Attached (Levine and Heller)

I am not a big fan of self-help books. The ones I’ve encountered tend to either be vapid and vague or so full of jargon as to be worthless. Perhaps it’s the influence of too much Nietzsche, but I generally believe that most people can solve their own life problems if they make a genuine effort to do so. (Of course, that’s not always true for things like clinical depression.) Clearly there are lots of biological influences that shape our brains and bodies, and thus our perceptions and actions, but that’s not the only explanation.

So when a friend of mine suggested I read Levine and Haller’s Attached, I was skeptical. The subtitle, “The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find– and Keep– Love”, didn’t ease my skepticism any. Usually when something is described as a “new science” it’s anything but. However, I am determined to be more introspective going forward, and to better understand myself as a person, so I figured I’d give the book a try. After all, I could always get a good laugh if it was worthless.

Reading the book, however, changed my mind completely. Heller and Levine present a well-reasoned case, backed by Actual Science, that there are biological attachment mechanisms that in large measure govern how we relate to others. They focus on romantic attachment, but much of what they say can be applied to familial or even work relationships. According to them, human attachment behavior falls into three categories: secure people are easily able to form stable, lasting relationships with good emotional intimacy; avoidant people unconsciously seek to create distance when an intimate partner starts getting too close, and anxious people continually try to increase intimacy with their partner by drawing them closer. The avoidant and anxious attachment types both engage in what the authors call “protest behavior”– in essence, acting out. Avoidants do things like belittling their partner or recounting how great their ex was, while anxious types act clingy, attempt to incite jealousy, and so on.

The book is loaded with anecdotes about various behavior, good and bad, of couples who participated in Levine and Heller’s research. Most of these are pretty obvious; it’s easy to identify who’s stable, who’s anxious, and who’s avoidant in each vignette. However, they offer some concrete and actionable strategies for identifying your own attachment type, dealing with people of other types, and understanding the attachment style of your partner. They present these strategies as a means for those who are dating to pick suitable partners (e.g. anxious and avoidant people generally make a terrible pairing) and for those who are already paired to better understand their partners’ styles and how to interact with them.

I enjoyed the anecdotes; more importantly, I found the analysis of each attachment type to be well-reasoned, and I could certainly identify my own style based on the questionnaires in the book. Reading the book helped me make sense of a number of things that I hadn’t fully understood before, so it met my goal of equipping me with a bit more self-knowledge. In that light, it was money well-spent. Recommended if you’re into self-help books; if not you might prefer to get it from the library and read the first few chapters before deciding.

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