Wednesday, February 21 , 2018, 8:07 pm | Fair 48º


Russell Collins: Who Do You Love?

Research sheds lights on what — and who — we're attracted to in a partner

“I don’t want to sound like a Hallmark card, but ... Life? It’s better with company.”

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

This is Ryan Bingham’s epiphany as he talks to a freaked-out groom on his wedding day. Ryan, if you didn’t catch it, is the hero of the movie Up in the Air. Played by George Clooney, Ryan is a peripatetic businessman who is coming up on 10 million frequent-flier miles at about the same time he begins to suspect — what we, the audience, have known all along — that this sleek, uncomplicated life of his is sadly empty. But for most of the movie, Ryan goes around spreading his philosophy that nirvana is life up in first class, without messy or constraining relationships.

In reality, of course, most people end up with lots of constraining relationships, which come with lawns to mow, coffee stains, kids struggling with dyslexia or ADHD, life-extending brain surgery, or not, for the 15-year-old family cat — all of it. Love relationships, especially, seem to unfold in messy, unplanned ways. You meet someone at a wedding or Starbucks or in an airport (like Ryan). You’re attracted to him or her, and that starts the ball rolling. Then there’s the complicating factors such as old boyfriends, ex-wives, a lateness problem, your parents don’t like her. Then, clothes in each other’s closets, moving in, moments of incredible intimacy, moments wondering whether it’s even worth the trouble — it’s complicated (to borrow another movie title).

But is it just random chance that causes an introduction to turn into a meeting for coffee, or a date to turn into a dalliance, or a weekend to turn into a lifetime together? Or could it be there are discernible patterns in who pairs up with whom? And if there are such patterns, are some combinations of personalities more dangerous or more natural than others? If we know about these patterns, can we recognize them in our own relationships? Is there some way we can use that understanding to make a bad relationship good, or rekindle a dying one, or make a good one better? The answer from research recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships is pretty much yes.

Figuring out what attracts people to each other (for better or for worse) has been a staple of university psychology departments for more than a half-century, with studies pointing to things such as physical attractiveness, similarity in interests and values, or just living nearby.

But most such research today is based on attachment theory, which says that adults — like infants — are instinctively and almost irresistibly pulled to establish bonds with another adult as a source of caregiving and protection in times of stress. Attachment researchers divide people into four categories based on 1) how they see themselves and 2) how they see others. Surprisingly, if you measure these two biases in people, you get a picture that can predict who they might be attracted to as a partner, and even how well the resulting relationship might work out.

Obviously, dividing all of humanity into four boxes is going to be an imprecise exercise, but the research has shown a surprisingly high consistency with these categories. If they tested you at 2 years of age, for instance, it’s likely that you’d go into the same box at age 6, age 12 and age 24.

The four boxes are: secure, anxious, avoidant and dismissing. If you feel generally lovable and loving, you go into the secure box. If you worry endlessly about love, you are anxious. If you avoid intimacy because you feel unlovable, you’re avoidant. If you avoid intimacy because they seem unlovable, dismissing.

This is a lot of terminology, but hold on a second and you’ll see why it matters.

If you’re lucky enough to fall into the “secure” box — and more than half of all people do — a couple of good things may be in store for you. First, you are likely to pair up with another secure person in your significant relationships. Then, you are likely to be happy in those relationships. This doesn’t absolutely mean that you will live happily ever after, but you’ve got a good chance at it. And even if you don’t, you are more likely than most to be satisfied at any given point in the relationship.

But what if you are in one of the other boxes: anxious, avoidant or dismissing?

Well, according to researchers Bjarne Holmes and Kimberly Johnson, who published the journal article mentioned above, this is the case where (like a moth to a flame, some would say) opposites exert a powerful attraction upon each other. People who shun emotional intimacy (and remember, both dismissing and avoidant types do, though for different reasons) seem irresistibly drawn to people who fret constantly about relationships. Think about couples you know or hear about. The absent-minded professor with the mothering spouse. Up in the Air’s Natalie, anxiously managing her brand-new high-powered career and a commitment-phobic fiancé. All the couples you know where one partner takes total responsibility for their emotional life. Any couple where golf is involved.

“Feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake; your relationships are the heaviest components of your life. Feel the straps cutting into your shoulders. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets and compromises” — from Ryan Bingham’s motivational speech about shedding your emotional baggage.

Ryan is “avoidant” personified. Maybe because he’s played by nice-guy Clooney, you spend the movie kind of liking him, kind of thinking “he’s scared of being hurt” rather than “he’s just in love with himself.” He’s avoidant in the terminology of attachment, rather than dismissing.

But wait a minute! In the movie, when Ryan finally does succumb to love, it’s with a mirror image of himself. Alex (played by Vera Farmiga) is as cool and detached and uninterested in the complications of relationships as Ryan himself — although she doesn’t have nearly as many air miles, something that should have warned Ryan off). This doesn’t quite fit with the attachment model, does it? By that model, Ryan should have been attracted to someone like his travelmate Natalie — someone preoccupied with caretaking, over-involved in her boyfriend’s life, desperate to stay connected at all costs.

This is where the research gets interesting.

According to researchers Holmes and Johnson, there are three phases of love or attraction: the fantasy phase, the attraction phase and the long-term phase. In each phase, surprisingly, we desire different things.

When you ask someone about a hypothetical partner — a fantasy partner — people generally respond with the same answer: We all want a partner with the characteristics of someone from the secure box, one who has a good image of himself as worthy of love, and a good feeling about others. Makes sense, right?

But when you take a sampling of who people find themselves attracted to in real life, who they want to “date” (there doesn’t seem to be a better term) or are in fact dating, it turns out they want to pair up with people in the same box as themselves: secure attracted to secure, anxious to anxious, etc. Up in the Air bears this out perfectly; Ryan falls in love with a woman who appears to be just like him. Alex is clearly from the avoidant box. The reason for this — it may be obvious — is, who better to give me exactly the type and amount of affection and caregiving I need, than someone avoidant (or anxious) like me? Ryan and Alex just get each other, so shouldn’t they get together?

But we’re not quite done. It turns out that when you look into those partners in a committed relationship, avoidant people like Ryan don’t end up with the Alexes at all. Instead, they’re with the anxious ones like Natalie. Among relationships that last, in other words, partners stay with partners who fulfill their relationship expectations. If I have a somewhat negative self-image and I’m anxious about people loving me, I will find someone who seems distant and unloving (dismissing or avoidant) to fit my picture. Then, I will respond to her distancing by fussing and worrying, always sad or angry about the relationship. This will, of course, exactly confirm her fears that relationships bring with them all sorts of “negotiations and arguments and secrets and compromises,” as Ryan so aptly put it in his speech.

This doesn’t mean that relationships between avoidant and anxious/preoccupied partners are unhappy ones. They can be passionately intense in a way that secure partners and partnerships aren’t. But there will be negotiations and compromises. Being in an avoidant/anxious pairing means struggling to find the right music to the dance, the right combination of distance and closeness, so that the distancer can breathe while the worrier can be confident that he or she is loved.

A conscious effort to cultivate compassion and acceptance may be needed, in other words, so that the relationship can continue to provide the safety and healing that insecure partners of both types — anxious and avoidant — so deeply want and need. For these individuals especially, their relationship can be the key to healing the wounds that left them feeling unlovable or frightened of love in the first place. Whether he knew it or not, Ryan was speaking about the power of attachment to make us whole again as he began to awaken from his dream of solitary splendor: “Hey,” he mused aloud, “everybody needs a co-pilot.”

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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