Lifestyle & Culture

Late Dates #6: Attachment Styles

October 11, 2022

By Grace Cooper

To listen to while reading: Does Not Bear Repeating by The Weepies

RECENTLY, a reader asked me an interesting question: “Grace, in an earlier post you mentioned attachment theory. I listened to an NPR synopsis of the book The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, and was inspired to read it. I understand that deciphering your own attachment style helps with self-regulation in all established relationships, but how does this knowledge enhance the dating experience?”

Great question that I will answer with a question—is love blind or is love predictable?

A bit of background information first. Based on the original researchers of attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969), attachment is defined in this way:

An attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.

Psychologists debate the origin of human attachment styles, with the Freudian camp attributing our attachment styles to how our parents cared for us during childhood. Other authors stress the importance of later life intimate relationship experiences, while Bowlby himself believed we are all hardwired to attach via our genetic expression.

In a series of groundbreaking experiments, Bowlby noted these distinct attachment styles that are recognized in all babies:

Anxious babies are distressed when mommy leaves the room, take a long time to settle upon her return, but then are ambivalent– a mixture of angry and happy for some time afterward.

Secure babies are distressed when mommy leaves the room but quickly become happy and calm upon her return.

Avoidant babies demonstrate no visible distress when mommy leaves and ignore her upon her return, but their physiological response of increased heart rate and high cortisol levels belie this façade.

It’s understood that an infant’s exhibited attachment styles reliably carries through into later life. Yet interestingly, at any age, it is possible to modify attachment insecurities to achieve healthier intimate relationships.

Statistically, attachment styles follow a bell curve distribution. Amir Levine, author of “Attached,”says that 50% of people have a secure attachment, 25% an avoidant attachment, 20% anxious attachment, and the rest falls into the fearful category (with unhealthy traits from both).

So back to dating and how attachment theory can come in handy. You’ve heard the expression “opposites attract.” Based on attachment styles alone, opposites are indeed attracted to one another but only come together to play out their attachment disorders in a hellish dating game often referred to as runner and chaser. In today’s dating culture, much has been written about horror dates, such as the ghosters, the self-sabotagers, the clingers, the players, the emotionally unavailable, et al. Relationship high drama is entertaining on the big screen and in gossip columns, but healthy, satisfying, secure relationships are based on stability, open communication and partner predictability.

Take this short quiz, long on useful information for understanding your current intimate relationships, but also accurately predicting how successfully you will bond with a new partner.

My results today were this: 25% anxious, 13% avoidant and 100% secure.

Previously testing as a predominantly anxious insecure attacher, I have—through therapy, practice and extensive reading about the subject—almost completely healed past attachment wounds and moved into the secure attacher mindset. What this means for all my relationships with family, friends and intimate partners is Everything! I am no longer (immediately) attracted to avoidant types who wring every drop of energy out of this former codependent enabler. The sense of freedom from fear that I will be abandoned cannot be overstated.

Here are brief descriptions of the four types of attachment styles:

Anxious preoccupied: Anxious attachment is characterized by a persistent feeling of stress related to the dependability and security of your intimate relationship. You love to be very close to your romantic partners and have the capacity for great intimacy. You often fear, however, that your partner does not wish to be as close as you would like your partner to be. Relationships tend to consume a large part of your emotional energy. You tend to be very sensitive to small fluctuations in your partner’s moods and actions, and although your senses are often accurate, you take your partner’s behaviors overly personally. As a result, you tend to act out and say things you later regret.

Dismissive avoidant: It is very important for you to maintain your independence and self-sufficiency, and you often prefer autonomy to intimate relationships. Even though you do want to be in a relationship, you feel uncomfortable with too much closeness and tend to keep your partner at arm’s length. You don’t spend much time worrying about your romantic relationships or about being rejected. You tend not to open up to your partners, and they often complain that you are emotionally distant. In relationships, you are often on high alert for any signs of control or impingement on your territory by your partner.

Anxious avoidant: A blend of anxious and avoidant styles, they can be unpredictable and not easily defined. Similar to the avoidant, they initially come across as secure and emotionally available, making it destabilizing for their partner when they switch gears later on. Fearful-avoidant daters are simultaneously afraid of being too close and being too far, manifested as a mistrust of others, and hypervigilant for signs of being let down or unwanted.

Secure: Secure attachers say what they mean and mean what they say. Secure in their own sense of self-worth, being warm and loving in a relationship comes naturally to you. You enjoy being intimate without becoming overly worried about your relationships. You effectively communicate your needs and feelings to your partner and are also strong at reading your partner’s emotional cues and responding to them. You share your successes and problems with your partner and can be there for your partner in times of need. Even though you have a secure attachment style, it is not uncommon for you to have relationships with people with other attachment styles.

In all my 150-plus first and last dates there were a few relationships that seemingly started out well. In fact, I fell in love more than once. However, as each relationship inexplicably fell apart, I found myself on the far side of crazy, heartbroken and confused. Was it me, or was it them?

It turns out that as an anxious preoccupied attacher, I was attracting dismissive avoidants like moths to a flame. After being painfully singed more than once though, I was determined to learn a better way to negotiate future relationships. I began by working on my own insecurities, rather than continuing to allow others to define me. There is nothing like a firm foundation of unshakable self-worth, insatiable curiosity and a sense of humor when it comes to dating in midlife.

Armed with attachment theory to further refine the process, if not crack the code all together, I began to challenge all potential dates to take an attachment test and share their results with me BEFORE I’d agree to meet them for the first date! Many men balked, but many others were intrigued and cooperative. Pre-Covid vaccines, I agreed to meet an interesting man for a weekend of cycling in DC. In a series of getting-to-know you phone calls, he told me enough about his past relationships to make me wary – three prior marriages and claimed to be “best friends” with all three ex-wives. Hmmm….sensing a pattern here.

Yet he was charming, funny, a cyclist, and I was eager to get the hell out of Covid prison for the relative safety of an outdoor date. Prior to our agreed upon rendezvous, I asked him to complete the quiz for me, results to be shared over dinner in an outdoor café. He agreed!

As I’d suspected, he tested strongly in one category of attachment style.

“Is that bad?” he asked anxiously over appetizers, as if I were about to diagnose a dreaded disease.

“It’s neither good nor bad”, I replied, in my best Brené Brown impression…”it is what it is.”

By the end of dinner, he had admitted he craved the security of being in a relationship and married all wives quickly, yet after a few years, he’d begin to feel anxious and initiated a series of relationship sabotage behaviors—affairs, drinking to excess, arguments, etc., that ultimately led to his divorces. But once free, he missed what he’d lost and thus reestablished “friendships” with his exes, keeping them close, but not too close for comfort.

Can you guess what he scored?

Yep. Anxious avoidant through and through. Charm aside, can you imagine falling in love with such an insecure attacher?

He went on to tell me he’d just ended a two-year relationship with a woman he thought the world of, but decided to end things anyway. I informed him I was not going to see him again after that weekend based upon his history, but assured him that he could learn a better way of relating. Much to his credit, he was open to this advice. By the end of the weekend, we’d located a few therapists in his town who specialized in attachment disorders. Furthermore, he agreed to phone his recent girlfriend and ask her to give him another chance. She agreed, conditional upon him going to therapy.

So, it wasn’t the kind of date that led to fireworks, but at least I dodged a few bullets down the road, and best of all–parted as friends with an open-minded man who just might be a great catch someday.

To learn more about your attachment style and find ways to move toward more rewarding and secure relationships, check out “Attached.”


—Grace Cooper (a nom de plume) left her long marriage a decade ago, and with it went all sense of her identity—but not for long. Now 67, she has begun chronicling her tales of looking for love in all the wrong places, and unexpectedly finding herself.

One thought on “Late Dates #6: Attachment Styles

  1. Maur says:

    This was SOOOO interesting. Thank you, Grace!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *