It’s no secret that your upbringing can impact many aspects of your personality, from how you tend to avoid conflict like the plague (thanks, mom) to how you thrive in competitive situations (thanks, dad). But did you know that according to attachment theory, how you bond with your parents as a baby may serve as a model for how you function in your adult relationships? Not only that, but it could explain why you have a harder time with casual dating. As it turns out, people with one particular attachment style may struggle to keep it casual when it comes to romance, because doing so triggers their deepest fears.
British psychologist John Bowlby, who is considered the father of attachment theory, dedicated much of his work to understanding infant-parent relationships, and more specifically, the ways in which infants behave in order to avoid separation from their parents or reconnect with them when they're MIA. Based on what he (and other psychologists) observed, he identified a number of different attachment "styles" to describe the kinds of bonds that children form with their parents or caregivers. Later, around the mid-'80s, other researchers began to build on the idea that these attachment styles play out into adulthood — affecting everything from the kinds of relationships you seek out and how you behave in your relationships, to why they tend to end.
It makes sense when you think about it. After all, your parents are the first ones to meet your needs and set the expectations for how you receive love. So, naturally, once you grow up and start dating, those early experiences may affect your expectations in relationships and the way in which you get your needs met from romantic partners.
Attachment theory dictates that if your parent or caregiver was available to you and responsive to your needs, you will likely develop a secure attachment style. Unsurprisingly, this attachment style tends to allow for the healthiest kinds of relationships. After all, when you feel secure, you are able to communicate your needs, wants, concerns, and feelings without fear. On the other hand, if your parent or caregiver was neglectful or inconsistent in their availability and responsiveness, you may form an insecure attachment pattern. According to Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, licensed clinical psychotherapist, relationship expert, and author of “Training Your Love Intuition,” people with an anxious attachment style may struggle with casual dating.
Anxious attachment typically develops if your parent isn’t consistent in their availability. As a result, you never know what to expect from them, and as you become an adult, you may find it difficult to trust the people you date. People with an anxious attachment style often feel insecure in their relationships and worry that their partners do not truly love them. People with this attachment style also tend to become a tad clingy or possessive when they feel insecure in their relationships.
“You might have an anxious attachment style if you face the world and relationships with fear,” says Dr. Wish. “You tend to doubt yourself either in general or in reading people accurately. You harbor fears of being misunderstood, judged, or not found appealing — or even acceptable.”
Casual dating is not for everyone. As someone who came to this crystal clear conclusion after years of convincing myself otherwise, I know firsthand. It can be an ideal approach for people who are in #grindmode regarding their careers, just out of a serious relationship, or simply unsure about what they’re looking for. When you’re casually dating, however, you likely don’t have the reassurance of exclusivity — and that, in turn, can stoke all of those insecurities that are so common with the anxious attachment style.
In a blog for PsychAlive, Dr. Joyce Catlett points out that adults with this attachment style tend to be “rejection-sensitive.” This means that not only do they fear rejection, but they are often anticipating abandonment and looking for any possible signs that their partner is losing interest. Not only that, but their inner-critic is often reinforcing their pessimistic beliefs. As a result, they often need constant reassurance of their partner’s love. Clearly, all of these feelings and behaviors can prove quite challenging when you’re casually dating. After all, how can you feel secure in a romantic relationship if you know there’s a possibility that your crush is seeing other people, or that it may never turn into something long-lasting or serious?
Here’s the thing. If you hate casual dating or you’ve found that it simply doesn’t work for you, that’s totally OK. It’s not for everyone, and if you know you’d rather pursue a committed, long-term relationship, then you can definitely adjust your dating efforts accordingly. That said, if you suspect that your attachment style is negatively impacting your ability to have healthy relationships in general, then you may have some work to do.
But here’s the good news. If you’re concerned that your attachment style is destructive to your dating life, Dr. Wish says that it’s totally possible to make positive changes in your beliefs and thus, your behavior.
Dr. Wish recommends keeping a dating journal of your thoughts, actions, and fears.
“Focus on recognizing when you feel anxious,” she tells Elite Daily. “Set a goal to do one thing at least twice a month that makes you anxious. Aim to learn what triggered the anxiety, and develop self-soothing ways to calm yourself. These anxious experiences do not have to be about dating. Your goals are to be aware, understand your fears, and get up the courage to try new experiences.”
If you are still struggling to see any progress, Dr. Wish recommends seeking counseling. The right therapist will be able to help you to dig into your deepest relationship fears, as well as strategies to break your destructive thought patterns and ultimately, develop a more secure attachment style.
“Change your goal from finding ‘The One’ to learning how to assess people accurately,” she adds. “The more you learn, the more you will trust yourself to make good choices.”
The point is, the attachment style you develop as a child isn’t your fault, and furthermore, it isn't necessarily set in stone. And while there’s definitely nothing wrong with you if you find casual dating difficult, it is worth exploring your anxious attachment style in the interest of ensuring that you can form healthy, fulfilling connections with the people you date. Luckily, the first step to making a change is acknowledging your attachment style. Once you have the courage to take an honest look at that, you can find ways to challenge the patterns that might be preventing you from being happy in your relationships.