The TikTokification Of Attachment Theory
What’s getting lost in translation when the 2010 self-help book, Attached, hits the internet?
The book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love by neuroscientist Dr. Amir Levine, M.D., and psychologist Rachel Heller, M.A., was originally released in 2010, but it has sold an increasing number of copies year over year ever since. The book sold over 100,000 copies in 2021 alone, experiencing a major resurgence during the pandemic. And so, the concepts first launched to the public in 2010 found an entirely new audience of daters 11 years later. Levine has remained as mystified at the book’s success over the last decade as anyone else.
Simplified down, Levine and Heller provide readers with three primary adult attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, and secure. The book explores attachment theory, which describes the dynamics that commonly form between these three types. Primarily, anxious individuals are often afraid of being abandoned by their partners while avoidants may feel stifled in long-term relationships. Secure attachment, marked by the ability to maintain and build healthy connections and know when to leave an unhealthy relationship, is the goal to strive for. These three designations would go on to shape the next decade of relationship discourse.
Then, Attachment Styles Hit TikTok
Today, young people on #therapized TikTok and Twitter have come to accept Attached as a bible for self-development and personal understanding. Those who identify as being anxiously attached gather in TikTok video comments to share their innermost thoughts or even compare therapy notes. People on Twitter urge those with an avoidant attachment style to simply date each other, saying the experience of dating them is settling for “lukewarm love.” Healing either attachment style seems to be the ultimate goal to reach as we collectively strive for the title of “securely attached.”
Modern dating dialogue has taken anxious and avoidant theory and turned it from a helpful tool for self-reflection into fixed identities that can be used to excuse or denounce certain behaviors. While someone who ghosted due to a lack of interest might have been called an “asshole” in previous years, now they’re an avoidant who is getting in their own way. By slotting people into neat categories, a new dating hierarchy defined by (often assumed) attachment issues has emerged.
The Anxiously Attachment Feel Ashamed
Todd Baratz, a certified sex therapist and relationship expert, says a lot of clients ask him how to “move out of anxious attachment” and toward secure attachment. Today’s hyper-independent modern dating culture — which breeds poorly defined “situationships” and an endless supply of unspoken dating “rules” (i.e., “don’t text first”) — means that developing any expectations at all can generate feelings of shame for many. After all, investing in a romantic interest opens the door for heartbreak or rejection. “Any hint of dependency or attachment to somebody else other than ourselves is kind of shamed and diagnosed,” says Baratz. “That’s part of why people often feel ashamed or like they shouldn't be attaching to people so quickly.” This has led to the rise of “detachment” tutorial videos across social media, where creators claim to help you detach from someone in less than 24 hours.
“There are no easy solutions for ‘fixing’ our attachment ‘issues’ by buying a book or paying a large amount of money to ‘rewire’ our brain.”
“It's sad because there's a really long, complicated existential, philosophical, painful story behind someone just boiling their entire life down to an attachment style,” he says. “People often talk about attachment in a very reductive way, in a very oversimplified way.” Understanding attachment itself is important, says Baratz. What’s also important is putting it in the context as just one piece of the narrative — not the entire narrative.
Avoidants Are Now The Enemy
Since those with avoidant attachment styles can become triggered by closeness, much of the attachment style content online is naturally made by anxiously attached individuals who view avoidants as the ones creating obstacles to connection. This influences the content pool because people who believe that they do not need (or fear) emotional intimacy in their lives are far less likely to create videos around relationships. The result has meant that the word “avoidance” has been diagnosed and imposed on others, similar to the current overuse of the word “narcissist.”
As young people admit to being “over hook-up culture” post-Covid and self-confessed “lover girls” express frustration with finding love in their generation, it’s clear the tide is turning on what it means to be “attached” today. Where millennials may have feared the anxious attachment title, younger generations may fear never being attached to anyone at all — ultimately resenting avoidance throughout dating culture, in potential partners, and even in themselves. With people online stating that they’ll “never date and avoidant” or even struggling to differentiate between avoidance and a lack of interest, it’s easy for those with avoidant attachment styles to get painted with broad brush strokes as the bad guys. Even Levine has since said that he’d emphasize the need for empathy toward avoidant attachment styles if he wrote it again now.
The Problem With Oversimplification On The Internet
The result? Both anxiously and avoidantly attached individuals end up looking to these labels for a quick fix. “We should appreciate that attachment, like any other interpersonal process, is messy and complicated,” says Pascal Vrticka, associate professor in psychology at the University of Essex. “There are no easy solutions for ‘fixing’ our attachment ‘issues’ by buying a book or paying a large amount of money to ‘rewire’ our brain and make us more attractive for the right type of partner within a couple of weeks.”
The internet’s search for easy solutions has led to an oversimplification of attachment styles. Now, the “aim is putting labels on people and their behaviors rather than inspiring further reflection and consideration,” says Vrticka. This, he says, has led to a number of circulating misconceptions, including that once we have established our attachment style early in life it is unchangeable or that any attachment style is either good or bad. The reality is much more fluid.
“Attachment theory is constantly being refined and extended through high-quality research,” says Vrticka. This includes his own, conducted with colleagues from all around the world, aiming to describe the social neuroscience of human attachment (SoNeAt). “Attachment theory’s science and the technical meanings of its concepts and terminology have been diluted over the years,” laments Vrticka. For many, “attachment theory’s original assumptions are stuck in their minds, despite how certain parts of the theory have been importantly extended or even completely replaced.” After all, attachment theory itself, the psychological explanation for the emotional bonds and relationships between people, was developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the mid-20th century and is still informing the work of behavioral scientists today.
Attachment Styles Are Just The Beginning
Marissa Nelson, intimacy and relationship expert for the dating app BLK, says the attachment framework should be seen as a helpful jumping-off point to deeper work. The same way that a lot of people can rattle off the five love languages and identify their own, but it doesn’t solve all their problems, is the same with attachment styles. She admits, “it gives you a sense of security and that’s why people have run with it.” Attachment theory ultimately has a lot of nuance and, while Nelson says it doesn't take a therapist to decode code your attachment style, you can work in therapy to understand the application that theory can have in your relationship.
“Without [attachment theory], we don't really have the origins of the way in which we've learned how to love, how to experience the world, and trust.”
Nelson personally doesn’t give any of her clients an “anxious” or “avoidant” title; instead, she explains how people can move through various attachment styles depending on the circumstance. You can be attached differently at different times in your life or in different relationships. “What's the difference between an attachment style and your coping mechanisms and your default reactions when you're in fight-or-flight mode?” she says, noting a confluence between them all.
TikTok Attachment Theory Still Has Some Benefits
The prescriptive use of attachment styles today begs the question: are those who are learning only the TikTok version of attachment theory getting any benefit from it? Despite all of the nuance and caveats that need to come alongside attachment theory, Nelson still thinks that spreading the idea is important. It has been groundbreaking in explaining how human relationships play out. “Without it, we don't really have the origins of the way in which we've learned how to love, how to experience the world, and trust,” she says.
Harvard psychologist and relationship expert Monica O-Neal, Psy.D., agrees. “If somebody reads this book and they think, ‘Oh my God, I'm so anxious,’ hopefully the next thought is, ‘I don't want to do that anymore because I want to be able to find and keep real healthy love,’” she says.
The Future Of Understanding Attachment Styles
After over a decade, it’s clear that the attachment styles that took a grip on popular culture through Attached are still as relevant and potentially helpful as ever — even when they’re being oversimplified or misunderstood on the internet. Just as experts around attachment theory continue to evolve the original data and make new additions to the important framework of human understanding, it’s important to remember that attachment styles are not fixed diagnoses. If you choose to identify with one in the pursuit of personal growth, so be it — but it’s not your job to condemn others for their perceived attachment style along the way.
For those open to unpacking their own devotion (or perhaps, attachment) to their attachment style, Nelson reminds you to allow yourself to hold space for the person you have been — and how your identity can change. “Could that [behavior] have been necessary based on what you were going through, and now you're choosing to evolve and you're in a different place?” she asks. What’s more important next is whether you’re choosing to evolve and become the person who can attract and appreciate the right partners for you.
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