Relationships with others are a complex, fascinating dynamic that most of us spend our entire life trying to understand, master, and continuously improve. The way we show up in a partnership today is a culmination of the experiences in relationships throughout our lives – those with parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, and other loved ones. This collective experience creates our current relationship attachment system and guides our decisions about relationships moving forward.
The role of your attachment system
Many have heard about attachment, but fewer people understand what it is and how it affects relationships. Attachment refers to the emotional and physical bond that is created between an infant and his/her caregivers, and develops into the model of relationships that is later used in adult romantic relationships. As a review from our previous blog on attachment styles, the ideal way to determine your attachment style is to work with a psychologist who is well-versed in attachment theory as it relates to relationships. In addition, there are questionnaires and books (Tatkin, 2016) that can also be helpful in determining your attachment style. For our purposes, you can quickly learn more about your attachment style in this brief quiz from Psych Central.
Based on taking the quiz above, you probably have more insight into which one of the four major attachment styles you most naturally fall into and you can also read more here. Those categories include:
Insecure - Anxious/Preoccupied
Insecure - Dismissive/Avoidant
Insecure - Fearful/Unresolved
Our primary attachment system influences all of our relationship decisions and dynamics, and can therefore, lead some to either prematurely dismiss or reject a well-suited mate or prematurely attach to a mate that is poorly suited. More specifically, those with more of an avoidant attachment style might be quick to build a case and dismiss a relationship that has potential, while those with an anxious attachment system are more likely to quickly reject a “good” catch in favor of a familiar “bad” catch. Anxious attachment types can also fall for a poorly suited mate without taking the time to fully or accurately see the negative characteristics. This happens in large part growing up feeling preoccupied with being in relationship to others to feel complete, and thus, are unconsciously trained to do everything to “make a relationship work.”
No matter your attachment system, when entering into a new relationship, it’s especially important to tune into your initial reactions to the partnership. It’s natural to gather data about a potential partner’s behavior, interests, and how you feel in their company. This initial intake of experiences is inevitable and part of the natural evaluation process we undertake in any new situation -- whether it be a new job, new home environment, or any other change in life circumstances.
The problem is that in dating specifically, we often want to analyze the initial information we receive and draw immediate conclusions based on little data. This can happen in any new experience, but is especially common in the infancy of new relationships.
Early Dismissal - If you start dating someone who prefers to spend their weekends watching Netflix marathons while you enjoy hiking 14ers or skiing all day, you might draw the conclusion that your energy levels are misaligned and dismiss the potential of the relationship. And, as you draw that conclusion over a short period of time, you will probably be narrowly focused on the ways your potential mate spends their free time and start to “build your story” dismissing some of the other wonderful things about your progressing relationship – such as his or her compassionate nature or the ease of your daily conversation.
Early Attachment - This can also work in another relationship-sabotaging way, especially for anxious attachment types, when deciding too early that he/she is a perfect partner for you before giving yourself sufficient time to gather all of the information. If thinking about future trips together, what your names will sound like together, or when you can introduce him/her to your family, well before finding out about their beliefs, integrity, and how consistent their words and actions are, this may be something you’ve experienced before. You may be prone to seeing the good in another person and get way ahead of yourself believing he/she is a perfect mate very early in the partnership and feel quite disappointed when they show their true colors.
A close cousin to self-sabotage, confirmation bias – a phenomenon in which one pays more attention to the things that reinforce beliefs than those that contradict his or her prediction – often plays a significant role in early relationship foreclosure.
What drives this behavior?
Confirmation bias is often rooted in our previous experience of relationships. For instance, if a significant partnership in one’s past ended due to misaligned financial or spending philosophies, a hypersensitivity to this aspect in a new relationship may create a situation in which even a small disagreement about money begins an inner dialogue about this being a potential deal-breaker. Similarly, if you were taught that all relationships take work, you might be prone to make allowances or excuses for poor relationship behaviors or inconsistencies between you and your date. With roots in attachment theory, the potential of our past to affect our current partnerships can span far back to our earliest experiences with our caregivers and parents, as well as friendships throughout life.
No matter how open-minded we try to be in entering a new relationship, it’s impossible not to have a handful of desires or deal-breakers that are essential in a long-term mate. Whether this list includes finding a partner who loves children or someone who abstains from recreational drugs, these desires can lead to a premature dismissal of or commitment to a relationship. For instance, if being with someone who wants a family and loves children is important to you, witnessing this person stay out late every weekend and only spend time with friends who aren’t parents may start to fuel a story that he/she doesn’t value family. This might be the case, or you might see what you want to see and let your own confirmation bias take over. Maybe their social choices are misaligned with your core need to have a partner who loves children and family or maybe it’s just a phase in life and he or she is truly ready to settle down with a family when the circumstances are right. While it’s important to note the consistent, questionable situations you witness, it’s not fair to draw ultimate conclusions early in a relationship and dismiss it based on incomplete information.
On the other hand, you may overlook the fact that your partner stays out late with friends every weekend or doesn’t treat you like a priority in their life, and think, “I’m sure they’ll change when the time comes.” Your desire to make it work with this person, may leave you overlooking important information about who they are and what they want.
The outcome we want.
Contrary to dismissing a relationship, we can also find ways to validate our partner’s behavior and jump to conclusions about the potential of a partnership. This is especially true for anxiously attached types. For instance, if you desire an outcome of monogamy and long-term partnership with someone, you might tend to see their committed side more than behaviors that would give you pause to question their level of interest. If you are truly uncertain whether a person is fully committed to you and the relationship or still dating other people, but deeply want to take things to the next level of exclusivity, your confirmation bias might help you build a story that your potential mate wants a relationship with only you due to his/her words, actions, and frequency of contact. However, attachment to the outcome in this way can leave you blind-sided when you learn that your potential love interest was also dating another person at the same time. By ignoring all the data and focusing on what you want to believe with a sense of “tunnel vision”, you might misinterpret the truth of someone’s personality and where the relationship is ultimately going.
The Remedy: Practice Nonattachment
As you recognize your tendency to use confirmation bias to shift your relationship outcomes prematurely, the easiest solution is to practice nonattachment to the outcome of the relationship. Stay present in your experience without feeling the need to decide about the future potential of your partner before you have all the data points you need.
Stop analyzing, stop feeling the need to pick a path of certainty, and release expectations about the perfection of the partnership. Instead, choose to be in the experience, learning, growing, mindfully observing, and questioning in the healthiest of ways. Resist the urge to pick out and focus on a few key dynamics of the relationship and instead try and experience the full-spectrum of companionship as you experience the relationship. Trust that the answers will come in due time.
If you find yourself over-analyzing, root into the sensations of your time together such as the way the way your partner smells, the acute feeling of your body pressed against theirs, the subtle inflections of his or her voice. Connecting to the visceral experience of your time together can help get you out of your head. Instead of judging and keeping track of the pros and cons of a partner, tune in to your internal compass and ask yourself how you feel around them, how much you can be yourself, and how accepted you feel when together. Assess the connection and the full-spectrum chemistry more than the list of characteristics you want in a mate.
If you know you are challenged to stop premature judgement in relationships and use confirmation bias as a way to self-sabotage, contact Center for Shared Insight to further understand the roots of these behaviors and how you might overcome them in a complimentary consultation. Or, download our fearless living ebook to learn more about living outside your comfort zone for more fulfilling relationships.