The neuroscience behind your romantic attachments

Jerry, George, and all the main characters from the 1990s sitcom, Seinfeld, had attachment issues when it came to relationships. More specifically, they were characterized by what Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller call an avoidant attachment style. They tended to shy away from intimacy or closeness, sent mixed signals, refused to commit, and had difficulty communicating with their partners.

At last night’s The Neuroscience of Romantic Attachment event at The New York Academy of Sciences and just in time for Valentine’s Day, Levine and Heller, authors of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, laid out the three attachment styles that can predict the long-term success of romantic relationships. Avoidant attachment, like Jerry and the Seinfeld gang; anxious attachment where a person is constantly worried about the state of his relationship; and secure attachment where a person has little trouble expressing her needs or wants, is comfortable with closeness, and is an excellent communicator.

A handful of noteworthy morsels came out of the session. According to Levine and Heller’s research:

  • 25% of people change their attachment style every four years.
  • Looking at a picture of your partner during a stressful or painful situation is almost as good as taking a Tylenol.
  • People in good relationships actually heal better.
  • Attachment styles affect one’s perception; people actually read words or interpret facial expressions, like when someone is about to cry, based on their attachment style.

Yet when all was said and done, a certain complexity seemed to be lacking from their analysis, which perhaps is resolved in their book. Romantic attachment isn’t as cut and dry as falling into three categories, right? It’s more of a continuum for most people rather than an either/or scenario. Also, Levine and Heller kept returning to the consensus that most relationship issues are resolved or bonds are strengthened if one partner has a secure attachment style. Well, okay…easier said than done.

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