One of the most impactful theories to psychology has been attachment theory. In fact, it was attachment theory that made psychoanalysis move away from Freud’s drive theory (the idea that our primary motivation is to meet our animalistic drives) into a more relational theory (the idea that our primary motivation is relational and the need to connect to and “be seen” as our full selves by others).
British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who worked with many traumatized children post-World War II, would be famous for saying (paraphrased) there is no such thing as a baby, but only baby and mother. Defenseless infants can only survive with a loving caregiver, even if all of their other needs are met. This is why many infants in institutionalized settings who were fed and cared for physically (but not cared for affectionately) still “failed to thrive” and died in the absence of their attachment needs being met. For babies, being held is not just a “nice” thing to do, but a survival need! While maintaining our individuality, we too often exist in self-other dynamics with the important people in our lives, and also need “holding” in symbolic and literal ways.
Another famous experiment by Harry Harlow would also observe baby primates spending more time flocking to a “warm mother” made out of rags more often than a cold “metallic mother” made out of wires who would dispense food.
All of this is to say that attachment needs are important not just at the beginning stages of life, but all throughout our life: this can take the form of a family of origin, a family of choice, deep meaningful friendships, and also romantic relationships.
Romantic love can often be the most disappointing for people, especially because we are either given toxic advice or aren’t fully aware of how our history can impact our template for what we look for or how we engage in relationships. We often carry templates about what love and relationships mean from our families, our parents, our personal histories, and sometimes trauma.
While so much can be said about such a broad area, and because I don’t want to say things that have already been well-said by others, I’m including a list of books that I have recommended to clients over the years on their search for a healthy attachment (in whatever form that takes for them).
Most importantly, whether you’re single or in a relationship, these books help people both validate the human need for connection and also self-compassionately work through the templates keeping them frustrated and stuck.
- Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller: This is a book that goes more deeply into the attachment theory I referenced above and everyone’s basic needs to connect. In particular it talks about how our different attachment styles (anxious, avoidant, secure, and disorganized/fearful-avoidant) can impact how we engage in relationships and with others. How do our templates make us move toward, away, or in fear within relationships? Repeated patterns can be based on fears of abandonment, fear of suffocation/engulfment (wanting to keep our independence), and trauma.
- Deeper Dating by Ken Page, LCSW: Ken Page, a licensed social worker and psychotherapist, does a good job at helping people throw out the toxic dating advice out there (think “pick-up artist” stuff) and helps his clients lead with authenticity when it comes to dating. Dating is not an audition of “becoming good enough”, but a journey to appreciate all of the parts of yourself (especially the ones you feel most vulnerable about) so that you can lead with those aspects in attracting the right partner who will appreciate those exact qualities. He calls these attractions of inspiration, where in contrast to attractions of deprivation, each partner is fully seen and prized for who each person is. Ken also has a podcast titled Deeper Dating.
- Hold me Tight by Sue Johnson: Ok, so admittedly the title for this one is a little cringe. However, this is attachment theory gold and there is a whole couples therapy orientation built around this called EFT (Emotionally-Focused Therapy). This book breaks through some of the superficial weaknesses of couples therapy that focuses too much on communication skills and neglects the important of going into the deeper levels of attachment. The true fights are not about who didn’t take out the trash or anger about a partner working late, but rather, which deeper attachment needs aren’t getting met? Conflict will always be part of any relationship, so the goal isn’t to eliminate it completely, but for each partner to give the other person the visceral experience of being accessible (are you there when I seek you?), responsive (are we responding to each other’s needs and perspectives?) and engaged (are we both committed to this relationship?). It is the ability to heal and work through conflict, not avoidance of conflict itself that deepens relationships.
- It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel: This book is said to read like a casual Sex and the City voiceover for singles, but more importantly, it is an impactful book that helps single folks reduce the shame and self-blame, and the hyper-theorizing and self-pathologizing that can come with being single (“being too x, too y, having too much z baggage…”). One of the central messages in this book is that self-compassion, not self-medicalizing will be one of the most important things you can do on your journey to find someone to share your life with.
- The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs: While not specifically a book about dating, Alan Downs reflects on the trauma of growing up as a gay man (at least his lived experience as a white cis one). Because trauma is a deep wound that can rewire the brain and gets stored in the body (see Dr. Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score), the trauma of marginalization can have a deep impact in how LGBTQ folks reconcile their relationships to themselves and others. Healthier relationships often lies in the creation of a family of choice through community and vulnerability. One area the book could have done better addressing is intersectionality.
- Single. On Purpose. by John Kim: John Kim, the online persona behind The Angry Therapist, has had his share of heartbreak and struggle (having been a therapist in a shitty place before branching out on his own) before he found his way to self-awareness and a better relationship to himself and partners in his life. While the cliche of “loving yourself first” is a preachy trope singles are subjected to every day, John’s book does a lot in the way of helping people reconnect to the passions within that we lose touch with as we grow up and let go of dreams. By tapping into your own individual passions, it becomes easier to tap into and attract that in partners in order to have healthier interdependent (versus codependent or disconnected) relationships.
And of course, beyond the wisdom any book can provide, working through many of these longings and frustrations with a therapist can be the most impactful because while self-help can be empowering (insofar as it gives us language to understand ourselves), the deepest changes often occur in the relational context of conversation and shedding old unhelpful narratives for more empowering ones.
Featured image credit: Elvert Barnes, Flickr. Creative Commons License.