How much time do you want to spend finding out that your personality is not compatible with that of a relationship partner? What if you could save all that time and rule out incompatible people on the first date? Attachment theory can show you the way.
Attachment theory roughly categorizes people into one of four basic attachment “styles." You have probably heard the phrase “opposites attract." That might be true. If you have a preoccupied/anxious attachment style you may be attracted to someone with a dismissing/avoidant style. But after the initial phase of dating, the avoidant person often will not give the anxiously attached person enough personal time or attention and might send mixed messages. In contrast, if you have an avoidant style, you might be bothered by the preoccupied/anxious person’s need for your time, reassurance, and affection. Either way, both people are likely to feel frustrated and let down.
If you have a fearful attachment style, you are likely to find dating and looking for love a bit off-putting. You might be quick to feel rejected, like the preoccupied/anxiously attached person, and might be quick to cut people off and distance from them like the dismissing/avoidantly attached person. People with those other styles might experience you as unpredictable and reactive. By extension, they might distance themselves from you and give you exactly the type of experience you don’t want. So, if you have a fearful style you are going to do best with someone who is securely attached.
People with secure attachment styles have it the easiest. They will be better able to tolerate people with any of the other styles. They are not anxious or worried about rejection, so they are not likely to be put off by potential distancing by a dismissing/avoidant person. They also will be more willing to meet the emotional and time needs of the preoccupied/anxious person. Finally, they might be willing to tolerate the emotional and behavioral inconsistencies of the fearful person.
To summarize attachment style matching:
- People with fearful attachment styles are likely to do best with those with secure styles.
- People with preoccupied/anxious styles will do best with secure styles, might do okay with those with fearful styles, and may want to avoid those with high levels of dismissing/avoidance.
- People with dismissing/avoidant styles will do best with secure styles, might be okay with someone with a fearful style, and may want to avoid those with high levels of preoccupied/anxious attachment.
- People with secure styles will be likely to enjoy dating people with anxious, dismissing, and fearful styles, in that order. Your choice of partners might relate to your present life context and how much time you want to devote to establishing a relationship.
Short of hiring an attachment theory expert or having someone fill out a questionnaire to assess their style before you meet them for the first date, you need to know what to look for. Fortunately, research on attachment styles and the Adult Attachment Inventory provide some good direction.
There are telltale signs that serve as markers for each style. Here are three questions you can ask to reveal them, along with typical responses for each of the styles.
- What was your early childhood like? (If asked for clarification, say “before you were 10.”)
- Secure: They may answer the question honestly with a mixture of the good, the bad, and the ugly. But they won’t go on too long or get sidetracked.
- Dismissing/Avoidant: They might overtly seem uncomfortable and dodge the question. They characteristically state that they have very little or no memory of early childhood. Alternately, they will give you a general and vague but glowing statement about having had a wonderful childhood, even though they have no specific memories to back this up.
- Preoccupied/Anxious: They will readily answer the question and might get “pulled into it.” You might start feeling confused about whether they are talking about the past or present and are likely to get the sense that they are going on way too long.
- Fearful: They might get annoyed, dodge the question, or try to distract you by asking a question of their own. Their answer might seem confusing and disorganized. They could reveal disrupted/scary parent-child relationships.
2. Who did you go to for hugs, comfort, and reassurance when you got scared or anxious?
- Secure: Will give a direct answer and examples of caring/loving parents or caregivers.
- Dismissing: They may say something like “probably my mom" (or dad), but, on follow up, won’t have corresponding memories to support this. They might say they took care of themselves and no one gave hugs or comfort.
- Preoccupied: They might give you a direct answer and examples of love and hugs but this might be mixed with some indication of inconsistency, unmet need, or resentment.
- Fearful: They might get bothered by the question and perceive it as invasive. They might get emotionally off balance and give you an answer that includes loss or scary experiences/trauma.
3. What was your last romantic relationship like and how did it end?
- Secure: They will typically reveal lasting and affectionate relationships. They will probably not speak ill of exes, but indicate both positive and negative features of the relationship.
- Dismissing: They will probably try to shut down the question or state that they are totally done with this other person and never give it any thought.
- Preoccupied: They might reveal some level of emotional turmoil, dissatisfaction/anger, or unmet needs. The relationship is most likely to have ended painfully.
- Fearful: Again, they might get knocked off balance by the question or say, “None of your business.” Expect a vague or scattered/disorganized response.
Irrespective of whether you get the chance to ask these questions, look for the response style of the other person. Responses of secure people are likely to be balanced and of appropriate length. Dismissing people are likely to give you short, under-elaborated responses. Preoccupied people are likely to go on too long and give you overly elaborated responses. Fearful people are likely to give you responses that seem disorganized and you might struggle to follow their flow and meaning.
Finally, be aware of your age range. In your early 20’s there will be many people with secure styles (50%) in the dating pool. Once you get into your 40’s, those with secure styles will become more and more scarce and you may find an increasing prevalence of those with dismissing/avoidant styles.
George C., Kaplan, N., & Main, M. (1985). The adult attachment interview. Unpublished manuscript, University of California at Berkley, Berkley.
Stan Tatkin. (2016). Wired for Dating : How Understanding Neurobiology and Attachment Style Can Help You Find Your Ideal Mate. New Harbinger Publications.
Kieran T. Sullivan. (2021). Attachment Style and Jealousy in the Digital Age: Do Attitudes About Online Communication Matter? Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.678542
Spinelli, M., Fasolo, M., Coppola, G., & Aureli, T. (2019). It is a matter of how you say it: Verbal content and prosody matching as an index of emotion regulation strategies during the Adult Attachment Interview. International Journal of Psychology, 54(1), 102–107.