Confession time…I recently read the ubiquitous Fifty Shades of Grey. The book is fascinating to me, and obviously many others as it is a best-seller. It clearly seems to be based on some sort of real life experience and while I enjoyed witnessing the lead character’s struggle with intimacy, it also made me cringe with familiarity. Um, I should probably clarify that. Familiarity in the sense that I think many of us can relate to Christian Grey’s (the handsome, rich, main character) confusion about relationships and intimacy, not that I can relate to being a millionaire to who likes to tie people up.
About a month ago I joined a “Relationships and Intimacy” therapy group to explore my own “intimacy issues.” Throughout Fifty Shades of Grey I saw Christian Grey, both long for closeness and simultaneously push it away. This seems to be a common pattern with men and women alike. As humans and mammals we are wired for love, many studies have concluded the importance of connection with our most basic need of intimacy with others.
We confuse sex and emotional intimacy, and usually leave one of them out. We want sex to create intimacy and vulnerability and it doesn’t because most of us don’t know what intimacy is, or what it feels like. Several years ago I remember telling a guy I was dating that we needed to create more emotional intimacy before we could have it physically (e.g. sex). While yes, it was a good thing to say — I had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t know how to create closeness even though I knew it was want I wanted.
According to psychologist David Richo, the fear of intimacy is fueled by two major fears from childhood that carry into adulthood:
- the fear of being abandoned or losing the other, which makes us clingy or seem needy or possessive
- fear of engulfment and losing oneself: makes us run away or distance ourselves.
Despite these fears, if what we all actually want is intimacy…why do avoid it so much or not know how to create it? For many, the answer lies in attachment styles. According to Amir Levine, and Rachel Heller in the book Attached, these styles inform our relationship behaviors such as our ability to communicate, our attitude towards sex, and how we deal with conflict. More than almost anything else, these styles are also a huge indicator of relationship compatibility.
According to attachment theory research initially done by John Bolby, there are three types of attachment:
- avoidant (or dismissive),
- anxious (or preoccupied), and
- secure (or healthy).
Statistically 50% of the population is secure, 20% anxious, and 25% avoidant. (A very small portion has avoidant-anxious, but that is really rare.) This blog post will focus primarily on avoidant tendencies as the largest percentage of people in the dating pool have this attachment style. Those with secure attachment are single for a very short time and not as often in the dating pool (although I still hope to meet one, the few I have dated have been so easy to be with).
Take this test if you want to know your attachment style:
At this point I could go on to describe how attachment styles were created in our childhood with the relationship to our caregivers and blah, blah, blah, but I’m more interested in how it helps us now in our lives and not wondering where it came from. So, back to Christian Grey…the supposively ridiculously good looking, sexy man also seems to have some fairly obvious major avoidant tendencies. He wants to minimize closeness (the main character isn’t allowed to sleep in his bed and must call him by his full name) and seems to use control as a way to do this.
Not suprising, avoidants are the must unhappy in relationships. They tend to blame relationship problems on the other person and to some extent have unconsciously supressed their most basic need for connection, often causing a lot of confusion and inner turmoil. It’s important to note here that a lot of people (and most dating books) assume men are avoidant and women are anxious. This is simply not the case. The attachment style lines cannot be drawn by gender.
That being said, here is the list from Attached to notice if someone you are dating or know is avoidant…or even yourself (I cringe as I type this as all of them are so obvious to me now as past men I’ve been involved with have exhibited all of them):
- sends mixed signals – about his/her feelings or commitment toward you
- stress boundaries about their space
- uncomfortable sharing deep feelings – allows them to be self-reliant and and keep emotional distance
- values independence and looks down on neediness of any kind
- prefers casual sex
- longs for an ideal relationship – and also gives hints that it will not be with you
- desperately wants to meet “the one” or idealizes an old relationship – and also finds faults in the other person or situation to make commitment impossible
- disregards your emotional well-being – and when confronted continues to disregard it
- suggests that you are “overreacting,” “too needy,” or “too sensitive” – this as a way of invalidating your feelings and making you second-guess yourself
- ignores things you say that inconvenience him/her – doesn’t respond or changes the topic instead
- addresses your concerns as “in court of law” – responding only the “the facts” without taking your feelings into consideration
- your messages don’t get across – despite your best efforts to communicate your needs, he or she doesn’t seem to get it or ignores it
Wow, this list is tough for me to look at, I could have avoided so much insecurity and pain if I could have identified these factors and stopped dating men who had them!! Poor Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Grey…I understood her struggle as many of us do when we are anxious dating an avoidant (don’t get me started on how difficult it is to have any sort of physical relationship with them).
A recent guy I spent time with made it very clear he had no intention of ever being in a relationship with me anytime soon. After a few weeks of confusion, I suggested he take me on a date to spend time together. He was very defensive and said he wasn’t interested in getting married right now so why would he court me. It was avoidant attachment at its finest and it was incredibly empowering telling him I didn’t think we should be involved anymore.
There’s a special relationship between anxious and avoidant attachments that I won’t go into now but that seems prevalent in many troubled relationships, including Fifty Shades of Grey. I can’t help but wonder if Grey’s therapist suggested he read “Attached” and notice all the ways in which he was avoiding closeness that maybe, just maybe this book would have a happier ending, or at least a healthier attachment style.