The Anatomy of Attachment
Updated: Oct 29, 2018
Your limbic system is telling you how to love. Listen carefully.
I once dated a man who asked me, during our first online conversation, if I was familiar with Adult Attachment Theory.
“Well,” I replied, a bit unsure. “I was an attachment parent. But that was mostly because I could get more done with my kid strapped to my body.”
He wasn’t too sure of me and wished me luck. But because his photo made my whole body tingle, I spent a Friday evening reading up on adult attachment research – then pretty much begged him to go out with me. It was a life-changing relationship. And the puzzle pieces of my attachment style gradually began to fit together.
Maybe it was because I didn’t train to become a brain surgeon, but no one ever explained the seat of the emotional self to me in medical school. Our cadavers’ brains remained untouched. And for most of my life I’d never given much thought to what I’d heard referred to as the Limbic System. That was the part of the brain that ruled emotion, motivation, behavior and long term memory. That was all too touchy-feely. And not something I was going to get into with someone during a fifteen minute office visit.
So, it wasn’t until I started having long conversations with this man that I began to understand how one’s behavior in adult relationships, and sexual motivations, could be linked to how we experienced our primary attachment to our parents.
The theory goes that the type of intimate bonds we form within our adult relationships are influenced by how responsive our parents or caregivers were to our needs over the first few years of our lives. About 60% of us got the care and attention we needed to feel secure venturing out on our own. But 40% missed out on forming a consistently secure bond with our parents and that, the theory goes, will affect your ability to form secure attachments to friends and lovers throughout your life.
There are three basic types of adult relationship attachment styles. Secure essentially means you’re a very nice person, not prone to drama, passive-aggressiveness or lashing out at perceived slights with defensive retorts. You’re the best person to bring home to meet the parents. Anxious means you’re never quite sure if your partner loves you enough, you fear he or she might leave you, and the thought of that person getting it on with anyone else will cause your bowels to go loose or your head to split. Avoidants want to go clawing their way out of a room like a trapped cat the minute someone says, “I love you.” Or, if not then, certainly when the topic of cohabitation arises.
These relationship styles evolve within the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system is malleable, and from the time we’re babies it responds to, and is formed by, experience. Sure, everyone is born with a particular nature, but as psychiatry and neuroscience is showing us, the nurture deserves a lot of credit, or blame, for how well we pair bond. If you think I’m kidding, tell me about some of your early memories and I’ll tell you if you’re secure or not. Because if, like me, your earliest memories are of playing by yourself in your grandmother’s basement, I can almost guarantee you’ve struggled to become securely attached in your adult relationships and have been frustrated time and again.
Our attachment styles may also influence our sex drive. It’s easy to believe that we’re motivated to have sex simply because it feels good. That’s certainly part of it and, if you’re a securely attached person, it’s a logical way to create more intimacy with a partner. If you’re anxious, you may be driven more by the need to feel loved than to have orgasms. Avoidants, too, are getting closeness through sex, though often find themselves wanting to bolt when things get too familiar.
The take-home for me in learning about these different types of attachment is that certain combinations work and other don’t. The least likely to succeed is the Anxious/Avoidant combination. That’s like trying to stick the positive poles of two magnets together; the harder one pushes, the more the other is repelled. Avoidants will deny they’re actually a couple. While two Anxious people might initially revel in their mutual dependence but, after neglecting to step outside their bubble, may realize they forgot to pay attention to their other friends.
So the key to a stable relationship? Find a Secure person who is able to tolerate your particular form of insanity. Or become Secure yourself, through practice and a fair bit of therapy. But don’t delay. The limbic brain, like the rest of your body, is less flexible as time goes on. The sooner you can rewire that part of you, the more you’re going to learn how to give and receive love without feeling you’re on an emotional roller coaster.
For a more academic and well written overview of Adult Attachment Theory, this article by R. Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois is great. You can also read the best researched
book on this topic called, A General Theory of Love by T. Lewis and F. Amini.