Psychologists have long posited that we all have “attachment styles” that develop in childhood and determine how we behave in adult relationships — people with “secure” attachment feel comfortable being close to others, while those with “avoidant” attachment may fear too much intimacy. Now researchers have tested this idea by talking to “secure” and “avoidant” people at length about their romantic partners. They found that people with different attachment styles tend to want very different things from their relationships, and these differences may stem from how their parents treated them as children.
Study authors Sharon Dekel and Barry Farber gave 58 Israeli university students a standardized questionnaire designed to measure their attachment styles. Then they chose 13 secure and 13 avoidant people for in-depth follow-up interviews. A sampling of what they said:
“We live together, we share almost everything […] We share things emotionally; I tell her what’s on my mind and she speaks to me about her intimate stuff.”
“What differentiates a friendship from a love relationship is that intimate partners have to be part of one another.’’
“I really respected him […] He introduced me to a whole new world.”
“I feel very independent, which is important for me.”
“Besides this deep intimacy we share, we just have lots of fun with each other.”
“It’s a great feeling to care for somebody […] I enjoy doing the things that he likes.”
“She argues a lot with her parents […] I calm her down and make a nice dinner for her […] Then I see this smile on her face”
“[S]haring at some point becomes bad and annoying”
“Previous relationships were so annoying, they all wanted me to change. […] She truly accepts me and lets me be who I am.”
“‘When I get upset, I prefer being alone, but he does not allow this; he forces me to speak about my difficulties, as if I am transparent and he sees me through my barriers.”
“She doesn’t have psychological issues […] Everything with her just flows easily.”
“We almost never argue. Growing up, my parents always got into fights […] I like to come home after a tiring day and just have a quiet dinner together.”
“Being dependent on somebody, it’s not a good feeling, you want to be dependent, but eventually it is repulsive.”
“I would say he swallowed me, all my identity. I had nothing, as if I had nothing in my life — no profession, no friends. I had only his world […] that was so hard to bear.”
The study authors found that people with avoidant attachment styles were more likely to value calmness, ease, and validation (like the man who said his partner “lets me be who I am”) in relationships than were people who were secure in their attachment; secure subjects were more likely to value sharing, independence, fun, and caring. And avoidant people tended to actively dislike feelings of sharing and dependence in their relationships, like the woman who found depending on someone “repulsive.” The authors write: “although both attachment styles desire closeness, avoidant individuals seem to seek intimacy primarily for purposes of self-gratification. On the other hand, secure individuals seek intimacy primarily to fulfill interpersonal needs.”
Dekel told BuzzFeed Shift that the aspects of relationships avoidant people tended to prize, like validation, reflected things children need from their parents, while the qualities secure people valued were more characteristic of “a mutual relationship of give and take.” One possible explanation is that “avoidant individuals attempt to ‘get’ in the relationship needs that were unmet for them during childhood.” Their parents may have been unresponsive to these needs, or responded in the wrong way.
Dekel and Farber didn’t study their subjects’ childhoods specifically, so they can’t confirm that the parents of avoidant people withheld validation or were anxious or hard to get along with. But their research does suggest that avoidant people have different needs in a relationship than secure people — and, the study authors say, it could help people and their therapists understand their attachment styles and get these needs met.