How your attachment style may be sabotaging your finding love.
Over the years, I have witnessed many people turning to dating sites to find a romantic partner. I have witnessed some of them finding love and companionship and others experiencing disappointment, frustration and rejection. And with these observations, I have become aware of how much a person’s attachment style plays a part in who they are drawn to and, in the case of on-line dating, who they swipe right on.
Understandably, people who developed secure attachment patterns in childhood have an easier time in their romantic relationships. For these people, a parent or other significant adult was a strong and consistent presence in their life and was, for the most part, attuned, responsive and available in ways that made them feel seen and safe. This caring interest supported their independence growing up and fortified them as they went forth into the world.
As adults, these people are mostly comfortable within themselves and at ease in relating to others. They tend to be honest and open in their relationships. They are drawn toward people who are equal and respectful. They value a partner who is both independent from and loving toward them. They don’t swipe right on someone they sense is childish or needy. They don’t engage in emotional drama. They stop following someone who seems aloof or who’s communication is inconsistent. They swipe right on people who seem open to closeness and like they are.
I know people with secure attachment patterns who met their partner online and whose loving relationships are standing the test of time. But I also know people whose attachment patterns lead them to make choices that never seem to work out for them. Insecure attachment patterns develop when a child makes psychological adjustments to establish an emotional and/or physical attachment to a principal caregiver who is misattuned, unavailable, neglectful, or even abusive. Psychologists have described these patterns as avoidant, anxious and disorganized attachment. They have also identified similar styles of insecure attachment that play out in romantic relationships: dismissive avoidant, anxious preoccupied, and fearful avoidant attachment.
One woman I know was a self-sufficient loner who had a history of casual encounters and short-term relationships. When she signed up for on-line dating, her siblings teased her because she only picked women who lived across the country from her. When she became excited about a woman who lived in Europe, her sister suggested that if she was seriously interested in a relationship, she should focus on people who lived in the same state that she did. Her sister then helped her decide who to swipe right on. She has been in a relationship with one of those women for the last 15 years.
A close friend of mine had a mother who was pretty self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing. When he was growing up, she was inconsistent and contradictory. She could be responsive and nurturing, or intrusive and emotionally hungry, or distant and emotionally unavailable, all depending on her moods. This made him feel confused and insecure, never knowing what kind of treatment to expect from her. As a kid, he was clingy and desperate toward her. In his adult life he has always been drawn to profile pictures of women who seem glamourous and exciting. But, these women have inevitably turned out to be self-centred, mirroring his mother’s narcissism. And, mirroring his relationship with his mother, he desperately has tried to make them happy, showering them with gifts and attention. Eventually, he realizes that he is unfulfilled in the relationship and starts looking again.
Another friend of mine says that she wants a long-term relationship, but she consistently makes online choices that clearly have no future. She goes on websites that people primarily use to hook up and chooses younger men who are obviously looking for a one-night stand. Afterward, she reaches out to them as though it had been more of a date than a hook up, and when they ghost her she becomes preoccupied with trying to talk to them to find out where things are at and what went wrong. She lives in an ambivalent state, afraid of being too close, but also afraid of being too distant. She ends up alone, overwhelmed by feelings that she is unlovable.
The question is: can we avoid repeating the same attachment patterns we learned as children in our romantic life as adults? The good news is that even though these are deeply ingrained patterns, they can be changed. You can actually change an insecure style of attachment to a secure one by developing a relationship with someone who has a secure style of attachment. However, it isn’t easy and it takes discipline. It requires going against your emotional instincts and making intentional choices instead. It requires a more thorough appraisal of those you are swiping right on while also taking a longer look at those you are swiping left on. Initially, these new choices will not have the spark and allure of your usual ones.
For instance, my friend with the self-absorbed mother could consciously resist choosing individuals who seem flashy and self-aggrandizing.. Instead, he could reach out to women who are as interested in him as he is in them. At first, they would probably seem dull to him and he might miss the excitement of basking in the glow of someone so egotistical. But, gradually he would come to appreciate the lack of drama and desperation and to prefer the equality and respect that comes with shifting his attachment style.
The woman in the last example could decide to interrupt the cycle of rejection that she is caught up in. She could stop pursuing younger men who are only looking for hook-ups and instead could swipe right on people who would take her more seriously. These choices might seem unappealing to her, initially. Not only would they lack the sexual excitement of pursuing younger men who only want a sexual encounter, but the absence of rejection would make her uncomfortable. However, over time she could develop her tolerance for the emotional closeness that comes with being loved and valued and also discover the sexual excitement available in this type of equal exchange.
We can take advantage of on-line dating to improve and develop our attachment patterns. Like the self-sufficient woman I described in the first example, we can consciously make choices that are not based on our insecure attachment style and actually develop a different, secure style of attachment. And like that woman, as we challenge our old patterns and come to feel more confident and secure in ourselves, we can develop a more gratifying, equal and loving relationship.