Are You Anxious, Avoidant or Secure?
Over a decade after its publication, one book on dating has people firmly in its grip.
By Foster Kamer
- Nov. 6, 2021 Updated 2:56 p.m. ET
Most articles don’t, for good reason, start with “My therapist said….”
And yet: That’s exactly where this story begins.
“Have you ever heard of attachment theory and adult attachment styles?” asked my very own therapist in a session earlier this year.
Oh, I definitely had. A few years ago, a high-octane romance suddenly exploded in spectacular fashion, out of nowhere. One of us shut down. The other spiraled. In the immediate blast radius, for both parties, it was as heartbreaking as it was indecipherable.
Near the end, this person expressed their desire to untangle their side of things, along with a photo of a book they had just purchased: “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love.” I bought it a few days later.
The result? Revelatory. Not for what I learned about them, but for what I discovered about myself, my own contribution to this romantic meltdown, and one thing or another about pretty much all the relationships that came before it. To say it changed the way I view (let alone operate in) romance since then would be a vast understatement.
So “yeah, of course,” I told my therapist, like she asked me about FM radio. “I’ve read ‘Attached.’ What about it?” I went on to describe the various attachment styles the book describes, characterized my own, and explained how I’ve seen it reflected throughout my life.
It takes a lot to surprise a therapist. But for the briefest of moments, my therapist was stunned: not because familiarity with this book and its contents made me unique, but just the opposite. She’s been recommending “Attached” for the last eight years, and I was just the latest in a new, recent stream of patients who got to this book well before she could push it on me.
The ‘Eureka’ Moment
Published in December 2010, “Attached” sounds, superficially, like so many other schmaltzy self-help tomes that came before it (“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” “He’s Just Not That Into You,” “The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right,” et al).
But “Attached” is built on a key differentiator: the social science underlying its upshot, starting with attachment theory, the well-established thesis of psychology dating back to the mid-20th century dealing in children’s bonds with caregivers.
One of the authors of the book, Dr. Amir Levine — a clinical psychiatrist and molecular neuroscience researcher at Columbia University — was working in a program using “attachment-guided therapy” to bond mothers and children when he stumbled into research he’d never seen before.
The research, conducted by Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, showed adults’ relationships in romantic settings as similar to the styles of children’s attachments to parents.
Dr. Levine’s “eureka” moment came not long after, when he imagined that, if this research could be practically applied to adults’ love lives, its implications — that one can (theoretically) learn how to better understand romantic partners or choose romantic partners or cope with the behaviors of a romantic partner — could be significant. Paradigm-shifting, even.
He reached out to a longtime friend and writer, Rachel Heller. He explained his revelation, and his ambition to explain this science to laypeople to help change their lives, but needed help packaging it into a digestible, actionable book that wasn’t just a bunch of research citations. Ms. Heller agreed, they wrote the book together, and sold it through an agent.
To many, many people: They were on to something.
What’s Your Type?
The book lays out the three primary adult attachment styles, which, like those of children, are: anxious, avoidant or secure. Our attachment styles reveal themselves in romantic, emotionally intimate situations — for example, during a fight, a breakup, or that precarious, weird moment when a relationship goes from casual dating to a serious prospect. In these situations, people with anxious attachment styles can instinctively crave emotional intimacy, and can become frenetically preoccupied with love and their ability to have, or lose, it (see: the aforementioned spinning out).
People with avoidant attachment styles tend to reflexively align this intimacy with losing independence and being suffocated, shutting down or pushing it away (again, see: the aforementioned shutting down).
And those with secure attachment styles don’t feel threatened or spun out by romantic intimacy — they communicate warmly, and honestly.
Everyone more or less falls into one of these three categories: according to Dr. Hazan and Dr. Shaver’s research, their subjects were about 56 percent secure, 20 percent anxious/ambivalent, 23 percent avoidant and 3 to 5 percent in a “disorganized” category (where participants vacillate between two distinct styles). These styles affected the way we deal with relationship conflicts, our feelings toward sex, our expectations in romantic intimacy and everything in between.
“It was interesting,” my therapist later told me, “because at the time, I noticed many of my patients over the last couple months were not only familiar with the book and the context, but some of the terms: avoidant and secure and anxious.”
It wasn’t just her noticing the uptick. In the three years since I read it, I saw the book more and more often on other people’s bookshelves, had more conversations about it, even overheard more conversations about it.
When I asked around about acquaintances’ familiarity with the book, the following responded, excitedly, that they’ve read it: My hairdresser (and her roommate), four exes, a newly married friend’s wife, a best friend’s new girlfriend, a former roommate, an old summer camp friend, four former colleagues (one of whom called it “the most important book I’ve ever read”) and a friend from high school I haven’t seen in over a decade. And those were just the people I knew.
In 2021, “Attached” is a top-ranked book on Amazon under the “Social Science,” “Cognitive Psychology” and “Love and Romance” categories. It’s in Amazon’s Top 200 books currently. It’s been translated into 20 languages, and is the rare book that sells an increasing number of copies year to year since its release.
The Pandemic + TikTok Effect?
Not long after the conversation with my therapist, I started cobbling together a theory of my own: “Attached” exploded in popularity around the start of the pandemic as single people wondered if they’d be alone the next time the world felt as if it was ending. It also, I imagined, appealed to couples who were watching their relationships crumble under the pressure cooker of the first wave of lockdown.
Lee Robinson, a 29-year-old comedian from Colorado, was one of those who worried about being alone. She had a relationship end a few months before the pandemic. She was in lockdown by herself, started hearing about attachment styles that spring, and read the book later during the summer, after it was recommended ad nauseam by multiple friends. Her reaction?
“It clicked,” she said. “I was able to kind of look at old relationships with a new lens.” And now, she joked, “within the queer community, it’s accepted knowledge — our version of the Bible.”
The book’s prominence is such that at this point, among her friends, it’s coming up within the first three dates: “Get in the water! Are you even going to be serious with someone if you’re not talking about attachment styles?” she said, laughing.
She, too, had brought it up to her therapist — not the other way around. And of course, on her recommendation, her roommate read it as well.
Sure enough: The book industry database Bookscan shows “Attached” experiencing a hockey-stick-like surge in sales, leaping from about 62,000 hard copies (not counting e-reader or audio versions) sold in the United States in 2019 to over 82,000 in 2020. This year, as of the end of October, about 102,300 copies have been sold.
Megan Newman, the vice president and publisher of TarcherPedigree — which, in addition to “Attached,” also published “The Artist’s Way” and “Atomic Habits,” two other books that have transcended the “self help” label into pop ubiquity — said it’s remarkable that sales have risen when the authors do little press and there has been little in the way of concentrated advertising and marketing efforts. She attributes much of its success to word of mouth.
“The other thing,” she added, “is the rise of TikTok.”
It’s hard not to find something substantiating a trend on a social network, but the over 189 million views attributed to #AttachmentStyle TikTok (or the over 72 million views attributed to #AttachmentTheory) are far from inconsequential. From therapists explaining what the various attachment styles are, to millennials acting out previous relationships falling to anxious/avoidant conflicts, there’s plenty there to consume.
What you won’t find much of are criticisms of the book — which do, in fact, exist.
Don’t Quit Therapy Yet
Even though my therapist believes the book is “excellent,” she sees it as a broad tool that should be used within the context of therapy (she admits that she’s biased).
While the book offers a test to assess one’s own attachment style, she pointed out that people can get self-assessments wrong (hence, uh, the therapy profession), to say nothing of assessing others’ styles, and even more, being unable to differentiate between someone’s personality (they just don’t like to text) and the amateur pathologizing of their attachment style (“they’re avoidant”).
People who aren’t mental health professionals, she explained, don’t have the training to “understand all of the other biopsychosocial influences” that comprise a person.
This gets at the root of one of the primary knocks against the book, from its critics: Its view toward intimacy issues is often tilted at finding partners who suit one’s own attachment style — either one that matches, or someone with a secure attachment style — rather than mending relationships between two conflicting attachment styles, which the book dedicates some real estate to, but not a ton.
Other critics, like Rob Weisskirch, a professor of Human Development at California State University, Monterey Bay, question the larger paradigm of adult attachment theory. Dr. Weisskirch hasn’t read the book but believes the theory is limiting because it demonstrates only four types of ways people relate in relationships.
He also pointed out that the ultimate goal with attachment theory is often “thinking about long-term partnership. But that’s kind of an old notion, to think that everyone’s going to be in a long-term relationship. Because there are some people who are very happy not being in long term relationship.”
Alexis Hyde, the director of the Museum of Broken Relationships in Los Angeles, hasn’t read the book either, nor will she stock it in the museum’s bookstore.
“As somebody who’s in the business of them, I find broken relationships — and the things that occur that create them — to be incredibly nuanced,” she said. “There’s a lot more causes than just: These are four types of attachment styles. And this is just the way it’s been described to me. I don’t want to engage with this kind of discourse. The self-identifying as an anxious attachment type or an avoidant attachment type, or labeling someone else — those words become insurmountable. You’re creating these barriers of: I can’t get out of this.”
Her sense is that people will say “‘I’m avoidant, guess I’m never going to have a relationship.’ ‘I’m anxious. So I’m, I’m texting him too much, and that’s why he doesn’t like me.’ Those kinds of words have power.”
Even the Author Is Surprised
Another critique is that the book flattens nuance out of some very complicated ideas, and that its success is owed to part of a larger trend of people overeager to reduce themselves or others to a single style (see: Myers-Briggs tests, Enneagram typing, Zodiac signs). They do this, goes the critique, in order to further pronounce their own identity, rather than realizing that our behavior and attachment styles (and thus, our identities) aren’t so precisely fixed, or attributable to just one single thing, goes the critique.
“There is a spectrum,” Dr. Levine said when I spoke to him in September. “But what the research finds is that there is a predominant characteristic that you can find yourself gravitating toward more. And I think that’s helpful to know.”
As for the critique of the book needing to be read in therapy? He agreed that this would be ideal, but contended that while not everyone has access to therapy, most people have access to a library, and something is better than nothing. He also agreed that the book attempts to negotiate the fine line between being a wonkish academic treatise, and being over-distilled — and it may not always succeed to people’s tastes on either side.
In our interview, given that he had just been read a series of pitches against his life’s work he’s no doubt heard time and time again, Dr. Levine was a remarkably good sport. This may have something to do with that fact that he’s not some globe-trotting, TED-talking, Oprah-approved sage-on-a-stage celebrity love guru, but instead, a sheepish, shy, sweetly enthusiastic Columbia academic, who spends most of his days seeing patients, conducting research, writing and talking about neural-developmental pathologies.
While he foresaw a rise in sales during the pandemic, Dr. Levine remains as mystified at the book’s success over the last decade as anyone else. “I don’t think I still fully realize it,” he said, laughing. And no, he knew nothing about #AttachmentStyle TikTok.
He even conceded what he would do differently if he wrote it now, which is to emphasize the need for empathy toward avoidant attachment styles, who suffer as much (if not, in many ways, more so) than those with anxious attachment styles. Their instinctive aversion to intimacy can translate to more broken relationships with people they genuinely love, and thus, more loneliness, despite deeply desiring companionship.
Remarkably, when he talks about writing the book, he sounds … exactly like nearly everyone who’s ever read it.
At the time he came across the research that would form the basis of the book, he was going through a breakup (he’s in a relationship now). What he learned “really helped me so much to understand everything that was going on in that breakup. It was really an eye-opening experience.”
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