Perhaps the biggest lesson of all in child development is that the first year of so of our life is a radically important time for us emotionally. While we continue to learn about trust and social relationships over the course of our life (and experience another notable period of turbulence at puberty), the bulk of how we learn to be in relationships takes root when we’re infants. The way we come to feel supported or unsupported by our caregivers profoundly shapes the way we feel in all kinds of relationships, whether they’re friendships, romantic, or something in between. This baseline unconscious expectation we develop is called our attachment type.
In their book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller identify 3 basic attachment styles in adults:
Securely attached people find it fairly easy to connect with others and achieve fulfilling relationships. People with this attachment type typically don’t worry about being alone and are at peace with both intimacy and independence.
People with anxious attachment crave closeness to others but often worry that others find them clingy and can feel quite insecure, fearful that their partners don’t reciprocate the strong feelings that they have. Anxious types can become extremely dependent on their partners, viewing themselves as incomplete without that bond.
Avoidant people value independence and autonomy above closeness, and though many want to be close to people, they have a way of keeping people at arm’s length. They don’t open up easily (or at all) to their partners and can come off as quite emotionally distant. They can easily feel smothered by too much intimacy.
Levine and Heller have a quick quiz on their site here where you can answer questions to determine both your attachment type as well as a partner’s, by asking you questions about their behavior.
Attachment type is an important concern when navigating polyamory and the attendant demands that the complicated dynamics multiple ongoing relationships can bring. Personally speaking, possible attachment differences has been a good filter for me to run partners’ unexpected behavior through.
Not All Attachment Type Combinations Are Equal
While most attachment style pairings can work out fine, things can get quite difficult when a person with anxious type gets into a relationship with an avoidant one. This is the one combination that seems to work the worst. Anxious types, fueled by an insatiable emotional hunger, seek that closeness from their avoidant partner, who feels smothered and pulls away. No one is happy. Both are resentful.
It’s easy for one to call the other a bad partner, a jerk, a psycho.
But really, they’re only advocating for what they each need–it’s just that they need different things.
Some poly folks I’ve known opened previously closed relationships in an effort to give the anxiously attached partner more outlets to achieve that closeness. While this can work, I’ve more often seen this approach not fix anything and in some cases even exacerbate the issues. “Relationship broken, add more people” rarely works.
Although more power to anyone who finds a way to make it work.
In their book, Levine and Heller, a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist, discuss studies that reveal clear physiologic symptoms of attachment on functional MRIs.
As the authors write:
Once we choose a partner, there is no question about whether dependency exists or not. It always does. An elegant coexistence that does not include uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability and fear of loss sounds good but is not our biology…How can we act more independent by being thoroughly dependent on someone else? If we had to describe the basic premise of adult attachment in one sentence, it would be: If you want to take the road to independence and happiness, find the right person to depend on and travel down it with that person.
Makes me wonder if the fMRIs of multi-committed poly folk are extra gnarly.