Is extreme attachment/unattachment healthy in relationships?

This recent article in Scientific American discusses Attachment Theory and how it applies to relationships, and it’s pretty interesting. The authors take the categories of attachment used in child psychology — secure, anxious, and avoidant — and apply them to relationships, eventually reasoning that combining different attachment types generally leads to unhappy (and unhealthy) relationships. For me, the bigger question is this: Is an anxious or avoidant relationship healthy?

In the version of the article online (I can’t access the full article), the authors conclude with this statement:

The most important take-home message is that relationships should not be left to chance. Mismatched attachment styles can lead to a great deal of unhappiness in a relationship, even for people who love each other greatly. But even those with mismatched attachment styles can find more security in their relationships by tapping into the secure mind-set and finding secure role models.

Here, it seems the authors are simultaneously saying that (1) love cannot triumph over differences in how people approach relationships and (2) if people do want to try to make these mismatched relationships work, the best model is the secure attachment model. I agree with these two sentiments, but I’m curious if the article addresses the dynamics of how healthy two avoidant or anxious people in a relationship would be. It addressed the two parties being mismatched — what if they are matched but not of the “secure” type?

Take the anxious attachment approach — here, I think of people who are very dependent on their significant others, to the point where they push other people away and only want to be with the significant other. As the authors explain, people of the anxious attachment persuasion constantly are worried about their relationships, being abandoned, and not being loved by the significant other.

Would two people really be a “match” if they were both anxious attachment types? I’m sure they could better understand each other’s fears and worries when communicating their anxiety about abandonment, feelings not being reciprocated, and dependency, but my fear is that two anxious types would also enable each other without working on developing a more secure relationship.

From personal experience and the experience of friends, I agree with the authors that a dependent person and an independent person or a commitment-phobic simply can’t sustain any kind of healthy relationship because both parties will be left unsatisfied as one party will not be getting enough attention and reassurance and the other party will feel suffocated or inadequate because they can’t provide the appropriate level of security (more so for the avoidant-type person).

The authors point out that these polar opposites exacerbate the insecurities each feels in relationships, though again I’d say that those with the same — whether they be anxious or avoidant (unable to get close to others, trust people, or be as intimate as people would like; generally feel nervous when people get too close) — would be at risk of enabling them. What immediately comes to mind are couples that constantly want to be with each other, who lose friendships because of this — though I don’t hear as much of the double avoidant relationships, where seemingly both parties wouldn’t be very intimate with each other and would have a lot of difficulty developing trust.

I suppose defining what constitutes a “secure” relationship is pretty subjective, and people could make the argument that it’s unfair to characterize as “unhealthy” someone’s natural tendency to be distrusting or worrisome. I just see so many anxious-anxious pairings that it’s hard to believe that simply mismatched styles are to blame. Trust issues and commitment issues run deeper than just genetics or personality, and they need to be addressed — as the authors at one point suggest — through effective communication.

The main points here are that (1) love doesn’t conquer all, and subsequently “but we love each other” is not an excuse for staying in an unhealthy relationship; (2) the best model is the secure model, whereby you don’t worry or have issues with dependency or trust; and (3) the best way to get there is through effective communication, because attachment styles are developed and dynamic (not genetic or static), and more security will only be found by addressing and examining the reasons you feel anxious or avoidant in relationships.

I still think these extremes, even if both people in a couple have the same attachment style, are unhealthy, but my views are based more on anecdotal evidence than science. Also, I generally dislike strict categories, but I do like the online questionnaire for attachment type because it has several axes and gives a more multidimensional view of attachment.

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