Letter: On young love, attachment styles, and long-distance non-relationships

You folks send me many good letters, and every once in a while you send me a great one. What makes this one great is it brings up so much juicy stuff, giving me an excuse for me to go on tangential rants on various topics of interest:

Dear Dr Ali, 

I’m struggling with a recent break up, if that’s what you can call it. I want to know if I have a shot in hell of saving this relationship or if I need to pick up myself and move on. Here is the story.

My boyfriend and I had been dating somewhat long distance (4 hour drive) for over 2 years when we broke up. I actually dumped him. Sadly I had pushed him away before so he told me to think about it because this would be the last time. I told him I didn’t want to think and I wanted to be done. Suddenly two days later I realized I made a HUGE mistake and started talking to him. We talked for three weeks, with me begging, pleading, crying, the works, and him saying he was done and couldn’t be with me anymore. I even asked if he had slept with someone else, he said he didn’t want to talk about it, but I pushed him and it turns out in the second week of the break up he had.

He finally agreed to see me for closure on the third weekend of the break up. It was terrible and had no closure of course. There were HUGE mixed emotions from him. Saying he loved me over and over, kissing, telling me he had missed me. He even said that a part of him did want us to work out but that he couldn’t see the future.

I begged and pleaded. He pushed back. It was terrible. He even ended up spending the night with me. The next morning he finally agreed that we would talk in 40 days, no promises or anything, but that he would talk to me then. I told him I would work very hard in those 40 days to get myself back and prove to him I deserved him back.

This was a huge relief and maybe made me a little hopeful. He dropped me at my car, told me he loved me, and even said he hated to think it would be the last time he would see me. I drove home and started to feel so miserable I ended up calling him. We actually had a really nice talk and he admitted he felt lucky to have someone so willing to work for him and so in love with him. I hung up and felt good.

Then panic set in because I started to wonder if he would get in a relationship in the next 40 days. I called him again and asked him to promise me not to. He got upset saying it wasn’t fair to make all these demands when he had already given me so much (true) and that he didn’t want to keep giving in. But he promised anyways and even said I love you first at the end of the call.

I’m scared now for the 40 day mark. I’ve done a lot of soul searching and therapy work, I now realize due to an abusive past from my family I have a huge fear of commitment. It didn’t matter how much my ex proved himself or told me he loved me; my past still haunted me. I couldn’t just let go and enjoy the relationship. I was constantly planning and controlling, to the point where I actually mimicked some of the emotional behavior that had been put on me in the past. I truly want to make us work but I’m terrified it’s too little too late. I want to believe when he admitted a part of him wants us to work. But I have to wonder if he was just being nice to make me feel better. Any advice here would be welcomed.

Thanks, Marilou, 23, Vermont

Hey there, Marilou! First off, that is way more than 200 words. Next time, please summarize. And have a real question – your whole letter does not contain a single question mark! “Any advice would be welcomed,” eh? Well then, a broken clock is right twice a day, and you can get out a red wine stain on a white shirt with soda water and bleach. Oh wait, that’s not the kind of advice you were looking for? Well then, next time you need to tell me: WHAT DO YOU WANT?

I belabor that point because almost none of the letters I get contain a well thought-out question regarding what he or she wants. If you don’t know what you want, are you surprised to end up with what you don’t?

Awright, let’s begin:

1) Long-distance relationships (LDRs)

From what I can tell, here’s the big issue: a long-distance relationship is no relationship at all. Ladies – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a long distance relationship is no relationship at all. If the distance is so much that it precludes spontaneity (“Hey, let’s go get some Chinese food/go on a hike/romp in the hot tub right now”), then you’re in an LDR. (Note: I’m not talking about pre-existing long-term relationships when one partner has to go fight freedom-hating evil on the other side of the planet or finish up a graduate degree for X years. This is mostly about dating someone new, although long-distance relationships are pretty fraught in general.)

You are fooling yourself into thinking you have a relationship if you’re willing to settle for someone who’s four hours away. Real intimacy develops in proximity, so I see long-distance relationships as a hedge against real intimacy while still having a placeholder called “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” so the world sees you as socially competent or lovable or something. In other words, a LDR is usually for some purpose other than that of having a deep connection in which two people become catalysts for each other’s growth on a daily basis through emotional and energetic feedback loops.

To establish those growth-catalyzing emotional and energetic feedback loops, you’re going to need a local boy, and you’ll have to deal with all the fear and uncertainty of having someone nearby. If you have an avoidant/insecure attachment pattern, which you hint at, it’s always going to be a little fraught. But it’s okay! You’ll be fine. And real intimacy is the only thing that’s going to heal you anyway, so relax because there is no other choice. I’ll get into more details about attachment styles in a little bit.

As for this current boy — well, I don’t know the fella, but the pattern you two have established sounds pretty unhealthy and utterly unsustainable. What, you’re going to have these 40-day moratoria for the rest of your life? Not gonna work, hon. Eject cleanly, take a clear look at your life, and commit to real (and local) love.

2) Attachment styles.

Marilou mentions in her letter that she’s already broken up with the boy once, and just did it again. Her behavior has a lot to do with her current attachment style. Psychologists say that we have three different attachment styles: anxious, secure, and avoidant.

According to Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, anxious folks are preoccupied with their relationships, worrying that their partner doesn’t love them enough. If you have an anxious attachment style, then you have a need for constant access to your partner and you’ll take the partner’s behavior personally (e.g. “Why hasn’t he called back? It’s been 90 seconds already!!”). I call it the clingy attachment style.

People with an avoidant attachment style, on the other hand, will try to maintain maximum autonomy within the relationship. They try not to get too close to anyone lest it compromise their freedom and independence. They also spend a lot of time and energy looking for “the one.” They create a fixed idea in their mind of how their perfect partner should be. Therefore, they often have a tough time creating the compromises necessary to adapt to the needs and personalities of real partners.

Apparently, avoidants also are very good at finding dealbreaking pet peeves with their partners (e.g. “Omigod, his laugh sounds like a sea lion”). This gives them an excuse to maintain emotional distance while they wait for Prince Charming or Princess Perfect.

Man, is that going to be a long wait.

Finally, we have the securely attached people. These folks are comfortable with closeness and intimacy. They can also read their partner’s needs without getting too worried (like the anxious folks) or indifferent (like the avoidants). They draw close to give their partners greater intimacy and support, and give space when their partners need greater autonomy.

This is the chill, go-with-the-flow attachment style, and it’s the best predictor of a successful relationship.

Since our attachment styles originate chiefly from our childhood upbringing, there’s no need to beat ourselves up if we’re not a happy-go-lucky securely attached person yet. The good news, however, is that with some effort and good communication skills, you can change your attachment style.

So, back to Marilou’s story: the fact that she’s signed up for a LDR and initiated breakups twice is strong evidence that she has an avoidant attachment style. But then, right after she broke up with him, she got super-clingy, calling him a lot and asking for a raft of unreasonable assurances. That’s classic anxious style. No, it does not make any sense to break up with a guy and ask him not to sleep with other women. Unless you have a little bit of both the avoidant and anxious attachment style in you.

So what are you going to do about it? Changing an attachment style from anxious/avoidant to secure is beyond the scope of a mere article. But once you’ve recognized what’s going on, you’re in a much better position to recognize your unconscious needs, establish healthier communication patterns, and heal yourself. Marilou has some insight into the origins of her condition: “I now realize due to an abusive past from my family I have a huge fear of commitment.” That’s a good place to start the process of change.

3) The pitfalls of young love

When you’re young and inexperienced, it’s normal to hang on to early relationships far past their expiration dates. Hell, when I was 19, I thought I was gonna marry my first girlfriend. When we broke up, I was certain that no other girl would ever love me, kiss me, or get naked with me. Clearly the world had come to an abrupt and tearful end, and everyone else was just too darn clueless to notice.

Well, actually it hadn’t, and it won’t be for you. Let go already and go have some fun. You are young, smart, and if not already certifiably hot, then certainly the hottest YOU will ever be. No part of the letter you sent me sounded like you were having fun with it. Time to enjoy the prime of life!

Also, recognize that a lot of young love (and older love) is about ego, not actual love. Throughout your letter, you hardly mention any of the qualities of the guy, or anything about how he is specifically good for you. At this age, it’s all about the fact that someone broke up with you or won’t take you back, and the meaning that has regarding your desirability as a person.

As you grow up and gain more experience, you’ll realize that these things are almost never personal. Yes, this most personal of things — my relationship, my love! – is not entirely about you when it doesn’t work out. You just don’t know how that partner was raised, how many times his parents ignored him or spanked him, how he was bullied in school, how he came from a fundamentalist country, how he thinks himself an impostor and is afraid you’ll find him out for the fraud he is and leave him first, etc.

And finally, go easy on yourself. If you’re 23, this means that you are going to screw things up. Guaranteed. Heck, I know people in their 50s and 60s who are still screwing it up. So consider every relationship an opportunity to practice being more loving. Then you can bring more of your best self to the next one, and the next one.

4) Scarcity mentality.

Two days after Marilou breaks up with her boyfriend for the second time, she goes into panic mode: “Suddenly two days later I realized I made a HUGE mistake and started talking to him. We talked for three weeks, with me begging, pleading, crying, the works…”

This is the question to ask yourself: Is this behavior coming from a place of abundance or scarcity? You’ve got a guy who’s 4 hours away who you’ve broken up with twice. And you’re ignoring the other 3 billion dudes on the planet to beg and plead to get back with him?

There’s a lot that could be going on here – dopamine reward circuits, chemical withdrawal symptoms, general fear of loneliness omigod nobody loves me I’m going to die alone in a creaky rocking chair in some godforsaken nursing home. But what I want to focus on is the thing you have a lot of power to change: your focus.

As it turns out, human neurology is much more sensitive to loss than it is to gain. As Daniel Kahneman explains in his magnum opus Thinking Fast and Slow, we’re willing to expend far more effort to prevent a loss than we are to acquire an equivalent gain. Anecdotally, you can probably verify that losing a $20 bill probably sucks a lot more than finding one on the sidewalk makes you happy.

So what I’m asking you to do here whenever any one of you has a breakup is to do what Zen and Taoist artists do and focus on the background: I lost one mediocre partner, which now opens up the possibility of meeting millions more out there, any one of whom could be a much better partner. Abundance, aye – massive, unimaginable abundance.

Moreover, the fact that you had a relationship means that someone loved you – just not forever! It’s never going to last forever anyway, so go celebrate the love, and the fact that you were lovable.

Indeed, if I were to boil down all the problems of all of my readers – nay, all humans even – into one unifying ur-issue, it would be this:

Am I lovable?

To answer that, a quick aside. Recently, I was taking care of a friend’s supercute cats for a while, and I thought to myself: What’s the most adorable, lovable thing in the world? A baby, right? Also kittens, puppies, and the young of other charismatic megafauna, since I’m guessing most of you don’t get all gushy over tadpoles and baby eels.

And what do all of these creatures have in common, besides triggering our brain’s hardwired cute detectors?

They’re all maximally vulnerable. Completely helpless, actually.

The thing that makes you lovable is also your vulnerability. We’re not saying that you should divulge all your woes to total strangers or start having fainting spells in restaurants. But vulnerability is the crack that lets the light in, as Leonard Cohen put it. Self-sufficiency, independence, competence, and leadership are all commendable — and distinctly non-cuddly qualities. If you want cuddles, better get cuddleworthy. You do that by being more human, by speaking your heart, by admitting you’re lonely, by expressing your love instead of measuring it out with a dropper, by daring greatly.

This 3-minute video by Dr Fred Luskin on vulnerability and forgiveness is one of the most lucid things I’ve heard on the topic. He says it a hundred times better than I ever can, so it’s fully worth your while:

So yes, you are lovable. You are enough – for somebody. As long as you’re willing to be vulnerable, be kind and to give up your dream of Clooney (who is off the market for now anyway) there will be far more companions interested in you than you can possibly handle.

PS: The audiobook of The Tao of Dating for Women is now available on Audible and Amazon. Audible has a deal where you can get it for free. And if you’re one of the first 20 people to put up a review of it on Audible.com, I will hook you up with a free download code to send to a friend. Send me an email with “AUDIBLE REVIEW” in the subject and the link to your review.

12 Comments on “Letter: On young love, attachment styles, and long-distance non-relationships”

  1. Suzanne Manning

    Another thought-provoking response, riddled with insights and food for thought. Who knew that the art of loving others and letting them love us was so deeply complex? I am only now (in my 60s) recognizing the god-awful path that young, romantic love was. Oh, the unnecessary drama, the black and white thinking. The tug of war, the doubt, jealousy, insecurity, neediness, and endless projection. It’s a wonder any of us survive it. Thanks for a great read.

  2. Anna

    An amazing article & insights. You’ve covered many things I haven’t thought of before. Thank you.

    Soul-searching as we speak after a recent loss of the ‘love of my life’

    I’ll definately check out your book :-)

  3. Theress

    I’m in a 3 yrs long distance relationship 1000s of miles away. We both hv kid from previous relationships. I hv got opportunities to visit him twice in his country of resistance but he didn’t hv opportunity due to visa issues. We wanted to start a family and we hv tried during my time of visiting. I wanted to take a risk of moving over to him with my child but sometimes I think of my job and my child relocating to another country to start a new life. He really want us to be together but he thing his earnings cannot take care for the 3 of us. He lives in one bedroom and i live in 2 bedrooms, with a car.life is not all rosy but i am 80% comfortable. We really working hard for a lasting relationship. Please advice as i want ro take a risk of moving.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Sounds like this venture would have a very low probability of success. Remember — a long-distance relationship is no relationship at all. Unless you feel like gambling with the well-being of your child is a good idea, stay where you are.

  4. Fernanda

    I’m from Latin America and I recently (about 2 months ago) met this amazing Italian guy. He was in my country for business, he’s 26 just as me and he invited me out for dinner one night. He melt my heart while he was telling me about his childhood, growing up in Verona, his love for food (He’s a Chef), his memories making ice cream with his grandfather at the age of 5, etc. It seemed to me that he really cares for the important things in life, those little details that are essential for a meaningful life (at least in my opinion) We had a lovely date, we had so much in common and he was a gentleman. The bad thing was that he needed to leave my country the next day, so I decided to be realistic about it and not get involve with him, I enjoyed the moment and the dinner and It was great. The next day he needed to take his flight at 4 and I already had plans … however he called me that morning telling me that he needed to see me one more time before leaving. I told him I was at the mall and he went with his luggage and everything to meet me there, just to see me for the last time … that was adorable. I offered him to go to the airport with him, I just wanted to say good bye just yet. I was so nervous because I knew we liked each other but no one was doing any other move. While in the airport and after doing the check in we kissed for the first time and I have to say that was the best kiss I ever get. Was a really beautiful moment, I can’t explain it … we say good bye and he left. Then something was ringing inside me and to be honest that kiss was not enough … I used to work at the civil aviation authority so I talked with some people from aviation security to ask for permission to enter to the airport and get to see him once again. They let me entry and I send him a message asking which gate he was … he was shocked that I get into the airport just to give him one more kiss. We starting kissing each other, laughing, hugging, like we know each other since forever. Then he left for another country… the following week we kept talking on whatsapp, I’m really into him and it seems that he also was into me, because the next Friday he invited me over for the weekend to spend some time with him in another country. I was really hesitant, because it was risky but I trust my heart and I travel overseas to see him once again. What can I say? Best weekend ever. We keep in touch and even thou our situation is super difficult and I do know believe in a long distance relationship we talked about the chance to see each other once again. He was thinking in spend his holidays in January with me and was telling me about some ideas to travel together. I really want to make plans with him but I’m kind of new at my current job and I have no holidays till June next year. After some skypedates, sexy and romantic messages, I asked him on Skype that maybe we could make plans together for my vacations, because I already was making plans with friends to go to Europe, so if I also have the chance to spend some time with him would be like the perfect plan. On Skype he seemed really excited, he told me about possible dates where he could ask for vacations so I started to check flight because as you may know if u buy in advance its lots cheaper. While we were talking about this, and even thou I was really excited I told him that we needed to wait a lot of time till we reunite in Europe and that may be difficult, but he thought that was worth the wait. Couples of day after, I told him about some routes ideas and what to visit, etc and some flights that I checked.. then the unexpected happened and it seems that he’s hesitant of making plans with me and he doesn’t seem committed to make holidays plan in June anymore. I told him that if he did not see or want to make plans for my holidays there was no point to meet in January because I was going to get more involver and it was going to hurt more. Everything seemed so amazingly but I know I deserve the best and no the minimum and now it seems he’s not willing to do an effort anymore. Should I gave me a shot? Try to wait if things work out? or just don’t chase these dream anymore? It hard so bad but I’m trying to make what’s right for me.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Fernanda – thanks for the note. Let me ask you this: what is right for you? Also, 200 words or less please :)

  5. July

    Amazing article! I really love how honest and blunt it is.

    But here is my question. (I am sorry for my english, since I’m from Germany). What to do if everything you wrote makes sense and is completely logical to you, but when you try “to break up” you get all irrational and clingy again? What to do if the brain understands but the heart won’t listen?

    After being one year long in a long distance relationship, I asked my boyfriend to decide if he wants to move together with me, because I want to see him more than one weekend in a month. We are both 29 years old and I offered him to move to his place, since he doesn’t want to move away. He said he is not ready for this yet and enjoys his time alone even though he misses me too. After a few weeks of him not trying to get me back I ended up crying and running back to him, begging him not to leave me. Now we are back where it all started again. I do realize it is unhealthy, but I am also too scared of the pain und getting depressed again if we break up. What would you recommend?

  6. Valeria

    This article was good except for the long distances is not a real relationship bullshit. I’m guessing you’re an older person that is more traditional? Because all one needs to do is look for stories of long distance working to see just how common it is. to find two loving people in LDRs that meet up and are still together. And yes what you described what was needed was one way to build a relationship. But it’s not *the* way. I’m in a LDR and it’s more healthy and loving than some of the other doomed couples I’ve seen in person.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a long-distance relationship is no relationship at all. Humans evolved for tens of thousands of years in small bands on the savanna. Relationships are a function of that evolutionary past, and everything about them happened in proximity, not distance. Long-distance relationships are an artifact of technology and the near enemy of real intimacy. The benefits of hugging, kissing, looking someone in the eye and other physical interaction are real and cannot be duplicated from a distance.

  7. Jenni

    I’m having problems with my anxious attachment type. Every guy I’ve dated has called me “clingy”. So I’m working on my self value.

    I had a guy recently try to catch my attention. It took him about 4 months. But he recently made a move to Australia to finish his schooling. After giving him my time I found we have so much in common. But after 6 days of talking, I can feel that anxious attachment type creeping back in. I decided to give it a break and clarify some things. That’s when I came across this.

    Now I’m second guessing everything. Pretty sure I’m not ready for any kind of LDR. Likely not good for my anxious type, is it?

  8. Bo

    My LDR was beginning to start from an online connection I made through my career. It started off becoming more and more vulnerable and transparent, it was a great feeling. She is a beautiful person who is bold, compassionate and excited about life and we share the same humour. That’s what would make me want to speak with her all the time. She would also notice the same in me. However, at the stage where vulnerability was at it’s rawest (which form my understanding was past upbringing and mental/emotional development), things messed up – my own factors that include being overly anxious and certain life circumstances completely destroyed what was there. This lead to several months of no proper interaction, me becoming selfish and making her feel vulnerable and unsure. I had to apologise from the core and forgive myself for how I acted, but I should’ve known from then everything was going to become difficult.

    Then all of a sudden this year an opportunity came for me to finally meet in person (which was planned last year but I forced the chance to meet her at a party) and I failed to express the true thoughts and feelings about everything and create a rational, mutual, understanding conversation. This was apparent that I STILL feared of the outcome and my anxiety was not over. This in a way has either become an eye opener as to how I am not ready to face this or any LDR. As I learn to be more secure it’s helped me start to develop a greater objective view on the relationship that crumbled apart over several months because of a lack of assertiveness and mutual agreement from me, and a lack of re-opening and re-vulnerability from the person who I loved, that from my understanding has become avoidant.

    Through my secure journey I’ve realised this is long distance so it was going to be hard. This is because of the event at hand, neither because of her or myself. Trying to make love and closeness blossom when two people are away from each other every day is bound to cause trust issues and a lack of real physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual empathy. The early stages of vulnerability was the key to this whole thing, because had that been maintained over the months then compromising would’ve happened and the final meet up would’ve been relaxed. However it wasn’t, and I accept what has happened.

    I need to also realise that the friendship IS THERE, the closeness however isn’t. It may take a long while until the closeness happens again, or it may not even happen at all, but the fact that I am present in her life as the friend she wants to see me as, vice versa, means there will always be that door that will either open when the time is right or stay shut because no one can approach it. It’s a love story I actually am glad was embedded in my life, the outcome still not being decided..

    Food for thought: if you decide to become vulnerable with someone who also becomes vulnerable, try to become the strong one in the relationship if they are the not so strong one. Be the leader they deserve and the anchor the relationship deserves. Don’t feel guilty if it doesn’t work, but realise for the next time because love is complex but also simple.