- Attachment style is an important quality for promoting healthy adult relationships.
- New research tests the value of two questions to ask yourself when you're trying size up a potential partner.
- Even if you're in a relationship, knowing how to spot an insecurely attached person can have benefits.
A person’s attachment style can determine not only their own happiness in relationships, but that of their partner. When you’re about to decide on who to get involved with, it would be advantageous to determine quickly whether this is someone who will bring you happiness or whether life with them will be nothing but trouble. Based on a carryover from early childhood relationships with adults, attachment style represents what is called the “internal model” you’ve formed about whether you can rely on the important people in your life.
A securely attached individual is able to accept the ups and downs of adult relationships, particularly romantic ones, without being overly distressed when things aren’t going well. In contrast, someone who is anxiously attached becomes clingy and despondent at the idea of being on their own. The “avoidant type" applies to people who are so afraid of being left that they put up walls between themselves and other potential partners.
Attachment style underlies not just romantic relationships, but many important interpersonal connections. You could be anxiously attached to your boss if you’re certain they’re going to fire you at any moment. Family life with other relatives, even your own children, can also be affected by attachment style. However, it’s in the closest of adult relationships that worries about being left alone or treated poorly are more likely to be put to the test.
The Telltale Signs of Attachment Style
According to a recent study by York University’s Eric Tu and colleagues (2022), “a wealth of research on romantic attachment shows that a person’s attachment anxiety…and attachment avoidance…are among the top predictors of relationship quality." Those who are securely attached, the authors go on to note, “may have the potential to be more viable long-term partners.”
If all of this is true, the $64,000 question is whether you can short-circuit later problems by finding a securely attached partner-to-be and, if so, what would guide you to this happy discovery?
Previous researchers found that even as minimal of a stimulus as a photo can send out warning signals of a person’s insecure attachment style. The only problem is that in some cases, people project their own attachment styles onto someone else, limiting their ability to form independent judgments. If you’re anxiously attached, in other words, you might read into the impassive eyes of someone in a photo the possibility that this person wouldn’t give you as much love and attention as you would like.
In real-life interactions, there is more information to go by in deciding whether you’ve got a lover or a leaver. Those subtle cues related to body language, including eye contact, ought to be more informative than the static image in a photo.
More to the point, if you knew the right questions to ask, you wouldn’t need to rely on nonverbal cues that might or might not reflect a person’s inner dynamics. It was this idea that prompted the York U. researchers to find out exactly what it takes to determine, in the rapid-fire situation of a speed dating situation, what another person’s attachment style might be.
Getting to the Core of Attachment Style
Given the nature of speed dating, this was a perfect situation to test out the briefest of brief attachment style questions. Tu and his collaborators adapted existing measures for their 164 participants (average age: 22 years old) involved in almost 1,900 speed dates over the course of a single weekend. All were attending an anime convention in Toronto, and participated in 13 3-minute dates with participants of the other gender/sex. Each participant answered questions about their own attachment style and, after each date, assessed that of their partner.
Their split-second ratings were based on these two questions:
- In relationships, I think … is insecure and needy (attachment anxiety)
- In relationships, I think … is uncomfortable with closeness (attachment avoidance).
The findings revealed a close correspondence between the attachment anxiety ratings of the participants and partners. The clingy find it hard to look anything but clingy, even in the span of a mere 3 minutes. However, attachment avoidance was not so easy to detect, as these ratings did not show the same level of correspondence to self-ratings. Furthermore, as predicted, those perceived as insecurely attached were seen as less desirable long-term partners. Regarding the question of projecting one’s own attachment style onto a potential partner, it was the men in the study who were more likely to do so than women, at least in the case of attachment anxiety,
Using the Questions in Your Own Life
Armed with these data, you can now put these two questions in your back pocket to use the next time you’re faced with assessing the wisdom of a new relationship. Although the attachment avoidance question didn’t work out as planned, there is still good reason to include this as a question to consider for a potential partner.
As the authors noted, people high in attachment avoidance may have learned ways to disguise their underlying distaste for closeness, a possibility likely to be particularly true in a speed-dating context. Since success in this situation relies on looking like you’re interested in a romantic relationship, it would behoove the avoidantly attached to put on a false front. You might have to do more digging, then, to find out whether the seemingly securely attached person is covering up their actual wish to remain uninvolved.
The clingy, unfortunately for them, may find it more difficult to mask their need for reassurance from a potential partner. The York study wasn’t able to identify which qualities of a person indicate anxious attachment, which remains a question for future research, Of course, you may have your own hypotheses about this.
Even if you’re in a solid relationship now and have no immediate use for these questions in a romantic context, it can nevertheless be helpful to know that you have ways to decide on who you might become close to for other reasons, whether it’s a new friend or someone you’d like to get to know at work.
To sum up, as important as attachment style is to healthy relationships, being able to detect attachment style may be just as key. Having two simple questions to rely on can help you put this theory into practice as you set about in relationships that will be important to your own fulfillment.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Tu, E., Maxwell, J. A., Kim, J. J., Peragine, D., Impett, E. A., & Muise, A. (2022). Is my attachment style showing? Perceptions of a date’s attachment anxiety and avoidance and dating interest during a speed-dating event. Journal of Research in Personality, 100, 1–9. doi:/10.1016/j.jrp.2022.104269.