Are You Bad at Dating, or Are You Insecurely Attached?
Understanding the critical role of attachment in dating, and changing patterns.
Posted May 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- People have a range of attachment styles derived from their caregivers, and have different needs for closeness and independence.
- Insecure attachment styles can impact on adult intimate relationships and have an impact on how one approaches dating.
- It is important to understand one's attachment style and think about how to change unhelpful patterns to achieve success in dating.
Attachment patterns are central to being able to form and keep relationships, whether intimate relationships or platonic connections. Attachment patterns are formed in childhood but often play out with intimate partners and in close relationships. As an example, someone raised by parents who were often detached or rejecting and thus formed an avoidant attachment style (think: ”I don’t need anyone, I am independent”) is likely to push partners away, withdraw during arguments, hold back from sharing feelings, suddenly stop texting after a period of closeness or be reluctant to commit. While we cannot ever determine a person’s attachment style from a small sample of people on dating behaviour—this is a very complex field and requires proper clinical assessment—we might be able to say that someone demonstrates secure, anxious, or avoidant tendencies.
Attachment patterns can be changed with time and consistent relationships, but this requires a few things.
- Insight into your own attachment patterns and how they play out in dating
- The desire to change this (i.e., you need to want to change your own patterns, no one else can do this for you)
- Willingness to go against the urges that your attachment pattern brings, and
- Consistent relationships (friends/romantic/family) to practice with
The Key Attachment Styles in Dating
Secure (“I am okay, and so are you”)
Secure adults are those who have been raised by caregivers who were most often available, soothing, nurturing, and not overly punitive. Securely attached adults are comfortable with closeness, able to be autonomous, can commit to relationships, pace contact and disclosure, are not too quick to perceive rejection, are able to soothe themselves, and soothe other people.
Securely attached individuals will likely be able to assess and evaluate a partner to determine if the relationship feels right and is a good match, will be okay being single and will be happy to partner up when the time and connection are right. They will be able to manage their own emotions and will be open and sharing in relationships and friendships. They are likely to be responsive, will maintain consistent communication, will not try and form a relationship too quickly, and will not be overly jealous or demanding.
Avoidant (“I don’t need you”)
Avoidant adults struggle with reliance and may be hyper-independent, struggle with being close to people, withdraw when distressed or reject partners. Partners may not feel heard or seen or may feel disposable. Avoidant adults may prefer freedom and independence and may have difficulties with committing to a single person, born out of a desire to maintain this freedom. People with avoidant traits may appear confusing in the dating realm. They might withdraw after a period of closeness, hold their cards close to their chest, be unable or unwilling to allow a relationship to become deeper, may prefer to keep things quite impersonal or casual, may never form close relationships, might describe themselves as “loners”, might pull away just as the connection is starting to feel stronger or might not want to talk about key areas of life.
Anxious (“I really, really need you. Please don’t leave”)
Anxious people will often develop intense feelings quickly, will struggle to be independent and may exhibit strong attachment bids (e.g., needing frequent contact). They may never feel like they are receiving enough closeness and may violate boundaries and push people away with their need for support and reassurance. They may often perceive rejection and need a lot of closeness. Those with anxious traits are likely to form an intense and very premature connection (think: you are sure you have met the love of your life after one date), attempt to make constant contact, become agitated or demanding without frequent contact (e.g., “are you upset with me, why haven’t you responded?”), look dates up on social media, attempt to hasten the pace of dating (e.g., seeing someone every night for a week), disclose too much too quickly, exhibit jealousy or otherwise try and make a relationship develop quicker than it ideally should.
Anxious-Avoidant (“I don’t need you, go away. No, come back”)
The classic push-pull dynamic. This often occurs when someone is uncomfortable about closeness and may thus withdraw or reject a partner, but may also worry about a partner’s commitment or closeness and then attempt to seek connection. This dynamic can be especially confusing for partners unless they are able to see the attachment dynamics at play behind the seesaw. Some dating behaviours might include: trying to get closer, then trying to get away. Fantasising about a wedding, then deciding you don’t like your date. Seeing a person for three days in a row, then not at all for three weeks. Feeling smothered and not messaging them, then reeling them back in because you notice that they have stopped messaging you, and panic. These feelings can spring up out of seemingly nowhere — and are not necessarily in the conscious control of those with attachment difficulties.
I suspect that a good proportion of the difficult dating behaviours we talk about — ghosting, benching, breadcrumbing, zombie-ing and love-bombing — can be explained by looking at attachment patterns.
The Remedy—Slow It Down
Any relationship, whether platonic or intimate, takes time to build. We need to get to know another person slowly, see them in various contexts, allow them to feel safe with us and feel safe with them ourselves. This is the work of years, not days or weeks. Attachment dynamics often play out because people have conflicting attachment styles, push too hard to form relationships and get spooked and run, or get spooked because of too-intense feelings and thus push someone away.
The key to managing these difficulties is to look closely at your own behaviours in all your relationships, determine whether you do have anxious, avoidant, or anxious-avoidant traits and understand how they might be playing out in each situation. Break it down. Did you send someone 40 messages yesterday, after only one date? Do you often start to feel jealous of a new partner’s friends? Are you highly possessive of a friend? Do you never share personal difficulties with friends or partners? Are you noticing that you suddenly feel distant from someone you felt connected to last week?
Stop. Notice. Think.
Act in an opposite way to the attachment urge. For the anxiously attached, this means slowing it right down and paying attention to other parts of life, such as your hobbies and friends, and minimising fantasising. Remind yourself that you really don’t yet know the person you are dating and that people have their own lives and will thus never be able to offer constant contact. It also means managing your contact with someone — allowing them to be the first to contact you sometimes, and using the one for one message rule (return one message for each message sent). Remember that if it really is true love, it isn’t going away).
For the avoidantly attached, this might mean texting the person you are seeing instead of just disappearing, and noting that the reserve and distance might be part of an attachment pattern and just sitting with it until it passes. Sometimes seeking contact with the person you are dating, or a friend, can be helpful to break past the attachment blocks. Plan a date, tell someone that you are feeling some reserve, but want to try and push past. Share something of yourself with a close friend, a family member or a therapist. These relationships are the cauldrons of change for attachment difficulties.
For the anxious-avoidant, the key might be to set consistent behavioural rules for oneself and to stick to them (e.g., once I decide that I want to stop texting someone because the relationship is not going anywhere, I will not try and re-start the relationship). It is also important to push against the urge to be both anxious and overly close and to then reject. Maintaining an even keel is key and slow pacing (e.g., one to two dates a week, a couple of messages a day) can help the attachment anxiety drop a little.
Over time, as we develop insight into how we behave, develop some realistic guidelines for ourselves and push the boundaries of our attachment styles to find greater stability and consistency, we are likely to find that dating feels easier, more pleasant and respectful, and less chaotic.
Zhang, F., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2004). Stability and fluctuation in adult attachment style over a 6-year period. Attachment & Human Development, 6(4), 419–437.
Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental psychology, 28(5), 759.