Understanding Attachment Styles: A Key to Trauma-Informed Dating, Part 1

Considering what a risky, potentially activating, possibly fun experience dating can be, I wanted to take some time to discuss how understanding attachment styles might make dating easier, more fruitful, less consuming of time spent on the wrong compatibilities, and less painful, because you’ll take certain behaviors less personally. Sometimes, it’s really not that “he’s just not that into you.” It’s someone’s attachment trauma.

My 2021 Online Dating Experiment

In December of 2020, when I read for the second time Jeffrey Rediger’s book Cured, written by a Harvard psychiatrist and radical remission researcher, I had an “aha” moment. Similarly to how I experienced the stage 4 cancer diagnosis and quick death of my father when I was 36 with a newborn baby, reading about all these individuals Jeff studied who were diagnosed with serious, life-threatening diseases gave me a bit of a near death experience by proxy. The pandemic was raging, people were dying, and I found myself wondering if I’d have any regrets if I got sick and died in 2020. The only regret I could think of was that I wasn’t trying very hard to find my hopefully last romantic partner.

So I decided to experiment with online dating for New Years of 2021. I signed up for eHarmony and Match.com and went on about twenty first dates- and a handful of second, third, and fourth dates. It was the first time in my life I’d actually dated, and I found it simultaneously demoralizing and fascinating. From an IFS perspective, I was surprised to observe how different new people brought out different parts in me- some that I easily liked in myself and some that I found hard to face. Each new date was a constellation of new trailheads.

With one guy, I instantly felt my mothering parts jump forward. As a young tech bro living in a small studio apartment in San Francisco, he’d been isolated, alone, and working on Zoom for the whole pandemic. I felt sorry for him and found myself tempted to indulge my caregiving parts, until I remembered how badly that had gone in the past. With another guy, it was pre-vaccination and he was crossing my physical boundaries right and left right off the bat- and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So I found myself getting fiercely assertive to the point of bitchy. And when he insulted for me for my clear boundaries, I found my feminist activist parts rising up. Another guy, an art professor with good boundaries and a slow pace was kind and respectful, so I felt my parts relax and get curious about him. We went on five all day dates, laughed a lot, made art together, enjoyed hiking and beaching, and made each other meals at our homes. I thought things were going well until I started getting attached on about date five, after he’d invited me to take a bath with him in the Japanese bath house he’s built. When I told him so- boom. He was outa there. I’ll never know if he just didn’t like what he saw of me in a bathtub, if that amount of intimacy was just too much for him, or if my desire to stop seeing others while I focused on getting to know him better was just too much pressure for him.

Because I can tend towards anxious/ ambivalent attachment when under stress, I wondered if I’d somehow come on too strong, been too needy, asked for too much reassurance, or otherwise scared him off. Or maybe he was just too avoidant in his attachment style, and any flickerings of real intimacy might have caused him to flee, even if I’d happened to look more like stereotypical Barbie than weird Barbie when naked.

Attachment & Dating

I found myself viewing the dating experiment not only through the lens of Internal Family Systems (IFS) but also through the lens of attachment styles. That’s when I realized that getting to know my own attachment style, while being on the lookout for how someone else’s attachment system might operate, could offer early clues that might somewhat predict certain long term behaviors. I recommend Diane Poole Heller’s The Power of Attachment and Amir Levine and Rachel Heller’s Attached for more specific information, along with quizzes to learn your attachment styles. (Take the online quiz here.) But  I thought I’d also share a few thoughts about attachment styles and dating, in case any of you are exploring the dating process and want to get to know yourself in relationship to someone new through a trauma-informed lens.

If you’re thinking about dating or you’re already dating or you’re just wanting to prepare your heart to love again, I’m teaching an IFS-informed online Zoom weekend workshop July 20-21 PREPARE YOUR HEART TO LOVE AGAIN. You can learn more and register here. It’s for single people too, or those who aren’t yet ready for dating, but we’ll be focusing on repairing the original heart connection- the one between you and your own parts, which can set you up for more secure attachment off the bat, regardless of the trauma or heartbreak you might have experienced in the past.

The Science Of Attachment

Navigating the complex world of dating can be challenging, filled with emotional highs and lows, misunderstandings, and varying expectations. It may feel like an unpredictable crap shoot, but you can debunk some of the mystery of dating by understanding your own attachment style, getting to know the attachment style of someone new, and observing how your attachment styles ping off each other as a trauma bond or begin to attach as a healthy or reasonably secure one.

Originating from John Bowlby’s attachment theory and expanded by Mary Ainsworth’s research, attachment styles—secure, anxious/ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized—describe the patterns of how individuals form emotional bonds and interact in relationships. Recognizing and understanding these attachment styles can help you make sense of your dating life by fostering healthier relationships, improving communication,making sense of why we might activate each other’s old attachment wounds, and practicing good discernment so we can set ourselves up for connections with more ease and fewer triggers.

Secure Attachment: The Foundation of Healthy Relationships

If you have the secure attachment style, you hit the attachment jackpot! Individuals with a secure attachment style tend to have healthier, more stable relationships, they’re comfortable with intimacy and autonomy, they do a decent enough job balancing their own needs with the needs of others, and they might have an easier time dating (at least with other securely attached individuals) than those who are insecurely attached. If you came from a relatively insecure family of origin, understanding secure attachment and observing how others who are securely attached relate can serve as a model for what healthy relationships can be like, since insecurely attached people can be confused about what a healthy relationship might be like and might not even be attracted to someone securely attached and reasonably healthy.

If you’re engaging in the bizarre experience of shopping for humans via dating, learning to recognize secure attachment traits can help you identify potential partners who are likely to contribute positively to a relationship, without staying too long with someone who runs for the hills the minute they really like someone, and without you chasing dating partners so furiously that you scare good prospects away. When you understand and are on the lookout for the green flags of secure relationships, you’ll also find it easier to recognize when you’re guilty of red flag behaviors yourself, which might understandably cause someone more securely attached to think twice before a second or third date.

If you’re one of the lucky ones with the secure attachment style, finding someone else with secure attachment will be relative easy street. But if you are securely attached, that also means you might be an angel from heaven for someone with an insecurely attached style, such as anxious/ ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized. While trying to date someone with an insecure style might create some challenges, if you’re securely attached enough, you might be able to offer an incredible gift to someone insecurely attached, helping them heal core wounds enough to be a great partner for you after the initial friction and distrust heals. Getting into couple’s therapy early on might be able to help you determine whether your attachment style will be compatible with someone with a more insecure style, or whether you should cut your losses while it’s still early and keep on looking. If someone insecurely attached has no interest in therapy, that might be an early red flag to be on the lookout for.

In the next installments, we’ll review the insecure attachment styles and talk about how they can impact dating and partnership. So make sure you’re subscribed and stay tuned!

If you feel inspired to learn more about putting yourself in the best position to go looking for love, you’re invited to join us for PREPARING THE HEART TO LOVE AGAIN.