A Popular—And Misunderstood—Theory of Relationships

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Like astrology signs and the Enneagram, the psychological framework of attachment theory has become a popular blueprint for understanding the self. But as my colleague Faith Hill wrote last weekend in The Atlantic, the four attachment “types” aren’t as cut-and-dried as they may seem. In fact, the whole theory is widely misunderstood.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Anxiously Attached

In the 1950s, the psychologist John Bowlby coined the term attachment to refer to the bond formed between an infant and its caregiver. He argued that this formative connection would go on to shape how an infant related to and bonded with other people for the rest of its life. His theory eventually led to the establishment of three different attachment “styles”: securely attached (describing people who are generally open and trusting); anxiously attached (describing people who “long for closeness but are paranoid that others will hurt them, and are thus preoccupied with validation,” as Faith puts it in her story); avoidantly attached (describing those who, “driven by the same fear of abandonment, keep others at arm’s length”); and disorganized, an honorary fourth type which combines anxious and avoidant traits and is a more recent addition to the taxonomy.

Attachment theory was once the provenance of psychology 101 lectures and perhaps also the psychotherapist’s couch. But today, the framework’s tidy behavioral-identity labels make it a natural candidate for online virality. Attachment theory has crossed the threshold into Gen Z memedom: In a Vox article published earlier this week, the writer Allie Volpe cited an attachment-theory TikTok that’s been viewed nearly 6 million times. That 37-second clip depicts a woman’s descent through a cascade of imagined worst-case scenarios after she wakes up to find that her boyfriend hasn’t texted good morning—“what dating someone with an anxious attachment style can look like,” the text above her head reads. If the video’s more than 3,600 viewer comments are any indication, the sketch strikes a chord.

This new popularity has brought with it a serious misconception about the framework: Many people seem to believe “that one’s style is set in stone during childhood, determined by connections with early caregivers, and doomed to play out in every relationship thereafter,” Faith writes. But the reality is much more complex.

In 2021, The New York Times attributed attachment theory’s renewed spotlight to the 2010 self-help book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—And Keep—Love. (Anecdotally, I can vouch for this book as the catalyst for at least one of my fellow elder-Millennial friends’ recent, enthusiastic preoccupation with the three main types.) But even the book’s authors are inclined to position attachment as more of a fluid tendency than a hard-set trait—as Faith explains, a “working model” that you’re constantly updating:

Amir Levine, a neuroscientist, Columbia University psychiatrist, and co-author of Attached, told me you can think of an attachment orientation as a working model of the world: a set of beliefs that are constantly put to the test. Those beliefs stem largely from the interactions you’ve already had—but your subsequent interactions keep shaping your expectations, which means that your working model can keep evolving.

In an excerpt, published in The Atlantic, from her 2022 book, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—And Keep—Friends, the psychologist Marisa G. Franco elaborated on how our attachment styles can change based on each new relationship that comes into our lives:

We develop our attachment styles based in part on our early relationships with our caregivers … But attachment isn’t all our parents’ fault. Although early experiences with caregivers establish expectations about how we’ll be treated, these expectations likely evolve in other relationships. And they shape those relationships in turn.

None of this is to say that our formative relationships don’t stay with us. Some negative experiences, unfortunately, may stick with us forever. But as Faith points out, they aren’t determinative of our ability to form new connections. She writes, “You’ll likely meet people you can count on, and hopefully you’ll start to believe that you can count on yourself too.”


Today’s News

  1. Three Michigan State University students were killed and five were injured in a shooting last night at two locations on campus. The gunman had no known affiliation with the university and died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to police.
  2. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California announced that she will retire at the end of her current term.
  3. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, announced her Republican presidential campaign.

Evening Read

Symbols of math and magic
Ben Denzer

Math Is Magic

By Camonghne Felix

In second grade, I stopped being able to do math. One night I went to do my long-division homework and I couldn’t figure it out. My mom demanded that I sit with my math teacher because my sudden inability made no sense. Two weeks later, I was sent home with a disciplinary note for turning in only empty or incorrect homework and was accused of not paying attention in class.

Up until then I had been a “good” student, a “smart” girl. I remember the secret bliss I felt when I knew before my peers how to count fractions without the help of manipulatives, and how to subtract negatives. This can be only partially explained by the teaching I got in school. My mom, who was then studying computer science and psychology in her master’s program, was determined to instill a love of learning in my life. Over the course of a year, she built me a computer out of parts and installed all kinds of educational games on it. When I arrived home every day, I attended my mother’s academy, where I spent most of my afternoons watching the sun fall on the walls of my bedroom as I finger-punched my way through the programs.

Read the full article.

More from The Atlantic

Culture Break

A group of bystanders look at a painting.
Photograph by Matthew Monteith

Read. These six books will change how you look at art.

Watch. The Valentine’s Day episode of Abbott Elementary (available to stream on Hulu), one of our critics’ favorite TV shows for a short attention span.

Play our daily crossword.


While preparing to write today’s Daily edition, I came across an incredible find in the Atlantic archive: a 14,600-word feature, from the February 1990 issue of the magazine, on the origins and evolution of attachment theory. The article includes interviews with then-83-year-old Bowlby and his contemporary, the American Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth (who is widely credited with developing the three primary attachment styles), both long since deceased. It’s an exemplar of old-fashioned (in a good way) long-form magazine journalism, and a fascinating snapshot of human inquiry and understanding.

— Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.