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One dimension to consider in the stranger you’re texting with is their attachment style. Attachment is the level of affection, sympathy, or dependence we form with someone we love—our bonds, if you will. Simply put, as we’ll see, it comes in three flavors.

John Bowlby was the first psychologist to study attachment. Bowlby was influenced by the research of Harry Harlow, who studied monkeys in captivity and observed that their bonds fell into distinct categories. The secure monkey was raised by a living mother monkey who holds and nurses her infant; the monkey feels cared for and protected. The anxious monkey was raised in a cage with a faux mother made of soft cloth, outfitted with a bottle attached to her containing warm milk; the monkey can attach and love but is needy, insecure, and cries a lot. Finally, the avoidant monkey was raised in a cage with a faux mother made of wire—not at all nice to cuddle with. This last monkey doesn’t attach easily, avoids close relationships, and is often hostile to strangers. 

Bowlby examined children’s relationships to their caregivers and found not only that Harlow’s types could be applied to them as well but that a child’s relationship to their caregiver was predictive of later attachment style, too. His studies showed that maternal deprivation adversely affected children’s emotional development and their future ability to attach in healthy ways. It was the foundation for modern attachment theory, which is commonly applied to adult relationships in psychological settings. Adults too, seek closeness—are biologically driven to form attachments—and the process of forming those attachments is dictated by experience. 

Humans aren’t monkeys, of course. But we, too, can suffer anxiety and loneliness with separation. Research suggests that half the human population is securely attached. They are comfortable with intimacy and feel more satisfied in a relationship. Securely attached people allow their partners independence but are also capable of providing honesty and support. That leaves us with fully half of adults who don’t react the same way to relationships. Anxiously attached people have trouble living in the moment and tend to overemphasize the role their partner plays in their life. They may cling out of fear of being alone. Avoidantly attached people keep others at a distance and may preemptively sabotage relationships to protect themselves.

Are the three flavors of attachment represented proportionally on dating sites relative to the general population? Unlikely. Securely attached types pair off early and are more likely to stay together; they’re secure that way, which leaves the rest to fend for themselves online, leaving a higher proportion of loose avoidant and insecure types rolling around dating apps, wondering where all the secure people went.

It’s possible to solicit early clues to attachment style in your initial text thread, but these traits generally take much longer to manifest, their cues more subtle. It certainly doesn’t take a psychiatrist to identify the most extreme forms of dysfunctional attachment, but reviewing early cues and potential red flags to watch for can be helpful. So though it is by no means a comprehensive list, here are five indicators of insecure attachment to look out for as you take forays into texting with new people:

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