The New Science-y Dating Solution

Illustration for article titled The New Science-y Dating Solution

A neuroscientist and a psychologist think they have the answer to everybody's dating woes: attachment theory. Surprisingly, it may not be total bullshit.


Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller outline their ideas in an excerpt from their book Attached, published in Scientific American. The gist: people fall into one of three attachment styles: secure (generally able to feel close to others), anxious (scared of abandonment and emotionally needy), and avoidant (uncomfortable with getting too close). The authors provide a few examples, but you can also diagnose your style with this online questionnaire (because what's dating advice without a quiz, amirite?). The key to a successful relationship is to avoid "mismatched" attachment styles — Levine and Heller tell the story of anxious Tamara and her emotionally exhausting relationship with avoidant George. But, they say, "even those with mismatched attachment styles can find more security in their relationships by tapping into the secure mind-set and finding secure role models."

Really, it seems like the issue is less about "matching" attachment styles than about becoming more secure, if possible — anxious traits like "I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away" or avoidant ones like "I am nervous when anyone gets too close" seem like they'd cause problems in any relationship. Levine and Heller don't really offer much concrete advice about dealing with attachment problems, but they do give this helpful tip:

Effective communication — the ability to state your feelings and needs in a simple, nonthreatening manner beginning early on in the relationship — is the quickest, most direct way to determine whether your prospective partner will be suitable for you. Your date's response to effective communication can reveal more in five minutes than you could learn in months of dating without this kind of discourse. If the other person shows a sincere wish to understand your needs and put your well-being first, your future has promise. If he or she brushes aside your concerns as insignificant or makes you feel inadequate, foolish or self-indulgent, you can conclude that you may well be incompatible.

This seems basic — and not really all that related to attachment theory — but it's actually pretty smart. If you're worried about whether you can depend on someone, just fucking ask them. Yes, they might lie to make themselves look better or to placate you, but often, people will tell you a lot about how much effort they're willing to put forth in a relationship — if you actually listen. Instead, women are encouraged to tiptoe around dudes — and read their body language or emoticons or preferred salad dressing instead of actually talking to them — under the theory that pretending not to care about a relationship is going to turn a commitment-phobic guy into a husband.

While a little mystery might be fun at first — a recent study showed that young women were more interested in men when they weren't sure if the dudes liked them back — long-term relationships require straightforward communication. And no amount of subterfuge, feigned helplessness, or Rules bullshit is going to make someone close to you if they don't want to be. Maybe the most powerful thing about Levine and Heller's advice is its message that if your partner is fearful of intimacy, it's not your fault for not doing enough to "snag" him (or her). But if you find yourself always craving more or less closeness than other people can give, maybe the solution lies with you, not with others.

What Attachment Theory Can Teach About Love And Relationships [Scientific American]
Uncertainty Heightens Romantic Attraction [Miller-McCune]


The personality of your partner can push you one way or the other. Being with a really detached person can turn and otherwise secure woman into the kind of person who often asks her boyfriend if he loves her, because he constantly acts like he doesn't. And being in a long-term relationship with a person who needs constant affirmation can make a person act cold and distant, because it's exhausting to have someone so reliant on you for his or her own self-esteem. Sometimes it's not even clear who is "started it" — maybe you go through a stressful move or career change, and one of you reacts by getting anxious and other detaches. And now you're fucked, unless you can both recognize what's happening and find a way to provide each other with the right amount of reassurance/breathing space to get through. Which is tricky because of the aforementioned stress.

Also, sometimes shit just happens and relationships don't work out because no one is perfect. Nobody steal my awesome Theory of Relationships, 'kay? There's a book deal in there somewhere...