Review: “Attached” by Amir Levine, M.D. & Rachel Heller, M.A.

March 27, 2011 — 12 Comments

AttachedAt RatedGRomance, I hear from a lot of women who ache to find a romantic heartmate. They are looking for the kind of guy who craves intimacy; a man who is super attentive – the kind of lover who seems to have a freaky hyper-sense of a woman’s emotional state; a heartmate who believes they must work hard to keep their lover’s interest and are committed to doing so; a mate so tuned into her that he lets her set the tone of the relationship.

When asked, these same women probably would tell you that they don’t want a man who plays games to get their attention; a guy hypersensitive to even the possibility of rejection; someone who clearly has the ability to be “needy.”

I am that guy – both of them – or at least I have the potential to be and I never truly understood why until I read Attached. In their book, Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller use findings from the field of attachment theory to help decode how people interact with those they are closest too.

Attachment theory traces its roots back to researcher John Bowlby.  As stated in the book, Bowlby posited that we’ve been programmed “to single out a few specific individuals in our lives and make them precious to us” and that “from a biological perspective [] dependency is a fact; it is not a choice or a preference.”

For me, this was a big “duh.” However, it is actually a very counter-cultural notion as it puts the authors squarely at odds with the codependency movement and many other popular self-help approaches to relationships. As the authors put it, most current works encourage us to “ ‘keep the focus on yourself,’ and stay on an even keel. If you can’t do that, there might be something wrong with you. You might be too enmeshed with the other person, or “codependent,” and you must learn to set better “boundaries.” ”

Levine and Heller argue that research in the field of Attachment Theory tells us that this one-sided approach to relationship success is deeply flawed. (I’ve seen it described elsewhere as the equivalent to old notions of separating young children from their parents and sending them off to boarding school so that they could become independent & well adjusted.) Instead, they point out that the research shows that it is the quality of our attachments that is at the root of our happiness and relationship success. “Getting attached means that our brain becomes wired to seek the support of our partner by ensuring their psychological and physical proximity.” We need each other. “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.” Ironically, this means, “If you want to take the road to independence and happiness, first find the right person to depend on.”

If, like me, you grew up with marriage described as “two becoming one flesh,” the notion that we are wired this way is not really news. However, what I didn’t know before reading the book was that, not only are were designed to be attached, we are also predisposed to be attached in one of three major ways:  “Secure [~ 50%], Anxious [~20%], and Avoidant [~25%]. Basically, secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back; avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness.” None of these attachment styles is pathologically good or bad, but rather, they just are.

Grace & Bubbles by Bill Blevins (sailorbill @ Flikr)It’s not a perfect metaphor, but when describing the concept to others, I’ve been using the analogy of the “attachment” dogs. Imagine three dogs in the backyard that find the door to the house has been shut on them. The “secure” Labrador lays down at the door and patiently waits to be let in. The “anxious” Border Collie is hyper-alert, notices the door closing before it is even all the way shut, runs at it and barks to be let in. Once let in, it calms back down in happy contentment at the feet of its attachment figure. The “avoidant” Pomeranian sees the closed door, has an epiphany and says to itself “I didn’t want all that attention anyway. Why should only cats be free spirits,” and escapes by digging under the fence. Each dog is just behaving according to its nature.

It turns out that I am that Border Collie. Vigilant, loyal, high strung. As described in my intro, I am overtly romantic & attentive but it turns out I also have the potential to be very needy. However, given that I am surrounded by so many “secure” people and I am married to an amazing secure woman, I didn’t really know that I was “anxious” until very recently. As the authors state, “Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs.” Protected in my “secure” bubble, I had no idea I even had a needy side.

However, it turns out problems can arise when people with different attachment styles interact. In my metaphor above, imagine what would happen if the “Anxious” Border Collie tried to maintain its attachment to the avoidant Pomeranian by herding it and pulling at its coat to keep it in the yard. You can just imagine the fur flying. In the book, this exact phenomenon is described in the chapter called “The Anxious-Avoidant Trap” and sadly, it described to the letter a relationship implosion I recently experienced with an “avoidant” friend. The more I tried to mend the relationship and seek out face-time to resolve things I perceived as problems, the more my friend distanced. The cycle spun out of control and ate at my soul. In the end, we parted ways. My friend couldn’t handle my neediness; I couldn’t handle the perceived shunning. Had I read the book earlier, I could have identified the avoidant behavior, made the decision to part ways much sooner or (more likely) could have prepared myself to “settle” for a more distant, acquaintance level relationship without inciting all the drama.

This is where “Attached” has the potential to be such a life-changing book. It will help you understand your own attachment needs and identify the attachment styles of those closest to you and, in so doing, it will enable you to make decisions about your relationships that are beneficial to everyone involved. In challenging our pathological North American obsession with independence, Levine & Heller have created a book that I believe will literally transform the relationship landscape of our day.

Related: Q & A with @attachedthebook

12 responses to Review: “Attached” by Amir Levine, M.D. & Rachel Heller, M.A.

  1. Excellent review of a wonderful book with an important message…it is indeed good to love deeply and need others. Hooray! As you know, I have been sharing your dog examples with my couples at Marriage Prep 101 Workshops. Love your interpretations and metaphors Greg. We need more men like you in the world!

  2. Thanks for the great review! I haven’t read this yet but it sounds like something my clients might find helpful. I use a mix of Gottman and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and attachment plays a big role in both. Can’t wait to read this book!

  3. Michelle, Thank you for your kind words and amazing support.
    Stephanie, The book is amazing. It is better as a preventative book than a repair book (a la “Hold Me Tight”) but it is so full of well presented and full of useful information that I believe it is a “must read” for everyone interested in healthy, loving relationships.

  4. Hi Greg, what a generous review and very optimistic review of what I hoped to be a promising book.

    The book does have the strength of overviewing some important attachment concepts, especially that we all need one another. However, as someone who works directly with couples in strengthening and repairing romantic relationships and who is well versed in attachment literature, the errors in presenting the material (especially about the avoidant style) and the authors lack of expressing any real hope towards or understanding of the nature of repair is significant, attitudinally corrosive and place this book on my “don’t widely recommend” list.

    Rather I suggest: Buyers Beware.

    If you are in a committed relationship and interested in ways to improve your relationship this book isn’t it.

    If you care about the world becoming less judgmental, more inclusive and compassionate and are truly interested in what drives bad behavior, this book isn’t it.

    If you’re concerned about having an accurate understanding of attachment styles and the underlying emotions and needs of each of the different styles, this book isn’t it.

    I’d suggest that if the book is to be utilized at all, it is only useful for someone who is single and who clearly has an anxious attachment style and is mate seeking – not personal development seeking. Which is the audience the authors admittedly were writing for.

    Unfortunately even to that reader what the book does is encourage dismissiveness and rejection – the very approach that causes pain for that audience, the one with an anxious style. Sadly ironic.

    I appreciate all you do to encourage strong marital bonds and spread love and understanding.

  5. Awesome caveats Rebecca. I actually had at least some similar concerns. Have a look at my interview with the authors for their response.

    I’ll definitely have to check out “Buyer Beware.” My enthusiasm for “Attached” may simply be a matter of not knowing any better. :) I honestly can say that the book helped me understand myself and those around me and rather than feeling pathologized, it left this “anxious” style guy feeling understood and validated.

  6. Thank you for a great review of this book. I have been reading it more as a tool to figure out how I can respond to others in my life in a more productive and positive way. We each know ourselves the best but an outsider’s view to how we react to others we care about is refreshing.

  7. In Attached we used hard core research findings and didn’t try to beautify or mask the data for the sake of being politically correct: Some people form better matches than others. There is a science that can explain and predict that. People can become more secure. That is backed by research too. We wanted to give people the necessary tools to deal with whatever their particular situation was in the best possible way, which meant fully informing them about attachment styles.

    To try to either not fully inform readers and clients about attachment styles and what their implications are, or think of everyone as the same, ignoring years of scientific findings that can help approach people with different attachment styles according to their specific needs is less helpful, I think. With a staggering divorce rate in the US and the many people who are living in unhappy relaitonships without an idea of what is it they are facing, I am convinced that knowing about attachment styles is helpful, and not judgmental.

    Dr. Jorgensen writes about “bad behavior” in her comment. What we like about Attachment science is the fact that it didn’t arise from a medical paradigm but rather has a developmental-evolutionary base, which creates a different stance. It doesn’t judge people’s behavior as bad, or good, healthy or sick. Attachment science is more about what’s effective and what’s ineffective. In other words, is it working for you or not working for you? In ATTACHED, instead of labeling a behavior as good or bad we bring specific, research based characteristics for each attachment style and help people get a better understanding of themselves. Invariably if you look at the world from the stand point of good or bad, healthy and sick, it would be harder to make a shift to a non-judgmental stance and benefit from what attachment science has to offer. We’ve received countless thank you emails from people from all walks of life, including people with avoidant attachment styles. They didn’t feel judged, they felt relieved.

    Research based eye opening insight does not have to be seen as judgment or a put down. It’s what people do with it that makes the difference. Many clinicians, including EFT therapists perceived ATTACHED as innovative and helpful. I believe all people will benefit from learning to recognize secure patterns and appreciate the secures of this world. It’s helpful for both anxious and avoidant to know that they are not the best match for one another (yes, the avoidant too, has much to gain by pairing up with someone secure, not just the anxious) but that they can work through it, starting early on in the relationship, provided that they know what it is that they are facing and not wait for their love to get chipped away by years of painful intimacy conflicts. ATTACHED gives a framework to help people who are mismatched in their degree of comfort with intimacy very early on in the game.

    I hope that in time, Dr. Jorgensen will be able to shed some pre conceived notions and lay aside judgment and perhaps she will see how ATTACHED can be a helpful addition to our collective clinical wisdom, which is the response we’ve been getting from many therapists and clinicians.

    Dr. Levine

  8. Thank you so much for your response Dr. Levine.

    As a “seeker” when it comes to all things psychological, I don’t know what I don’t know yet. That said, speaking for myself, I can honestly say that Attached helped me understand myself and gave me the insight I needed to finally heal from a very painful friendship breakup. I found myself in those pages. In fact, it was so helpful it became one of the first books I initially purchased in both eBook and paper form… I needed a copy I could loan!

    I believe that Attached is destined to become a very influential book. As such, I believe it is a must read even for those who might disagree with the content. It is a book that demands an informed opinion.

  9. I would like to add my praise for ATTACHED. I have read the first 167 pages in one sitting. I have my master’s degree in marriage & family therapy and have done some clinical work with families and couples, though I now work in education. But I’m addressing the wonderful gift this book is to me, personally. I knew after studying Bowlby, etc. in grad school that I have an Anxious attachment style….but I didn’t quite know what to do about it from a practical dating standpoint. ATTACHED is providing the missing puzzle pieces to complete the picture. The sense of relief, of forgiveness for myself and for my former Avoidant partners has been a profound gift. I personally have found it to be forgiving altogether, not blaming. I just wrote a therapist friend of mine, letting her know that, for me, the book is a life changer. Thank you to Dr. Levine and Ms. Heller for this gift.

  10. Dr. Levine,

    It’s wonderful to hear from you here.

    There was much I didn’t say in my comment that you do a very good job of speaking to in your response. The research base of the book, especially adult attachment, was evident and it is delightful to have the summary of those findings condensed and available to the general public.

    I couldn’t agree with you more that some people form better matches than others and that people can earn security in their relationships and a result of achieved security has life changing benefits. When core needs are met amazing things happen.

    The wave of attachment consciousness that’s filling the air is a thrilling thing and offers so much hope to our humanity and improving relationships through all walks of life. We have emerging literature in the field, specifically EFT related attachment literature; people are helped just by being exposed to information about attachment needs, attachment styles, activating strategies and common reactive interactional patterns.

    I love that attachment science encourages a humanistic perspective. I can clearly see that my response did not adequately portray my respect and understanding of attachment strategies. I do know that activated responses come from attempts to handle difficult emotions and find a way to have unmet needs met – often desperate attempts . These attempts are ineffective, and it very understandable how and why people get reactive. My intention was not to be shaming of strategies or behavior. I appreciate you pointing that out using the description “bad behavior” could be seen as insensitivity. My apologies to any reader who felt judged, it was not my intention.

    I think what ATTACHED can do for single, anxious style folks is particularly helpful. And I’m with you that all people can benefit from learning to recognize secure patterns and work to develop them. ATTACHED is not without many strengths.

    There are three things the book misses for me. And they are significant enough to me that I’ve concluded not to recommend it beyond single anxious styles. For the single anxious styled population I agree ATTACHED has much to offer.

    I will explain how I experience the misses (and strengths of the book) in more depth in a review I’ve been asked to do of the book – still upcoming. Of course please note this is just my opinion to date. Below I offer a brief, but more articulated mention than my original comment, of why my promotion of the book is limited to the single with an anxious style.

    1. The book draws the conclusion in my mind (intended or unintended) that folks with the avoidant style don’t desire intimacy and closeness through frequently made statements regarding the avoidant style that discuss their underlying motivation, rather than their reactive state, as being a lack of desire for intimacy and closeness. Statements such as “Conflict is often left unresolved because the resolution itself creates too much intimacy.” (pg 161) “colliding intimacy needs” (pg 153) “he pushed her away because he felt the closeness and intimacy increasing.” (pg 10)

    I would assert from childhood attachment literature, EFT research, and years of helping couples develop earned security as they come out of the anxious-avoidant trap, that avoidant style folks do indeed desire and need intimacy and closeness just as much as the other styled folks. The avoidant style push away, or go-away, is reactivity (which at times the book stated) but avoidants are not pushing away (or going away) from intimacy rather they are getting away from triggered rejection fears and overwhelming emotion. The longing for intimacy, closeness and desire to share internal worlds is not at all absent among people with avoidant style.

    2. While I read in the e-interview on this site that it wasn’t your intention, to me it seems ATTACHED leans heavily to getting out of struggling relationships as the solution to insecure attachment dilemmas.

    3. The mounds of literature from couples creating secure attachment, the how and why of that creation, and the success of couples healing the anxious-avoidant trap is virtually unmentioned.

    If you would like to discuss ATTACHED with me, I’m more than willing to. I’m always interested to see my blind spots.

    My hope truly is for clinicans to more directly expose themselves to attachment literature. The more direct contact we have with the research itself the more we are able to distinguish when it is accurately interpreted and what populations it applies to. I don’t agree that a popular press work written to the general public is the place for mental health professionals to get their clinical wisdom. Is that what you were suggesting?

    Overall, I think there is very little we disagree on when it comes to attachment theory itself and the research (and researchers) that supports it.

    I wish you the best in your work and the success of this volume. I promise to promote it at every appropriate opportunity.

    Warmly,

    Becca=)

  11. I am a therapist in Portland, Oregon and I really enjoyed reading the book as well. My clients have been finding it on their own and have been bringing in the new language into sessions. It has helped that they have a new understanding on how attachment works and what it’s like to be paired up with someone who has a different style. The one criticism that I had was that the book didn’t leave some readers feeling too optimistic about being in an anxious/avoidant relationship. The review I wrote addresses this issue if you’re interested in checking it out.

  12. Hi Jeff,
    I totally concur with your assessment. It’s a great book but isn’t terribly hopeful for “avoidants.” It’s actually one of the reasons Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen and I started WEfulness.com. There is hope for anxious/avoidant relationships! As the site develops, we’ll be talking more about how to make it work.
    Thanks for the feedback.
    Sincerely,
    Gregory