'Why Aren’t You Texting Me Back?!!'
Relationship Expert Tracy McMillan talks attachment theory.
I used to see relationships as incredibly complicated, like two necklaces tangled up together. The more you tried to pull them apart, the more knotted they got. But after years of writing this column, I’ve started to view relationships as exceedingly simple: Here are two people trying to get their needs met. Their failure or success has less to do with developing a deeper understanding of the complexities of their personalities, family histories, habits, compulsions, deeply felt needs, and resentments, and more to do with their attachment styles.
I made this shift in part because I’ve logged so many hours talking to my friend Tracy McMillan about relationships and how they work. Every time I talk to Tracy I learn something new. She has one of those wild minds that effortlessly blends together, say, marriage challenges, the book Caste, the plot of Succession, and Cardi B lyrics.
Tracy brings up attachment theory often, but every time I try to read a book on the subject, I find it much less insightful and informative than Tracy herself. So this week, when an Ask Polly reader wanted some clarification of what I meant when I mentioned “trying not to act from an anxiously attached place,” I thought it would be fun to call Tracy and fire some questions at her about attachment theory and how it’s informed her work and her life.
You have this career that has spanned so many different realms – journalism, TV writing, books, and now you also host the show Family or Fiancé on Oprah’s OWN Network and coach couples and families on how to resolve their relationship challenges. When did you realize that you had a talent for understanding other people’s relationships?
It started organically. Years ago when I was still a journalist, I was always talking about people’s relationships while I was supposed to be doing my real job, writing TV news. A newsroom is very deadline driven, which means it’s great for procrastinating. So you shoot the shit until the last minute, then you write the story.
After I had a baby, I started reading about attachment and child development, and I started seeing relationship challenges through that lens. And in the last 25 years, there’s this body of relationship science that didn’t exist before. I got really into the science. All anyone had to go on before was what their grandma said or what their best friend said, which in terms of relationship science is sort of medieval — like the medical equivalent of leeching. People are just groping around in the dark for an answer.
What motivated you to gather so much knowledge around how relationships work, why they fail, and what to do about it?
I was a foster child from the age of three months until nine years. And when you’re a foster child, you need to go into a world, a very intimate world of people’s families, and figure out what’s going on very quickly. So I have this highly developed intuition and pattern recognition ability. Because in foster care, your actual survival depends on being able to accurately predict what's going on with people you just met but you're totally dependent upon. It became a little bit of a superpower: I understand people really quickly.
Was there a time when you would dive in and tell people things and they’d kind recoil?
No. Most people want to feel seen. They’re like “Oh my god, you get it!” Occasionally someone will have a negative reaction, but that’s usually because the person isn’t ready to go deep. Because when you look at the data, you see that you’re not unique or alone. Most people have a lot of “Aha!” moments once they start reading about relationship science.
You advise couples on your show about how to get along with each other and their families. And with some of them, I’d have trouble not saying, “Whew, I can’t help you at all! You’re on your own!” What do you think is the most common obstacle to love and connection for most people?
People often don’t realize that their actual problem is related to attachment style. Not to oversimplify, but attachment style is like a language you speak. It’s that embedded. Every aspect of the way you’re relating comes down to this language. Once people start to understand their attachment style, there’s a moment of realization and epiphany. Even more importantly, they realize that a lot of what has been happening in their relationships isn't who they are, it's what they're doing, or how they're thinking. And that can be changed. Suddenly, you have choices.
The way I explain it, there are basically two categories of attachment: secure and insecure. Within the insecure category, there are three different types: anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. But when you just boil it down to secure and insecure, you can sort of see the differences more clearly.
How do you know if you’re securely attached?
Because your relationship is not an issue for you. You don’t even think about it. Basically, secure people feel comfortable in relationships, they tend to pair off fairly young and/or quickly, and then they stay bonded to the people they mate with. They build families and homes and businesses, and generally don't pay a whole lot of attention to their relationships. They resolve conflicts fairly easily, they don't have tons of leftover resentment from whatever happened back in 2007, and most of the time, their nervous systems are calm and regulated. They are happy — and crucially — their partners are happy, too. Secure people have a tendency to look at their friends who are always changing partners or can't seem to figure out their love lives and be sort of baffled. They wonder, "Why is this so hard for you?"
So what are insecurely attached people like?
There are two basic types: avoidant and anxious. We don't have all the time it takes to go into how these types develop, but it comes down to the relationship with the primary caregiver. Avoidant people weren't responded to enough and “decided" to shut the whole system down. Anxious people were responded to inconsistently and "decided" that making more noise was how they would get their needs met.
The easiest way to understand the types quickly is through their keywords.
The avoidant keyword is dismissing. They tend dismiss feelings and the need for connection. They’re worried about getting engulfed in their relationships, by the other person's needs, and their own feelings, which they often don’t even know they are having. They’re largely unaware of their needs. When they have a problem, they feel like they should solve it on their own, and they feel like you should, too. I want to say avoidants are very misunderstood. They want connection, they just connect in a distancing way. You know you're avoidant if partners have told you that you're uncaring and you sometimes think you’d be relieved if your relationship ended.
The keywords for anxious people are preoccupied and enmeshed. Anxious people want connection really badly. They’ll make a lot of noise to get it, and they have a hard time getting enough of it. They’re double-texters! You know you're anxious if you're the type who needs to process a lot in your relationships and you’re afraid of suddenly getting abandoned.
The keywords for the securely attached are free and autonomous. They naturally offer their partners a good combination of space and closeness, and they see themselves as both separate and connected.
What would you say to someone who tells you, “You don’t understand, my wife is impossible!” or “That’s not my problem! My problem is that my boyfriend won’t commit. I’m in this stuck place, but I love him so I can’t leave!”
I’m going to say that if you’re in a lot of distress, chronically, in relationships, chances are strong that there’s some insecure functioning there. Then I would start asking some questions and going deeper into that. I would ask, “Have you been in this situation before?” I’m talking about people who are 30 or older. By age 30, the patterns get pretty clear. But it’s important to know this isn't about blame. This is about identifying the emotional language you learned with your earliest caregivers that’s now getting in the way of forming secure attachments.
Are there people who are allergic to secure functioning people?
Yes, they’re called insecure functioning people! (Laughs.) Because secure functioning people aren’t that interesting or attractive to insecure functioning people! The insecure types — especially the avoidant and the anxious — really love to get together and drive each other crazy. Which is to say, confirm each other's world view.
Why do you think it’s so hard for most people to grapple with their own behavioral patterns?
The conversation about love and relationships in pop culture is very limited. We’ve been using the wrong measuring stick. People tend to say things like “Here are the red flags!” and “Use these tips to fix your love life!” and “How to avoid narcissists!” It’s all buzzwords and love languages. And those things are not it. The lexicon of how we assess and analyze and reflect on love is broken. The way we frame the constructs around falling in love tends to warp our ability to have successful relationships. Because it’s reductive and mythological. When it comes to love, we’re essentially talking about clicking our heels three times. The stuff people say, it’s like the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese of cooking. We’re using a ruler when we could be using a supercomputer.
I just got finished teaching a three-day retreat. And on the last day, a woman raises her hand and says “But we’re all supposed to be okay being alone, right?” I said, “I actually don’t think so.” I know it's kind of radical to say, but I think we actually need partners to be happy. The partner can be a dog or a best friend or even our parent -- but we need someone. A some "thing" doesn't even really work. Our species evolved to pair bond. Our offspring are dependent for years. We all come equipped with the deepest possible need to connect and stay connected -- our survival depends on it. So stop feeling like you’re supposed to be fine on your own. Capitalism wants you to be fine on your own because then you’ll move to the suburbs and buy your own washer and dryer and not live with grandma. You’ll break all these kinship bonds. Everyone will wind up in their own house, and you’ll all spend more money and also feel terrible and isolated and lonely.
So everyone is trying to make themselves happy independently instead of turning to human connection for sustenance, and as a result, they’re all dissatisfied and anxious.
Yes! The powers that be want your primary attachment to be to consuming: Cookies, beauty products, all of it. But look, if all of your attachment needs are met, you’re not that hungry or that depressed. You’re not in a sense of separation. You feel good.
And then it’s like we gave Republicans the flag and the family. We decided it wasn’t progressive to bond and need other people and want a family and want a partnership. So if you say “I need a man!”? Somehow that’s a radioactive idea. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s fine to want love and to want a partner. It doesn’t make you a weak person to want these things.
Or unfeminist. This is a whole bigger discussion, but we need a new cultural conversation on partnering. We fought so hard as women for the power to be self-determining. But we have to expand our understanding of how love and partnership fit into that picture. They don’t cancel each other out.
What would you say to someone who says “I’m much happier single than I am in a relationship”?
I trust that they know themselves well enough to know what works for them. I just want to give everyone permission to want to have a relationship and even to need one, if that’s true for them. It’s like the steering wheel of being a human.
And honestly, when people say things like “Good single men do not exist. I haven’t found the right person. They just aren’t out there!” I will be very provocative and say that people who are looking for secure relationships should consider leaving the big, cool cities. So many big, cool cities are big and cool because they’re filled with people who left their smaller, less-cool cities — and people who want to leave where they’re from are disproportionately the owners of insecure attachment strategies. I mean, it stands to reason that secure people are bonded to their homes, their parents, their siblings, their jobs, their communities and so on, in a way that makes the idea of leaving very unattractive. Why would I do that?! They’re simply unwilling to leave everything they're securely attached to. This isn't as true for people with insecure attachments who, by definition, aren't that tied to "home" in a way that feels good. They’re willing to leave because there's not as much attachment keeping them there.
I want to push back here and say that there’s a point in your life when the most secure thing you can possibly do is leave your hometown! Because when you’re young, it can really keep you stuck in old patterns, if you live next door to everyone you’ve known since you were little.
Well, of course that's true, also. Leaving home can be a great thing. It reveals things about yourself and your life and tests your character and offers opportunities that you might not have wherever you are. That's not what I'm talking about.
What I'm talking about is that life in New York or L.A. or San Francisco, where two-thirds of everyone you know over the age of 35 is not in a relationship — or is looking for a relationship, or just ended a relationship. And they go on apps and find a whole bunch of people who are some version of commitment-phobic, or who have unrealistic expectations, or who want to enmesh and have grand romance and not have to "settle" at all, or whose primary attachment is to their dog or their kids and they're just looking for someone to have sex with. The dating and mating patterns are somehow distorted in a way that makes stable pair-bonded relationships relatively rare. And often even the people who are in them seem discontent.
Part of this seems related to the cultural microcosm of particular cities, where people start to influence each other’s values and choices — and also probably trigger each other’s insecure attachment styles! So when you’re talking to someone and you can tell that they’re preoccupied or enmeshed or dismissive, how do you coax them into breaking those patterns?
Diane Poole Heller has written one of the best books going, called The Power of Attachment. She says we all have a secure attachment operating system that’s there, as soon as we tap into it. We just need to activate it. So you can either activate the secure system or the insecure system. And I love that!
The insecure system is an adaptation. We unconsciously make choices out of the insecure system. If someone teaches you how to activate the other system, boom, you can have a whole different relationship right now. And you don’t necessarily need years of therapy. Years of therapy are good, but they’re not required to begin operating from a secure place. You just need to know what the secure choices are in a given situation. But most people don’t know what those things are. Secure functioning isn’t like “What’s your sign?” or “What’s your love language?”
When people who tend toward insecure functioning find a secure partner, the secure partner will drag that person toward secure functioning. Which is to say, you don’t necessarily need to feel the secure functioning, you just need to do it.
What do you mean by that?
The essence of insecure-functioning is a dynamic — it's not one person or the other. It's between the two of them. So let's go back to the keywords and take the example of texting. An anxious person experiences a given texting exchange with feelings of preoccupation and enmeshment. They have a mental dialogue that says things like: “Why aren’t they texting me back?” or "If they liked me they would want to see me!" "I want to feel wanted and this person isn't making me feel that way, which makes me want to go find someone who will!" These thoughts and feelings might make it seem like a reasonable idea to go to the avoidant and ask for more contact, a return text faster, more responsiveness — or ask if the avoidant still likes them, or ask for more love, more commitment. And that, in turn, lands on the avoidant in a way that feels controlling and needy. They respond with dismissiveness: You're trying to control me. Why are you so insecure? I said I liked you last week. (Laughs.) Dismissing is like being a goalie: They just want to get that request or need out of there as fast as possible.
This dynamic of chasing and distancing is incredibly corrosive. It will end relationships, sooner or later. Even if people stay in the marriage, the relating is brittle and dry. But the breakthrough happens when you start to learn that this dynamic is driven by thoughts and feelings that don’t need to be acted on. They’re just feelings.
The secure keywords are free and autonomous. A secure person sees that their partner or friend hasn’t texted back and thinks: I know they are there, they must just be sort of busy. Their inner dialogue is: “Text me whenever you need to. I know you’re there. You’re free to do what you need to and be how you need to be.”
Insecure people transform their relationships when they just let their thoughts and feelings be there, and instead take the actions and say the words that a secure person would. The relationship is injected with a huge dose of secure functioning. It becomes more secure and stable right now. And over time, the insecure partners will learn the new language and their thoughts and feelings will reflect that.
I feel like I’ve moved past insecure attachment in many of my relationships. What trips me up now is those situations where I haven’t figured out how to set my expectations. When I’m stressed out or on new terrain, I revert back to a more jittery or anxious operating system.
That makes sense.
So what would you suggest for someone who finds their insecure attachment style being triggered?
It’s not about prescriptive action. It’s not about what you say, it’s about which language you’re saying it in. One language is going to create more secure functioning, and another language is going to create more insecure, anxious or avoidant functioning.
It really works to think in terms of language, and in terms of accessing your most secure functioning self. I talk to people about these concepts, they often say “That sounds like something that’s going to set me free.”
I feel that way, but I also notice that, as a writer, I’m attracted to emotion itself. I enjoy getting enmeshed and I even enjoy getting dismissive, you know? Writing people off in extreme terms sometimes feels like safety. I even like to pace and sweat over what a person thinks of me sometimes. It can backfire but it also taps into my creative energy.
I get that. You just need to understand what it does to your relationships. It's fine to do as an artist for the purpose of your work — but maybe leave it at the studio door.
I also think I resort to this superior place of “You’re doing it wrong. I’m the only one who knows how to do it right.”
That would be a common dismissing idea! (Laughs.) But a secure view is that other people do things because they think this is how they’re going to survive today, or get their needs met today. There's no blame and no one is better or worse — although some strategies work better and are more relationally functional than others.
I think that when I’m at my worst, I have a fundamental disrespect for other people’s choices.
What we’d say about this is that Heather developed a strategy that is designed to keep her safe, and now she’s imprisoned by it. She’s safe but she’s all by herself in a room. So I would ask, “How do we reframe this to set you free, even if the other person never changes?” Because let's face it, people don't really change all that often, and even when they do, not all that much. The new frame would be that the other person is stating their needs. And I don’t have an opinion about their needs. Because having an opinion about someone else's needs is like having an opinion about the weather. It’s irrelevant to present reality.
The goal in a relationship is to assume that each person's needs are legit, to them. You want to find out what their needs are, and then negotiate solutions without going into criticism where you make it about somebody’s character.
Do you find that once you start drawing on your secure functioning, it sort of makes the world more stable, perpetuates more good feelings, and lets you feel less out of control?
Absolutely. My happiness boils down to the sum total of whether I’m operating in secure functioning or insecure functioning more of the time. In fact, I can tell how many secure deposits I'm putting into my relationships (and life) by how secure I feel. It might seem like my happiness is about what the other person is doing or not doing. But a shocking amount of the time, what the other person is doing or not doing is a response to what I'm doing or not doing.
No one wants to think this! But my goal as a human is to reach a state where other people’s relational deficits don’t stop me from doing the challenging work (for me, an anxious) of acting from a secure place. It’s hard! But weirdly, the more secure actions I’m able to take — especially in the face of the other person's insecure actions! — the more the relationship moves toward stability and contentment for both of us.
And if it doesn't move in that direction over time, then that's when you know you should let go. Because sometimes other people just aren’t meeting you where you are. The question is “How do I meet them where they are without getting resentful or feeling like I’m being taken advantage of?” And sometimes not being resentful means accepting that they might not get to where you want them to be — at least not on your shift.
You can follow Tracy on Instagram at @tracymcmillan. Thoughts and feelings about this post? Become enmeshed and preoccupied in the comments below! If you’re struggling and you’d like a free 6-month subscription, write to askpolly at protonmail.com. Thank you for your support!