“I always fall for someone who doesn’t like me.”
“All the guys that like me are so clingy!”
Do any of these sound like something you’ve said to yourself or to an exasperated friend? If so, part of the problem might be with you (cue suspenseful horror music). Well, more specifically with the way that you understand and act in close relationships.
There is a whole slew of popular and philosophical writing on this topic, much of it supported and influenced by a model in psychology known as attachment theory. Unbalanced and “toxic” relationships, where either one or both partners suffer immensely, are part of the scope of this research. But so is the unhappy chronically single person, or the unhappy person who jumps from short relationship to short relationship. What all of these statuses have in common is that there is at least one unhappy person suffering and he or she does not have a consistent, satisfying intimacy with a partner.
Notice the frequent use of the word “unhappy”? There are people who are perfectly content being single who probably don’t need this article.
Often, the single and looking women I talk to say they somehow always pick the wrong guy. And when an interested prospect comes along, she maybe goes on a few dates but eventually loses interest, usually claiming that “he’s a little boring,” though her family and friends think he is just perfect for her. Cue facepalm from eyewitnesses. I have also been guilty of this…
So why do we find “perfectly suitable” men boring but the wrong ones kind of irresistible?
I think it’s partly human nature (wanting what you can’t have), but when it becomes a chronic pattern that’s making us miserable, we may want to turn to any available research theories.
Attachment theories posit that people understand and express relationships in different ways due to the patterns we learned in very early childhood through our relationship with our parents (or primary caregivers).
Here is a brief overview of the three main attachment styles relevant to this post:
1. Secure: They are consistent in their affection, aren’t afraid to show love and aren’t overly sensitive to perceived snubs from their partner. They have their own lives but also like sharing and spending time as a couple. They may come across as mild and too grown up or dull for someone who has one of the other attachment styles.
2. Anxious-preoccupied: Also sometimes known as “co-dependents,” they need frequent attention and reassurance of love from their partner, will try to only do things to please them, and are very sensitive to perceived snubs or abandonment. They can come across as overwhelming and clingy, especially if they feel ignored.
3. Dismissive-avoidant: They are reserved and appear very self-contained, without much need for attention or affection from their partner. They are also very sensitive to criticism and negative interactions (which they will use as an excuse to avoid someone). They can come across as dismissive and uncaring in relationships.
Interestingly, the avoidants are almost exclusively attracted to and date co-dependents! Many a tragic love story consists of partners with these two attachment styles. This might be because both styles help partners have some connection while also preventing them from getting too close.
We can think of the above as a scale with the secure attachment pattern in the centre and the anxious and avoidant patterns on the ends. So as a person becomes less extremely anxious or avoidant, they become a little more stable.
Another interesting insight is that the above patterns are almost like little personalities within each person that take over in specific circumstances. So each of us can be stable, anxious, or avoidant with another person, depending on that person! A sad fact is that sometimes our own clinginess triggers avoidance in our crush or partner (and vice-versa where our avoidance triggers clinginess in him).
Because romantic relationships have the potential for the most intimacy, these patterns are more extreme in romance than in relationships with our friends. But they can still be apparent in other types of relationships too! As a fun exercise, look at how you are with friends and family. Do you fit in one of the above roles with anyone?
So, back to why there seems to be no perfect guy out there. The reason we find the objectively suitable man “boring” is because he is emotionally stable. Due to our attachment style, we are more familiar with emotional upheaval in close relationships; a relationship doesn’t feel right unless there’s a bit of anxiety (“does he like me?” or “ugh he likes me too much!”) and an emotional rollercoaster to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, of course, such relationships cause a lot of suffering and are perpetually in danger of falling apart.
So what’s the solution?
Relationship philosopher, Alain de Botton (you must watch his excellent talk) thinks that we are doomed to always be attracted to our “type” (i.e. avoidant with co-dependent, or co-dependent with avoidant). But there might be a middle ground. Since these types are on a scale, maybe we can find someone on the less extreme end of our type, someone close enough to stable but without being dull. The way to achieve this is to try to become more balanced ourselves. As we become more balanced, what we look for in a partner may become more balanced, and we may come to see stability, not as boring, but as strength to draw from, to maintain a strong, consistent intimate relationship. It almost feels like… growing up.
Another interesting facet of attachment theory: the anxious and avoidant styles are like children within ourselves, trying to find a loving parent who they can trust and who understands them. In my own experience, I’ve found that those who are obviously anxious or avoidant types are usually very childlike in their close relationships, no matter their actual age (in fact a few I’ve talked to are over the age of 35). So I think part of the reason that becoming more balanced is so hard is because it is, in a way, a transition from childhood to adulthood.
So how does one become more balanced?
This is a topic for a future article and I’ll leave it here with one main insight: I think we need to understand ourselves better, specifically to listen to the innermost personality that gets triggered in relationships (whether it’s to chase or to avoid). In practical terms, it usually comes to doing the exact opposite of what you feel like doing in a moment of anxiety — don’t chase or don’t avoid. Unfortunately, this means having to deal with some pain. The sad cliché is true, “no pain, no gain.”
To grow, you have to suffer. But wherever there is suffering, there is also God. It is a great time to turn to prayer.
Note: This is not meant to be an academic article, and the above information is a combination of my casual readings on the topic of attachment theory mixed with some of my own thoughts. I’ve written this post from a woman’s perspective since most of my experience is from myself and from talking with other women, but I think it will also apply to men — we are not so different overall when it comes to love.