Therapist, UI students share experiences with attachment styles in dating

By Carolina Garibay, buzz Editor

It’s no secret that the dating scene today is much different than it was 30 years ago.

With the rise of social media, hookup culture and dating apps, the traditional steps to dating that past generations might have taken when they were dating may look a lot different nowadays.

Heather Pierce, trauma therapist at the Steadfast Center in Champaign, said this new dating landscape has affected our communication techniques.

“There are things that are easier to communicate over text, and there are things that are a lot harder to communicate over text,” Heather Pierce said. “It’s very hard to regulate emotions over electronic platforms where you can’t see the person and you’re not with them.” 

She said the casual sex and relationships many college-aged people have with others is also relatively new.

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    “There is a certain separation of physical intimacy and emotional intimacy that didn’t used to be as prevalent,” Pierce said. “I don’t think we need to judge it. I think we just need to stay curious about how we’re impacted by it.”

     She said knowing how romantic and intimate relationships affect us emotionally is crucial to forming secure attachments in relationships.

     Secure attachment is one of the four main attachment styles developed from British psychologist John Bowlby’s attachment theory in the 1960s.

     Bowlby described attachment as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”

     Bowlby’s research was further studied and experimented on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s with her “Strange Situation” study. 

    In this study, Ainsworth described three major attachment styles: secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment and disorganized attachment.

    Secure attachment, which Pierce said is actually very rare, is about both feeling free and held in a relationship, which she said is something she heard on a podcast.

    “So, you have the autonomy; you can be who you are,” Pierce said. “It’s not about control, but also you feel really, really cared for and cherished.”

    She said anxious attachment, or anxious ambivalent attachment, often shows up in people who could never really count on their parents to be there.

    “Anxious attachment is sort of like there’s almost somebody running away, and I’m kind of chasing after them all the time,” Pierce said.

    Avoidant attachment, on the other hand, is where someone tends to not expect anything from caregivers because they’ve understood them to be unable to meet their needs.

    “It’s sort of like ‘I don’t always expect you to see or understand my needs,’” Pierce said. “In relationships, I could take you or leave you.”

    Disorganized attachment, Pierce described, is an experience that is brought upon someone.

    “That can be where you have a caregiver or a parent or someone who you never know what you’re going to get,” Pierce said. “It’s very, very unpredictable and very chaotic.”

    Pierce said in disorganized attachment styles, there may be substance abuse or trauma involved.

    She also said these attachment styles play a big role in our romantic relationships.

     “Our relationships in our family and what we’ve been modeled often shapes our attachment styles, and then tends to show up in how we enter into romantic relationships as adults,” Pierce said.

    For example, she said people who had a secure attachment early in life may know what to expect in relationships and are less likely to settle for someone who isn’t right for them or is harming them in any way.

    “I think having a secure attachment growing up really helps people in knowing what they want and need in relationships and seeking that out and expecting that from people,” Pierce said.

     But in anxious, avoidant or disorganized attachment styles, there are needs there that aren’t fulfilled, Pierce said.

    “So, when you grow up, you’re either normalizing something that isn’t OK in a relationship or you’re looking for something to fill that void that you didn’t get as a child in some ways,” Pierce said.

     Even though there are written definitions for these attachment styles, for some, it may not be easy for some to identify what attachment style they fall under.

     Pierce said that one way to figure out what your attachment style is, is to focus on your emotions when you’re around other people. They can be either regulating or dis-regulating.

    “If I’m with a partner, who I don’t really trust, who I feel is trying to control me, who has this really difficult energy, I’m going to feel it,” Pierce said. “If I have a partner who sees me, hears me, gives me space, all those things that are the context of a secure attachment, you’re going to feel calmer in that person’s presence.”

     Though secure relationships aren’t always the norm for many, they are still possible.

    Eleni Sakas, junior in Media, for example, has been in a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend since January and said they both have very secure attachment styles.

    She said anxiety in the relationship isn’t that big of an issue for her.

     “I’m shockingly not like that, which is weird because a lot of people, because it’s long-distance, are like ‘How are you so comfortable with that? He’s going to cheat,’ a thing like that,” Sakas said.

    But Sakas said that the two-year talking stage she and her boyfriend had allowed the couple to build up enough trust to not worry about some of the concerns that long-distance couples might typically face.

    She also said that she and her boyfriend both know how badly it would end if she ever found out her boyfriend was being untruthful or cheating.

    “He knows that I would get mad if anything happened, so I just feel very secure,” Sakas said. “And I’m like if anything happens, I know it will get back to me. I don’t really even think about it, honestly.”

    Besides the trust she and her boyfriend have for each other, she said open, direct communication has helped the two develop a secure relationship.

     “If I have any worries, I just tell him,” Sakas said. “We’re just open about literally whatever, especially boundaries and everything.”

    For Grace Aleksick, senior in LAS, communication has been the key to her successful two-and-a-half-year relationship, too.

    Aleksick said though she feels comfortable in her relationship, she swings somewhere between anxious and secure attachment styles.

     “It depends on almost the season, which is a little bit silly, but I’m very, very happy, very secure in my communication style and my ability to be OK with things and strife with my partner,” Aleksick said.

    But she said sometimes if she’s away from her partner for too long or is dealing with something stressful, she might have more of an anxious perspective.

    She said her partner, though also more in the secure attachment range, might act more avoidant if he’s feeling off. 

    But he’s also very in tune with his emotions, Aleksick said, and isn’t afraid to start tough conversations.

    “He’s very, very good about emotions, which I appreciate,” Aleksick said. “So, he’ll usually initiate that kind of thing when I’m being off.”

     That open communication took time, though, Aleksick said, and both she and her partner had to work to be open and trusting of one another.

    “I think both of us are just individuals who are kind of guarded,” Aleksick said. “So, it took a while for us to take the walls down and be like, ‘OK, I trust you.’”

    For those who might not have a secure attachment style or aren’t always good at trust, Aleksick said that a healthy amount of optimism can be useful, especially in the newer digital world of dating.

    “It’s always more fun to go into it with a smile and not take someone too seriously,” she said. “Just combat it with a little fun instead of thinking that someone’s going to play you from the beginning.”

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