Online Dating: Impacts of Attachment Avoidance and Anxiety
Master online dating by understanding attachment styles and their impact.
Posted Dec 06, 2019
Having a hard time establishing a meaningful romantic relationship? Are you too avoidant and have difficulty tolerating closeness to people to whom you are initially attracted? Are you too worried about what romantic partners think about you and sometimes take things too seriously or too quickly?
No problem. Just pick up your smartphone, load that dating app, and start swiping! (If you use dating apps, consider participating in my informal survey. I will post the results on my blog by January 6, 2020.)
Online dating apps have become the standard way of meeting potential dating partners. Research by the Pew Research Center (Smith & Duncan, 2013) found that as of 2013, one in ten Americans had used a mobile dating app or online dating site. Of those who tried these platforms, two-thirds had a date with someone they met online, and nearly a quarter of them reported getting married or having a long-term relationship as a result. That is about 15 percent of online dating platform users.
I have found that, with perhaps one exception, all the single people I work with use these apps in attempts to meet people. Most are looking for a meaningful relationship. Some are just looking to date and view dating as a long-term strategy. But almost all of them say they eventually want to settle down.
In any case, there are serious ramifications here for the attachment system, the dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful styles, and how people process emotions and establish connections. (Click on the links to get up to speed if you are new to attachment theory.)
When meeting people wasn’t as easy, a person would be more likely to tolerate or overlook minor annoyances or imperfections. Instead of backing away and running for the hills, they might find other ways to connect and establish something more meaningful. With the advent of dating apps, people have become inclined to search for the perfect mate, and it has become easy to throw the fish back into the pond and cast another line. People often don’t try to overcome their own personality-based shortcomings to connect with other people; they just look for people who will enable them to stay the way they are and not change. For example, instead of asking directly for reassurance or trying to self-soothe when a potential rejection or danger cue is detected, a person with preoccupied/anxious attachment might just turn back online for attention and validation, thereby never having to face and overcome their own insecurities.
A person with avoidant (or fearful) attachment might once have had to try to tolerate being close and intimate with a partner who wanted intimacy in a relationship. In the modern era, the avoidant person does not have to learn to tolerate closeness. The avoidant person can simply leave and run back to the internet for another partner who might not be so demanding.
In effect, the relative value of close relationship partners has decreased, and it has become too easy for people to avoid having to adapt or contend with their own attachment styles. Smith and Dugan (2013) found that 32 percent of the internet users they sampled believed that online dating keeps people from settling down because “They always have options of people to date.”
Remember, the attachment system is designed to keep people connected or attached. It uses anxiety to do this. One of the primary tenets of attachment theory is that when anxiety becomes too high because we have strayed too far from our partner (or other secure bases), we lower that anxiety by re-establishing closeness or proximity.
But the attachment system was developed when security was not so easy to come by, and we really had to work for it. When relationship partners are too readily available, all of this goes out the window. Bauman (2003) suggests that online dating platforms are a place where people shop for partners and interactions without worrying about real-world consequences, and that one of the primary causes of not sticking with one love partner is that virtual proximity has become more important than maintaining proximity to the real people who are already in our lives. In short, people perceive that they can always readily connect with other people online.
I believe that this is an illusion.
In order to establish a lasting, in-person relationship, the relationship eventually must go offline. And, when it does, real emotions, anxiety, closeness, and intimacy will all be operative—along with the anxiety of preoccupied people and the avoidance of dismissing and fearful people.
But the way to lower this anxiety is to work through differences and blockages and learn to tolerate other people’s imperfections in order to grow closer. The way to lower discomfort or anxiety in relationships is not to turn back to your dating app. If you do, you will be bound to repeat the process over and over. If you bail each time you hit that point in relationship formation, you are assuming that there is a person out there with whom you will not need to go through this process. I call this the “app trap.” Unfortunately, it violates the rules of nature and the attachment system.
Remember, the goal of the dating app is to get off the dating app.
Here is what I suggest:
1. Try meeting people in person and do not rely on apps as your primary means of dating. Take your physical body somewhere you enjoy, like a local coffee house or restaurant. Go often enough that people get accustomed to seeing you. Say hi and ask people their names. People will come to know you, and you will meet people the old-fashioned way.
2. Only consider people who live close enough that you can readily meet in person (unless you live in northern Canada).
3. Practice balance. Do not start non-stop texting someone you meet online. People have jobs and work. Text like you would talk in person, like for 30 minutes to an hour in the evening. You wouldn’t follow someone around in person all day, so don’t do that on your phone.
4. If someone ends a conversation by saying, “Let’s hang out next Tuesday,” you do not really have a date. Dates involve an identified place or activity and a specified time and place to meet.
5. Once you find someone interesting, get a specific date, or be courageous enough to invite the other person on a planned date, and meet sooner rather than later. But if you want a lasting relationship, please consider waiting a month—until you can’t stand it anymore—before having sex. If the other person backs away because you did not jump quickly enough, then they are stuck in the “app trap” described in the first part of this article. They might not be willing to go through the healthy process of establishing a relationship anyway.
6. After about a month, if you still like the person and are still dating them, put down the app and stop shopping.
7. Never pick up the app after having an argument with your romantic partner.
Overall, I would say that the age of online dating and apps has not made finding a lasting relationship easier. It has just made it more confusing and easier to get rejected.
Goodcase, E. T., Nalbone, D. P., Hecker, L. L., & Latty, C. (2018). The Role of Attachment Anxiety and Avoidance in Communication Modality and Relationship Quality of Romantic Relationships Initiated Online. American Journal of Family Therapy, 46(2), 168–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926187.2018.1461032