Mimi Winsberg, M.D., is a Stanford-trained psychiatrist with 25 years of clinical experience. She also has a B.A. in Neuroscience from Harvard College.
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February 8, 2022 — 10:27 AM
One dimension to consider in the stranger you’re texting with is their attachment style. Attachment is the level of affection, sympathy, or dependence we form with someone we love–our bonds, if you will. Simply put, as we’ll see, it comes in three flavors.
John Bowlby was the first psychologist to study attachment. Bowlby was influenced by the research of Harry Harlow, who studied monkeys in captivity and observed that their bonds fell into distinct categories. The secure monkey was raised by a living mother monkey who holds and nurses her infant; the monkey feels cared for and protected. The anxious monkey was raised in a cage with a faux mother made of soft cloth, outfitted with a bottle attached to her containing warm milk; the monkey can attach and love but is needy, insecure, and cries a lot. Finally, the avoidant monkey was raised in a cage with a faux mother made of wire–not at all nice to cuddle with. This last monkey doesn’t attach easily, avoids close relationships, and is often hostile to strangers.
Bowlby examined children’s relationships to their caregivers and found not only that Harlow’s types could be applied to them as well, but that a child’s relationship to their caregiver was predictive of later attachment style, too. His studies showed that maternal deprivation adversely affected children’s emotional development and their future ability to attach in healthy ways. It was the foundation for modern attachment theory, which is commonly applied to adult relationships in psychological settings. Adults too, seek closeness–are biologically driven to form attachments–and the process of forming those attachments is dictated by experience.
Humans aren’t monkeys, of course. But we too can suffer anxiety and loneliness with separation. Research suggests that half the human population is securely attached. They are comfortable with intimacy and feel more satisfied in a relationship. Securely attached people allow their partners independence but are also capable of providing honesty and support. That leaves us with fully half of adults who don’t react the same way to relationships. Anxiously attached people have trouble living in the moment and tend to overemphasize the role their partner plays in their life. They may cling out of fear of being alone. Avoidantly attachedpeople keep others at a distance and may preemptively sabotage relationships to protect themselves.
Are the three flavors of attachment represented proportionally on dating sites relative to the general population? Unlikely. Securely attached types pair off early and are more likely to stay together; they’re secure that way. Which leaves the rest to fend for themselves online, leaving a higher proportion of loose avoidant and insecure types rolling around dating apps, wondering where all the secure people went.
It’s possible to solicit early clues to attachment style in your initial text thread, but these traits generally take much longer to manifest, their cues more subtle. It certainly doesn’t take a psychiatrist to identify the most extreme forms of dysfunctional attachment, but reviewing early cues and potential red flags to watch for can be helpful.So though it is by no means a comprehensive list, here are five indicators of insecure attachment to look out for as you take forays into texting with new people.
Too much information, too soon. Some people will seek to establish a deep bond immediately. I refer to this instant intimacy as “instamacy.” While it may feel seductive or reassuring in the moment, it can be a red flag for problematic attachment in the future. Rushing into a relationship without a stronger foundation rarely lends itself to stability, and instant infatuation is likely to disappoint. Those tendencies can manifest themselves as early as an initial text exchange. People who display instamacy are pleasers, can lack boundaries, and may revert to an anxious or avoidant pattern in a relationship after it gets under way. Too intimate too quickly is the text equivalent of a drunken stranger pouring out their heart to you in a bar. Finish your drink and walk away. Or, if rescue fantasies are your thing, go for it, but know what you’re getting into.
2. Flat affect
In order to connect, we count on people to be emotionally expressive and responsive. In psychiatry, we talk about affect as someone’s variability in facial expression, tone of voice, and level of emotional engagement. Some people present as having a blunted or flat affect. They maintain a single, monotonous expression or a lack of emotional expression altogether. They may be emotionally aloof, stiff. Maybe they’re just shy, or perhaps they feel that exposing any emotion presents too big a risk. Seeing this early in a text exchange is a potential red flag. They might also be hiding mental illness behind that monotone, such as major depression or even schizophrenia. People experiencing these psychiatric conditions are as worthy of love (or even just a good date) as anyone else; any would-be partner will just want to know what they’re getting into.
Think of flat affect as the opposite of emojis. There is no smiling in the language, no winking, no raised eyebrow, no blushing. They may as well be sending you the snail emoji, for all the energy that’s coming your way.
3. Hostility at first sight
Great relationships start with great sleep.*
While it’s a rare occurrence, seeing any signs of overt hostility early in a text exchange is a bad sign. Red flags don’t get much redder than that. This person is almost sure to have attachment issues, one that could make for a challenging relationship in the very best case.
4. The control freak
Some people manage the anxiety of attachment by trying to control their environment. Online dating, however, requires a certain amount of throwing caution to the wind, something these controllers are likely to struggle with. Now they’re at sea, feeling tossed around by the waves. Their instinct is to clamp down, to batten down the hatches. The problem? You haven’t agreed to be on their boat.
Recognizing the early signs of a controlling personality can offer you clues to a person’s attachment style and to the difficulty they might have in forming secure relationships. A lack of flexibility or desire to control in an early text exchange is often a red flag.
5. TMI: too much information
While instamacy can be too fast for some, it nevertheless feels good. It offers a kind of instant validation–this person must really like me!–firing pleasure centers in the brain. TMI is also too fast, but it makes you cringe or want to run for the hills. There’s a fundamental distinction: With instamacy there is apromise of connection that does not exist. With TMI there is a presumption of connection that does not exist.
First text exchanges are attempts to get to know each other; that’s why we’re online. But while aloofness, withholding, controlling, and hostile behavior are clearly worrisome, revealing too much too quickly is no less problematic. No one wants to have their date cry on the first meeting, and no one wants TMI in the first text thread. Someone offering TMI may seem to be revealing details about themselves, but what they’re actually revealing is someone who is likely needy, anxious, or self-centered.
Adapted from SPEAKING IN THUMBS: A Psychiatrist Decodes Your Relationship Texts So You Don’t Have To by Mimi Winsberg, M.D. Copyright (C) 2022 by Mir?ne Winsberg. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC
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