachment theory has evolved, in a basic way, from a study of the impact of unloving, absent or unaffectionate mothers on their children, it’s impossible to ignore the heteronormativity of this framework. From what I can see on social media, though there are exceptions, most of those posting about attachment theory are cis women and the majority of people I hear being diagnosed as 'avoidants' are cis men. This is the logical extension of a theory which was formulated with gender norms in mind.
When it comes to intimate human relationships, there are certainly always going to be some people out there who do withhold emotion or play games, but placing a value judgement such as 'avoidant' on those who may not be emotionally forthcoming is limiting and speaks to anachronistic conceptions of how feelings ought to be expressed. At a time when women, in particular, are in the workforce but earning less than their male counterparts, often while doing vital care work at the same time, this feels particularly pernicious. Must we all live in our feelings all of the time for fear of being diagnosed as 'avoidant'?
Is someone 'avoidant' because they don’t text you back immediately? Or are they busy and showing their respect for you by staying on top of their professional obligations so that you can build a life together? Are you 'anxious' because you’ve freaked out slightly that you’re falling in love and starting to feel vulnerable? Or is it normal to feel exposed as you reveal your soft underbelly to another? Most of us, I am sure, have been on both sides of each scenario at least once. And isn’t trying to control a situation by pathologising a person's behaviour because you don’t like it the opposite of love?
The feminist thinker bell hooks can offer us wisdom here. As she wrote in Communion: the Female Search for Love: "The same patriarchal conditioning that teaches females to believe we are innately nurturing teaches us that we will instinctively know how to give and receive love. We fail as much as men do because we simply do not know what we are doing."
"Women," hooks added, "are often more interested in being loved than in the act of loving." And, therein lies the problem with how so many people – generally young straight women – are using attachment theory. It has become a way to explain someone else's "unloving" behaviour while demanding to be loved instead of asking what love might look like and how we might all better genuinely love and support one another.

At best, attachment theory could be regarded as one factor among a hundred other factors with its effect vastly exaggerated in the public mind; at worst, some leading child development researchers suggest that is plain wrong.

Heather Sequeira, consultant psychologist
To that end, Sequeira says she is hearing more and more that people are using attachment theory to 'diagnose' their current or prospective partners. 
"I often hear phrases such as 'he's avoidant' or 'he's ambivalent' and many people use these phrases without any real knowledge of what they mean," she explains. "I think that on the one hand, people often love using labels to describe behaviour and personality. It seems to offer us clarity and comfort in that we feel we understand something or somebody. However, describing a partner as 'avoidant' can also put the blame for an issue in the relationship squarely in the lap of the partner rather than enabling a more nuanced understanding that a relationship is a complex mix of both people's personality and behaviour."
If attachment theory is used to open up conversations and help you understand yourself, it can be undeniably useful as Morgan points out. But if it is used as a simplistic shortcut to explain someone else instead of asking questions and listening to the answers, we might question whether it can ever be progressive. Is labelling someone as anxious or avoidant because they haven't behaved as you'd like them to really so different to saying "oh well, he is an aries?" Astrology is treated with scepticism because it posits an immoveable framework which suggests outcomes in our lives are predetermined. Attachment theory risks being equally fatalistic.
Added to that, in the hierarchy of attachment where 'avoidants' are maligned, the anxiously attached seem to get off rather lightly. Is it okay to ride roughshod over another person’s boundaries and send them multiple messages before they’ve had a chance to reply to you because you’re a 'preoccupied anxious person' who had a tricky upbringing and have decided they're 'avoidant'?
When we slap reductive labels on other people without questioning why they are behaving in a certain way or looking at our reaction to how we perceive their behaviour, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for our own actions. "Doing that takes us out of the driving seat in our life and puts our autonomy and decision-making on hold, instead blaming a pseudoscientific factor 'attachment style' that we can't change," says Sequeira. 
What makes loving other people exhilarating is also what makes it terrifying: people will always surprise you. Yet far from embracing uncertainty and giving people the space to change, attachment theory – as it is being translated into popular culture – wants to keep people in neatly categorised boxes. Indeed, Bowlby initially believed that attachment styles were permanent and could not be changed. This idea that your attachment style is fixed and immutable, says Sequeira, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy which dooms relationships to stasis and failure.
"There is also the possibility that when we define someone as avoidant, a subtle message – both to them and to ourselves – is set up which might perpetuate the problematic issue in the relationship," she explains. "If we use the label of avoidant our brain is likely to interpret new behaviour, arguments, relationship issues 'through the lens of avoidance' and therefore we will automatically 'see' more of it. Once our brain labels something, it becomes a bias that we see the world through. The other possibility is that our partner may well buy into the label of 'avoidant' and view it as 'beyond their control' (which of course it isn't) and actually start to act into the stereotype associated with the label."
Today we are so used to having control over so many aspects of our lives that relationships feel increasingly difficult to navigate. Other people don’t always do what we want them to do and so having a conceptual framework to slot others into feels like control. But often that can obscure more than it exposes. Particularly because if we focus so much on classifying other people’s behaviours and potential flaws, we actively choose not pay attention to our own.
And in order to truly love and be loved, we must. bell hooks, again, offers a vision of what practicing love might actually look like in Communion: "when I talk about doing the work of love," she writes "I am not talking simply about partnership; I am talking about the work of self-love in conjunction with the work of relational love."
There can be no one-size-fits-all approach to loving, tempting as it might be to create one. Bowlby was fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin. So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that, like modern day Darwins, attachment theory's social media savants are roving in the dating pool, attempting to provide a taxonomy of human behaviour and searching for securely attached unicorns in the hope that it will shore up their assumptions. There's another phrase for this: confirmation bias. If you're determined to be right, you will never notice when you're wrong and, as a result, you might miss out on the opportunity to grow and evolve.
There’s a lot we don’t know about each other but one thing’s for sure: diagnosing someone else as 'anxious' or 'avoidant' instead of taking responsibility for your own actions, and engaging with your partner as a multi-faceted person made up of rich experiences is no way to love other people if you expect to be truly loved in all of your intricacies by return. 
This article was originally published in June 2022 and has since been updated.

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