From love languages to zodiac signs and Myers-Briggs types, the search for signs of compatibility has led us to a new form of pop psychology – attachment theory
words Beth Ashley
Recently, an unbelievably bold and assuming Facebook comment from a stranger stopped my thumb on its usual rapid scroll. I’m in a group of twenty-somethings where we discuss relationship advice, and one member had shared her worries about not having a boyfriend and being part of a distant family. The response from the group’s admin, who was not a qualified psychologist (as far as I could tell), went like this: “You need to seek therapy sweetie, you were brought up with an avoidant attachment style and it’s causing problems in your relationships.”
Attachment theory, where this term ‘avoidant attachment style’ comes from, has had internet users in a chokehold this year. TikTok videos on the subject rack up 129.8 million views and counting. The TikTok trend for discussing attachment theory stems from a book published over a decade ago: Attached: Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How the science of adult attachment can help you find – and keep – love. It was written by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller and was first published in 2010, yet it still reigns at the top of book bestseller charts today.
And its legacy runs deep. Frequently, I listen as my friends diagnose themselves with particular styles and analyse the people they go on dates with through this prism. Vague online quizzes, life coaches, Instagram quote cards, and TikTok explainers are what most of us are cobbling together knowledge from. But does this lense through which young people view, assess, and attempt to mend their relationships actually work?
24-year-old Layla* loves attachment theory, telling Woo that recognising her anxious attachment style in previous relationships was the key to breaking a cycle of terrible relationships. “I learned about attachment styles on TikTok and recognised many of my problems with fearing being left over the slightest disagreement and relating my self esteem to how much my partner wants me, spoke to an anxious attachment style,” she says. “Learning about attachment theory is the reason I’m now in a secure relationship instead.”
In Levine and Heller’s book, they explain that there are four attachment styles for adult relationships: ‘anxious-preoccupied’, ‘avoidant-dismissive’, ‘disorganised/fearful-avoidant’, and ‘secure’. Each comes with its own profile: a set of traits, pros, and cons.
Which attachment style you will have developed all supposedly depends on the relationship you had with your parents as a child.
As much as it’s icky to think about, the theory that our parents have an impact on our romantic relationships isn't a new or unique one. It makes perfect sense that having gentle, kind, and patient parents will better prepare us for love as grown-ups and that parents who don’t give a shit won’t. But with the Attached book and the social media content spun off from it, the concept of attachment theory has become warped. The “internet version” of the theory looks very different from what the psychiatrists who originally produced it intended it to be.
Laura Mucha is a lawyer who disseminates information from psychologists for day-to-day readers – meaning, she makes dense, academic, and scientific theories and findings more digestible for you and me. Mucha is also currently writing one of the most in-depth books on attachment theory for Audible. She tells Woo that attachment theory is complicated even for professionals with decades of experience to decode, let alone TikTokers. Mucha explains this with one particular example: “There was a young boy where four different experts – some of the most experienced coders of attachment theory in the country – assessed him and brought back four different results. The thing is, therapists carry their own attachment styles, and thus biases, into their practice.”
She also tells us how the version of attachment theory we see on the internet has strayed a long way from the original theory. “There are actually two attachment theories. One was led by development researchers solely focusing on children, and another was developed by social psychologists focusing on human development in the last century,” she says. “Within both theories, there are far more than four ‘styles’, which psychiatrists prefer to call ‘patterns’.”
Even if TikTokers were somehow perfectly accurate in explaining attachment styles, Mucha says that there are still a lot of flaws to the theory. “John Bowlby came up with the theory in the 1950s, and he really wanted to make the theory gain popularity. So, he jumped on stereotypes and prejudices of the time to make it popular. Some of those prejudices were things like “women should be at home doing all the child-rearing” and those biases crept into the theory.”
Yet, people speak of their attachment styles the same way as communities online and off do with their zodiac signs. That is, embracing them as their whole identity, and using them as a guide to find a good partner. “Everyone is trying to make sense of relationships because everyone is struggling with them,” says Senior therapist Sally Baker. “They're looking for a paradigm, a structure, a set of scaffolding to hold on to and try to make sense of it. Attachment styles nail that brief.” It’s similar to the fixation around the Myer-Briggs personality test (sometimes dubbed the ‘zodiac signs for businessmen), based on psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theories of personality which groups people into one of 16 categories – by understanding your own, it’s meant to help you in your professional life.
Baker also warns that there’s an unfair hierarchy to attachment styles, with the secure attachment style lauded as the “good attachment style”, and everything else associated with baggage. Often, you’ll hear people dismiss exes or dates that didn’t go anywhere with “oh, he had an avoidant attachment style” or describe nervous prospecting partners as “anxiously attached” over pathologising normal behaviour, and suggesting that anyone who isn’t “secure” is undateable.
This is something 25-year-old Daisy experienced when she realised, through TikTok, that she had an anxious attachment style. “I had always been extremely anxious in my relationships, always worried that I’d be abandoned if they didn’t talk to me for a few hours and stuff like that. I liked the context attachment theory gave to my relationship behaviours and why I was doing it, and it gave me the language to talk about it to partners, explore my problems and heal,” she says. “But there were times where I felt like a bit of a write-off. I thought, I’m always going to have anxious attachments and I can’t control it. I surrendered to the idea that I had no autonomy. It made me a bit scared and worried that I could never love again.”
Many TikTok videos explaining attachment styles position them as trauma responses (a coping mechanism when faced with a traumatic event). This isn't necessarily the case. “Though a lot of these attachment styles sound bad because of their names, they’re not always a trauma response [as social media often makes out],” says Mucha.
“Sometimes, these attachments stem from something seemingly simple and overlooked in childhood, not a huge problem.” If people have one of the supposedly “bad” attachment styles, it doesn’t make them a bad person.
UKCP psychotherapist Ali Ross expands on this. “If we become fixated on any aspect of ourselves, including attachment style, we risk over-identifying with the theory and overlooking what else might be valuable about ourselves – a form of confirmation bias,” he explains.
“If we were incapable of change and forever doomed to perpetuating one attachment style, there would be no hope of finding new ways to relate to people and this is not the case.”
At worst, fixating on an attachment style can become a way of abdicating our responsibility to ourselves. You’ll hear things like “My relationship was always going to end up like this; it’s just my attachment style.”
We can thank the internet-muddied version of attachment theory for encouraging people to think about their childhoods, the way they interact with others, and the room for exploration and development that may lie there. But there are serious risks to handing out and taking advice from non-professionals about such a complex theory, especially when it’s been condensed into a video with a maximum of three minutes’ explanation.
As Baker puts it: “People are transferring those measurements, styles and profiles into romantic relationships. And all of it is reductive. They’re not comprehensive enough or complex enough to cover individuality.” No matter what social media tells you, your supposed attachment style isn’t necessarily bad, nor is it a trauma response. And if it is, you won’t find the answers at the bottom of a ‘for you’ page.