Book on Romantic Attachment Merges Science With Self-Help

Meghan Berry
October 24, 2011

Seven years ago, when Amir Levine was in his child and adolescent psychiatry residency here at Columbia, he worked with mothers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, using attachment-based therapy to help them better bond with their children. While reading about attachment in children, he came across research that surprised and intrigued him—adults show patterns of attachment to their romantic partners similar to those of children with their parents.

As he learned more about the topic, Levine, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Columbia University Medical Center, began to notice attachment behavior in adults all around him. He realized that this kind of insight could have significant implications for romantic relationships. He discussed this with a childhood friend, Rachel S.F. Heller, a Columbia-trained social organizational psychologist, and they decided to write a book, geared to a general audience, to fill the void between academic journals and self-help books rarely backed by science.

“Our society puts a lot of emphasis on being independent of our romantic partners, but that doesn’t hold water,” said Levine. “It’s not our biology. Dependence is a fact. People should really understand that attachment is a powerful force. When you become dependent, the other person’s happiness is in your hands. It’s a big responsibility.”

The result of their joint venture is Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, which they call the manual they wish they had had in their dating years. It neatly straddles the divide between academic research and pop-psychology. Theirs may be among the few relationship books to be the topic of a talk at the New York Academy of Sciences.

Through research, Levine learned that one’s attachment style as a child does not directly align with his or her attachment style in adult relationships. But the science of adult attachment, Levine said, can predict how people will behave in romantic relationships, and whether they will be well matched on the basis of their attachment styles—secure, anxious or avoidant. These are influenced by attitudes toward intimacy and preoccupation with relationships. “Secure people are warm and loving and aren’t too preoccupied,” Levine said. “Anxious people love to be close and intimate, and tend to be very preoccupied with the relationship. Avoidants also get attached, but feel uncomfortable with closeness.”

Studies reveal that 54 percent of the population is secure, which Levine said is good news because secure people can actually help their anxious and avoidant partners overcome some of their hang-ups. Despite the stereotypical image of anxious women and avoidant men, there are avoidant women and anxious men, too, he said.

Identifying attachment styles is key to a successful relationship. Secure people are “relationship superstars,” Levine said. Anxious people crave frequent reassurance from their partner, believing affection is a prize to be won. Avoidant people are the game players, at times getting close but ultimately withdrawing. “Anxious-avoidants should steer clear of one another,” Levine said, “though there is a lot of attraction between the two. They feed off one another.” Meanwhile, relationships between two avoidants rarely get off the ground. “They’re lacking the glue,” he said. “There’s not enough to hold them together.”

In addition to his attachment work, Levine spends the bulk of his time in a CUMC laboratory. He, along with Eric Kandel, the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist at CUMC, and his wife Denise Kandel, a professor of sociomedical sciences, are using mice to study how exposure to nicotine can enhance one’s likelihood of becoming addicted to other drugs, particularly cocaine, work that is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Levine also has a private practice where he sees patients, who remind him why he became attached to psychiatry. “People think money and fame are rewarding, but these are fleeting rewards. It’s the closeness with people that’s most gratifying,” he said.