Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Attachment Parity: Do You Love Me Like I Love You?

Want to understand love? Follow the attachment parity

Parity means equality, and attachment parity in partnership means being equally dedicated to and dependent upon each other. Attachment parity is what stable couples have, and what unstable couples seek.

Want to understand the partnership dance, the steps people take when getting together, staying together and even breaking up? Follow the attachment parity.

We’re ambivalent about cultivating attachment parity. On the one hand we want it since a relationship is fairest and safest for both parties when we’ve got it. On the other hand we generally wouldn’t mind a margin of security, our partners more attached to us than we are to them. Disparity in our favor makes us feel special, desirable, sought after, and gives us a negotiating edge since a more attached partner will put up with more. But what price this margin of security?  Attachment disparity in our favor can make our partners feel unsafe, and may well motivate them to do something about it, to learn to care less, to take another lover and/or just leave.

Parity is important in negotiations over nuclear weapons too. During the cold war, the stated objective was “rough parity” both sides roughly equal in their arsenals so that they could relax their monitoring. But neither the US or USSR felt entirely safe with rough parity. Their efforts to gain a little marginal safety advantage over each other fueled the arms race. 

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

 

In love and war, often the quest for a margin of safety doesn’t make us safer.

We all know that romance goes better with a compatible partner. What we tend not to notice is that we also need compatibility within ourselves, or else we’ll claim we want one thing but act like we want another, which drives partners first crazy and then away. 

I realized a while ago that I had incompatibility within myself around attachment parity.  I wanted an equal partner, and I wanted that margin of security. I sought an equal partner but didn’t feel safe unless she was more attached to me than I was to her, so I sought ways to make her more dependent on me and then was frustrated that we didn’t interact as equals. 

I often learn best by cultivating negative role models, people whose behavior reminds me of what my behavior could yield if I don’t watch out. Around the time I started working on my incompatible desires for both parity and disparity in my favor, I was hanging out with some very successful older businesspeople and their once-trophy wives. These guys seem to have sought subordinate partners for that margin of security. Their wives were apparently willing to go along with it, and had become just what their husbands half-wanted, docile, silly, often drunk and ever-girlish, which is cuter in a 30 year old than a 65 year old. I’d watch the men grit their teeth and snarl at their wives for being so silly, never recognizing that their desire for a margin of safety brought out in their wives exactly what they found so infuriating.

For a sustainably good time, seek attachment parity.

In friendship the ideal is “to love the least among us,” in other words to be willing to befriend people of lower status.  But that’s not the standard in romance, at least not today. In past societies, polygynous romance beneath a man’s station was often acceptable. A wealthy man was considered honorable for taking multiple wives of lower status. But in modern society, we consider it troublesome to “love the least among us,” romantically because when we do, attachment parity becomes unachievable.  We tend instead to seek partners with whom we stand a chance of achieving rough attachment parity.

Still, achieving attachment parity from a cold start is the great challenge in turning a date into a partner.  Both people will be hypersensitive to signs that their date is “not showing up” because neither wants to be out on a limb, more attached than the other. 

Often, successful couples cross over to attachment parity by a scope-surge-and-merge strategy.  They scope each other out briefly and then if the scoping is good, on the count of three, they surge romantically toward their maximum attachment to each other, signaled through all sorts of romantic gestures. If it goes well, the surge leads to merger, both partners achieving roughly equal depth of attachment, and live safely together ever after.

They continue the romantic gestures, saying “I love you,” in part heartfelt, but eventually in part as a way to gently monitor attachment parity,  “I love you” meaning “Do you love me as much as I love you?” a question seeking reciprocation.

We start saying “I love you,” when we feel it and may continue saying it regardless of our level of enthusiasm.  A perfunctory “I love you” is a decoy signal that implies attachment parity that may no longer be reliable. Some couples keep up appearances of attachment parity long enough that they still live safely ever after. Some keep up appearances until they can’t, and the partnership falls apart.

When exes stay in contact during breakups, attachment parity can remain a source of sensitivity?  Did you care as much as I did?  Did you forget me overnight? We hope our partners ache attachedly at least a little, preferably a little more than we ache in return. If we care about not being seen as cold, we try to ease our partners out of the attachment, tugging a little, letting go a little, saying I miss you; saying happy trails.  As hard as attachment parity is to establish at the beginning of a partnership, it can be equally hard to overcome concern about when the partnership ends, which is a good reason to simply cauterize the connection at the end, rather than trying to ease each out while maintaining attachment. On the count of three, detach.

Attachment parity is a portal into a larger area of research for me as a member of an origins of life research team that asks what is life and how did it start? Simplifying a bit, what we’d say distinguishes living systems is their attachments, the way living systems do dedicated work to maintain access to that which they depend upon. At all of life’s levels of organization, from organelles to organic cells to organs to organisms to organizations, the behavior of living things is marked by dedication and dependency, the hallmarks of attachment, or if you want to get poetic about it, of love. For example, your heart and lungs are in love with each other, doing dedicated work to keep each other going because they depend upon each other. Attachment--the combination of dedication and dependency explains living behavior when nothing else can.  When we say that a behavior is adaptive for an organism, we mean that the behavior is some kind of dedicated work the organism does to maintain access to what it depends upon.

In physics you don’t find any behavior that requires an explanation in terms of attachment. The moons tug on the tides is not dedicated work the moon does because it depends on the tides. No behavior found in our 14 billion year old universes’ first 10 billion years requires an explanation in terms of attachment. Living behavior can only be explained in terms of attachment. Attachment is what’s new with life.

We could say that attachment is a new kind of causality. Your attachment to your partner, for example causing you to do those dedicated things you do because you depend on your partner. But that’s not quite right, because causality is predictable in ways attachments aren’t. Attachments are fungible, meaning you might be able to substitute a functional equivalent for whatever you’re attached to. For example your lungs are attached to your heart, doing dedicated work to keep your heart going because your lungs depend on it. But in a pinch an artificial heart or heart transplant may keep your lungs going. 

Likewise you and your partner are attached to each other, doing dedicated work to keep each other going because you depend upon each other.  But either of you could become attached to some functional equivalent, which is why you and your partner feel the need to monitor your attachment parity: “Are you as attached to me as I am to you?”

How old then is the issue of attachment parity?  About four billion years--as old as living systems with their evolving fungible attachments.  Despite what your therapist might say about your attachment parity issues originating in your relationship with your parents, they’re older than that.  If you’re sometimes panicked about whether people care about you as much as you care about them, don’t panic, it’s organic.

Welcome to the club of life. 

In this pairing I find that I’m fearing
About when we’ll start breaking and tearing.
O don’t you dear leave me
Too soon, it would grieve me,
or too late if you start to get wearing.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

more...

Subscribe to Ambigamy

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.