Why they won’t end up together – the theory of attachment

Spoiler alert!

     Let’s see how everything begins: boy meets girl, love each other but… life happens or they “happen” and in the end, the boy doesn’t get the girl. Why?
You will find out soon, first, watch the movie “500 days of Summer” and let’s read some basic concepts about the theory of attachment. The result is a better understanding of the relationships you have!
To find out why, we have to go back in time to talk about childhood, as always! Bowlby observed that children learn from their interactions with their caregivers and form patterns of attachment that will use as adults, to interpret experiences. Mary Ainsworth conducted an experiment named “The strange experiment”, that exemplified the attachment styles in children.

     These are 3:

  • (Ax) anxious
  • (Av) avoidant
  • (S) secure

     In the video you saw that when the mother leaves her child alone or with some stranger in the room, the reaction of the child can help us identify the style of attachment he/she has:

     (Ax) Anxious– the child gets agitated when he is left in the room and when the mother returns, he is both happy to see her and mad. It is hard to calm him down and he bursts into tears.

(Av) Avoidant– when the mother leaves the room, he acts like nothing happened and he ignores her when she comes back. You would say he is not affected by the situation, but actually, inside, his pulse and cortisol are as high as the child’s with the anxious style.

     (S) Secure– the child is stressed when the mother leaves the room, he is happy to see her back and calms down easily, continuing his activity.

     We all feel the need to bond with another human being, but the ways we do it vary. Hazen and Shaver extended the attachment theory to romantic relationships in adults. Let’s see how each type sees the world:

     (Ax) Anxious“I think people avoid to get close to me as much as I would like. I worry about thinking if my partner loves me or not, if he will stay by my side. I would like for us to share a deep connection and communicate a lot and this scares out a lot of people.”

     (Av) Avoidant“I feel uncomfortable in my relationships, it’s hard for me to trust others and accept to depend on them. I’m nervous when they get too close to me and usually the person I’m having a relationship with, wants to be way closer and warmer than I can be.”

     (S) Secure“It’s easy for me to get close to others and I feel comfortable when they depend on me and I depend on them. I don’t worry much about being dumped or that someone will get too close with me.”

     A good example for these personality types would be the movie „500 days of summer”. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry, we’ll discuss the concept in what follows. Just grab a drink, watch it and come back here to brainstorm together. I have friends who weren’t so impressed by it, but I think the movie it’s underrated because it shows the reality of life, no pink or shiny things in the moonlight. Just a 7.7 on IMDB!

     We start the movie knowing that “this is not a love story”, and we meet Tom– who has an (Ax) anxious attachment style and Summer– who has the (Av) avoidant attachment style. They both come from divorced families and maybe this was the trigger to form a non-secure attachment style. They reacted differently to the same life circumstance- even if every situation is unique, they didn’t have a secure model of a loving family to grow up with.

     Why isn’t this true love?
Because the (Ax) anxious – (Av) avoidant couple start an emotional montagne russe, where anxiety and worrying, the obsession and the little moments of joy form a system that is confused with love- “This is a story about love”. It’s an unrequited love, a stable instability, pieces of them being lost on the way, but mostly the (Ax) one is being hurt.

Summer: We’ve been like Sid and Nancy for months now.
Tom: Summer, Sid stabbed Nancy, seven times with a kitchen knife, I mean we have some disagreements but I hardly think I’m Sid Vicious.
Summer: No, I’m Sid.
Tom: Oh, so I’m Nancy…
[Pancakes arrive] Summer: Let’s just eat and we’ll talk about it later. Mmm, that is good, I’m really glad we did this. I love these pancakes… What?
[Tom gets up and walks away from the table] Summer: Tom, don’t go! You’re still my best friend!”


     Tom- the (Ax) anxious attachment style

     He believes in soulmates (“There is plenty of other fish in the sea – Tom: Well, they’re lying”/ Summer wasn’t just any girl) and he thinks he will never be happy until he finds the one. Tom realizes he is in love with Summer and is charmed by all those things they have in common, because he desires a strong connection with his partner.

     He can’t say for sure if she is his girlfriend, when his friends ask about the status of their relationship- “You know, we’re-we’re adults. We know how we feel. We don’t need to put labels on it. I mean, “boyfriend,” “girlfriend.” All that stuff is… it’s really juvenile”. Tom feels risky to ask her about the relationship they have, he is afraid he will lose the bound because he has a strong need to emotionally depend on someone.

     This is the feeling of captivity an (Ax) has in this type of relationship, he is too emotionally attached to his partner and he continues the relationship even if he knows it is not good for him to do so. Every time they get back together, the (Ax) one has to silence his unmet needs and go with the level of intimate connection the (Av) establishes in the relationship. And is going to get worse, with the (Ax) partner being the one that has to lose ground.

Tom: Look, we don’t have to put a label on it. That’s fine. I get it. But, you know, I just… I need some consistency.
Summer: And I can’t give you that. Nobody can.”

     Nothing is “labeled”, he wants to come closer and she goes away for space. Tom works for the company for a few years already and she changed town out of boredom, to find something new and exciting. He sticks around, she goes around. And they start going out again just to invite him at the party to let him know that she is engaged- the ½ screen with expectations vs reality is brilliant. It’s exactly the definition of their love story.

     Tom remembers only the good stuff and as an (Ax) one, tries to understand where he made a mistake and what made her pull away, replaying their story in his head. When his needs aren’t met and he hits the limit, the protest behavior comes out:

     In the conference room, at work, he says he is responsible for his own suffering and understands that not all the people can or should have the same need of intimacy, affection and openness: “People buy cards ’cause they can’t say how they feel, or they’re afraid to. We provide the service that lets them off the hook”. And even if we have feelings for someone, we may love them, this is not enough for a happy and fulfilled relationship.


     Summer- the avoidant attachment style

     “She only loved 2 things- her hair and the fact that she could cut it easily” – selfish and self centered, she liked distance in her relationship- the hair is a symbol of power- she was the one cutting it, she likes to dominate and be in charge, but also of virility, fertility, seduction and the potential of love.

     She doesn’t want a boyfriend, she enjoys being strong and independent and doesn’t believe in love: “these days, most marriages end in divorce”.

     “Let’s be friends!” and she kisses him the next day at work. She sends mixed signals about her feelings and doesn’t take in account Tom’s feelings. And when he asks her in the car about their relationship status, she gives a vague answer to keep her feeling of independence and keep using him.

     After the punch in the bar, he wanted to know what’s the problem… she started a fight because they were too close again… and it started with we are just… friends.

Tom: Well, you’re not the only one that has to say anything… And I say we’re a couple, god dammit!”.

     After this short relationship break, she comes and says: ”I shouldn’t have done that, get mad at you”- ignoring his feelings. In this way she cancels his emotions, makes him doubt his behavior and needs. She suggests he overreacted, being too sensible.

I just want to tell I am not really looking for anything serious, is that OK? [..] I like you Tom… I just don’t want a relationship.

     She says this, but continues to stay in a relationship with Tom, and she doesn’t comment anything on how she made him feel, is an “apology” only about her needs.

     When they were together in her apartment, she had a dream- she is flying, she is free, safe, but then she realizes that she is completely alone. It is because she associates freedom with independence, she is safe having the power, not depending on anyone, but in the same time, alone. When things were going well, Summer needed to back off – “I think we should stop seeing each other!” , as simple as that. Or she pulls back after they have sex- sends an email ending “I hope you’re ready to be friends” because he got too close – “I’ve never told anybody that before”, threatening her independence.

“As he listened, Tom began to realize that these stories weren’t routinely told. These were stories one had to earn. He could feel the wall coming down. He wondered if anyone else had made it this far. Which is why the next six words changed everything.
Summer: I’ve never told anybody that before.
Tom: I guess I’m not just anybody.”

     When she talks about her ex boyfriends we realize that she goes again and again with the same script in relationships, she attracts a person with an (Ax) attachment style and they end up in a Sid & Nancy way.

Tom: What happened? Why? Why didn’t they work out?”

The final meeting

Summer: Why did you dance with me?
Tom: Because I wanted to…”

     It is possible that Summer met a secure man or maybe Tom is her ghost boyfriend that she will refer to as the ideal boyfriend, to keep the distance in a new relationship. Maybe she follows the same pattern in her marriage. She wanted to end it by having control over his feelings, this is why the “Only if you mean it” and her hand on top of his, with the ring showing off. It’s the process of emotional compensation in which the (Av) feels independent and strong only if the (Ax) feels inferior: “because I wanted to”. This is why is very rare for two (Av) to stick together.

     Maybe she wanted to make sure that Tom was OK so that she could feel better about herself or maybe this scene was just in Tom’s mind, so he could have a closure – the scene is on the same bench, letting her go so he could be happy with someone else.

     Bartholomew with Horowitz presented the theory with two perspectives: the thoughts about the self and the thoughts about others.

     Security-based strategy of affect regulation
Self-esteem (thoughts about self)
Positive Negative
Sociability (thoughts about others) Positive Secure Anxious–preoccupied
Negative Dismissive–avoidant Fearful–avoidant

Table source: Wikipedia

You can read more about it, here. The idea is that there are 2 types of (Av) attachment style:

  1. Fearful – avoidant
  2. Dismissive – avoidant

Why there is a big chance to find an (Av) when you’re dating?

This is how Amir Levine & Rachel S. F. Heller explain it in their book:

     (Av) end their relationships way faster and they represent the biggest group within the available people to initiate a relationship on a long-term.

     (S) don’t change many partners until they find one they are happy with and decide to stay. They show up as available in big time intervals.

     (Av) don’t go out with other (Av) so their favorites are the (Ax).

     Going back to the movie, the Narrator said: “In 1998, Summer quoted a song by the Scottish band, Belle and Sebastian, in her high school yearbook. “Color my life with the chaos of trouble”. (Ax) will always be attracted by the emotional unavailability of the (Av).

     Identifying the attachment styles is a pretty good way to understand and predict the behaviour of a couple.

     Write an inventory of your relationships and notice your own pattern!
     If you are (Ax) try to invest your attention in multiple partners, if you are (Av) don’t suppress your emotions, realize that getting closer is not a weakness. The good thing is that 50% of the population has a (S) attachment style, 20% (Ax), 20% (Av) and 2-5% a mixture of (Av)+(Ax). So try to find someone with a (S) style or learn to work with yourselves to reach a (S) style.

     So how is a person with a (S) attachment style? Maybe you realized it already, Tom’s little sister had it.

     She easily ends conflicts, is mentally flexible, a great communicator, and doesn’t play games with her boyfriend. People with a secure attachment are comfortable in intimacy, are not preoccupied to establish boundaries in their personal relationships, are forgiving, are inclined to see sex and emotional intimacy as a hole, they treat their partners with love and respect. They also feel responsible of the wellbeing of their partner.

     To find the right person for you, be honest and express your needs clearly, don’t blame the other and understand that not everybody has the same capacity to involve in an intimate relationship. John Bowlby understood that there is always a dependence on our partner, no matter how independent we are. And our ability to face the outside world at our maximum potential relies on the knowing that we can count on our beloved one. It’s the paradox of dependence, being vulnerable makes us stronger. And never forget to not be shamed by your needs and understand that it’s your right to meet them.

     Just be honest and choose wisely! Our partner influences our ability to grow and to be healthy and how much we trust each other to fulfill our dreams.

     I will leave you with a quote from the movie, maybe the topic for the next post!

              All this was written based on the book: Attached”, written by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller.

Other resources I used are listed below:
Ainsworth Strange Situation
Attachment Theory – Understanding the Essential Bond
– Attachment in adults
– Fearful-avoidant

I don’t own any of the screenshots/ gifs used for this article. Thank you, the ones who created & shared them online, also big thanks to my friend, Ioana, who brought me the book and to Răzvan for the feedback!

8 thoughts on “Why they won’t end up together – the theory of attachment

  1. Josefin Berger says:

    Very well written! Loved reading your post! I have read a little about the attachment theory before (for example in the book Hemligheten by Dan Josefsson & Egil Linge) but thought it was really nice to read your take on it, with this comparison to the movie your writing about (I have to see it, seems worth a watch). I think this theory explains well why some of the problems in a relationship can occur.

    • mm
      Cristina Bujoreanu says:

      Thank you for your feedback, Josefin! I can’t wait to read more books like this one and for sure I will search the one you wrote me about! 🙂

  2. Alberto Lorenzo says:

    I loved your analysis Cristina. I had never read anything about this topic and I found it super interesting and useful. I am waiting to your next analysis. Keep it up and congratulations

    • mm
      Cristina Bujoreanu says:

      Thank you very much, Alberto! I am really happy that you liked it and I can’t wait to have a chat with you about our common passion when I will revisit Oviedo! >:d< Good luck with your studies! 🙂

  3. Frankie_Sezz says:

    I enjoyed reading this, Cristina.
    Would you agree that female movie-goers would NEVER have tolerated this movie if the male character had been avoidant and the female anxious? As it seems in the US culture that we perceive the following:
    Female avoidants= quirky
    Male avoidantants= high probability of being a narcissist !

    • mm
      Cristina Bujoreanu says:

      Hi, Frankie! I am happy you enjoyed the article and thanks for taking the time to write me! 🙂 Regarding the rest of the message, I don’t know if I really got you, but I could say the following:

      – It is a lot of gender bias in the way many movies are made and characters are portrayed. As you already noticed, women and men showing the same characteristics are seen in different ways, because of the cultural gender stereotypes. The majority of the movies we know show a male character- Avoidant and the female one- Anxious, with the majority of women enjoying/ “tolerating” them because there is this acceptance of the idea that men can or should be players (Avoidant vibe) and “girls” should aspire to fix them in a marriage, becoming what a woman should be- finding Mr. Right/ Mr. Perfect/ The One (Anxious vibe).
      I don’t know what “female movie goers” means to you… and “tolerated” for me it’s an interesting word, maybe you could explain a little why you chose it. I think that someone tolerating something or someone means he/she doesn’t respond to something/someone that can’t go away even if it is irritating or scratching his/her believes. So therefore, I think “tolerating” it is a shade about the idea of the girl having control in a relationship… The Avoidant one has control in an Anxious- Avoidant couple so probably the fact that an Avoidant woman could be perceived as quirky and an Avoidant Man as a narcissist has to do with the gender role vision of the beholder.

      – Narcissism (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is a personality disorder in DSM-5 even if we often trivialize the word and use it to express an egoistic self-centered personality trait. Egoism or ego-centrism are different from narcissism. On the other hand, Freud wrote about healthy narcissism as a part of a normal development- the parent’s love for their child. The attachment theory talks about a set of learned behaviors and the attachment types that aren’t functional/ fulfilling can be unlearned without psychiatric help. A narcissist has a high self esteem, uses people and doesn’t respect their emotions, but also lacks empathy and overestimates his/her abilities, having an excessive need for admiration and affirmation. The Avoidant type has the running script: he/she can’t find someone good enough- probably this type has the fear of imperfection- his, others, relationships’, also wanting an intimate relationship, but it scares him and goes away.
      An Avoidant attachment style it is not a personality trait, it is a specific behavior- Bowlby defined attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’- a behavior that it is learned early in our life, but it is adaptive, therefore, changeable. To summarize it 🙂 I would say that referring to an Avoidant as someone with a narcissistic trait it is not correct and it is more often done as a biased generalization of an Anxious type that had his/her feelings hurt.

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