KrisDeana: WTF Happened Through the Lens of Attachment Theory

KrisDeanaThis article is a guest post written by mental health professional, Chrysanthemum Harrisonburgowitz.

I read a book about attachment theory once, and now everything is about attachment with me. I should mention that like our favorite franchise shrink, Taylor, I have a graduate degree in a mental health field; ergo I like thinking about why people do the baffling things they do. Needless to say I had a field day this season with the Dean and Kristina fiasco, and I want to tell you why.

But first, a few words by way of a disclaimer. Attachment theory is a well-established psychological model that has generated a ton of research since the 60’s. As with any adequate theory of human behavior, it’s nuanced and fraught with exceptions. What I’m presenting here is a grossly simplified slice of it for the sake of entertainment, and nothing more. If you’re interested in learning more, this book is a great place to start. And of course, having never met these people, this is all conjecture. Duh.

With that out of the way, here’s your quick and dirty crash course on attachment theory. The idea goes that the way our caregivers treat us when we’re babies shapes the way we relate as adults in our intimate relationships. There are basically four different patterns of attachment, called “attachment styles.” The most common one is called secure attachment. Securely attached adults seek intimate relationships, and are comfortable with closeness. They tend to be confident, and feel worthy of the loving relationships that they seek. Think Raven Gates.

Then we have three distinct styles of insecure attachment. Like the securely-attached, anxiously-attached people, who are roughly a fifth of the population, crave intimacy and closeness. But unlike their secure counterparts, the anxiously-attached (hereon referred to simply as “anxious”) struggle in relationships because they tend not to feel secure with their partners. There are the folks who obsess about what it means that their boyfriend took an hour to text them back, who are hyper-sensitive to signs of rejection, who chronically worry that their girlfriend will find someone better and leave them. In relationships, they often find themselves wanting more closeness than their partner, and when this need isn’t met, their tendency is to blame themselves, and wonder if they did something wrong. If this is starting to sound a whole lot like one particular Russian orphan, well, that’s what I’m getting at.

Next up, we have the insecure attachment style of the avoidant. Avoidantly-attached people, who make up about a quarter of the population, tend to place their need for independence over their need for intimacy with others. It’s not that these guys don’t have relationships; they do, and they can be as charming or kind as the next person. But when they get too close to others, the avoidant person can feel that their independence is being threatened, and experience this as very uncomfortable, or even scary. In the words of a self-aware avoidant friend, “It’s kind of like signaling, ‘Hey, I want to be with someone, but at the same time, kind of not.’” So…Dean.

Finally, we have the disorganized attachers. They make up a small percent of the population, and tend to have a hard time forming and sustaining relationships. They sort of go back-and-forth between being anxious and avoidant. Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about this style, so let’s leave it there.

I hope you’re still with me, cuz here’s where it gets interesting. The anxious and the avoidant attract each other. The “why” of this is up for debate, but there’s one popular theory. Based on past experiences, the anxious holds the belief that they always want more closeness than their partner can give them and they look for people who confirm that belief. Because they see themselves as dependent or “weak,” they admire avoidant characteristics like independence, and find those qualities attractive in others.

The avoidant may want to be with the anxious because they believe that people want to ensnare them in relationships that are too close, and with an anxious partner this belief is confirmed. Another theory is that because avoidant people want to see themselves as self-sufficient, they prefer to be with someone whom they see as psychologically weaker than themselves. The anxious partner plays the weak role to a T, and in this way, meets this need of the avoidant.

To review, we have on one side a person who’s driven by the desire for intense intimacy and who feels acute pain when they don’t get it, and on the other, a person who finds closeness to be terrifying and threatening to their sense of self. And through some cruel trick of nature, these two are irresistible to each other. This so-called “anxious-avoidant trap” is a recipe for disaster, or great reality TV, depending on how you look at it. Here’s how it plays out in paradise.

Dean and Kristina show up to Paradise with childhood histories that would make insecurely attached people out of the best of us. I don’t know much about Russian orphanages, but my guess is that they don’t involve the kind of consistent emotional attunement and physical touch that give way to anything resembling secure attachment. And a quick review of Dean’s hometown visit with his emotionally detached father reveals why he wouldn’t be particularly skilled at understanding and dealing with his emotions or his need for closeness. It’s sweet that their similar unusual childhoods are what the two initially bond over. On their first date, Dean tells Kristina “You’re like the only person who can sympathize with like, a difficult childhood.” Kristina’s face lights up in response as she fishes for more compliments by asking Dean what he thought when he first saw her. The train has left the station.

But what remains to be seen until after the shutdown is that as a result of their love-starved childhoods, the two developed radically different methods of coping with their needs for intimacy. Kristina’s strategy is to reach out and seek closeness at virtually all costs, and to put up with an inordinate amount of bullshit with the hope of getting the intimacy she longs for. Dean’s strategy is to basically deny this need and keep closeness and interdependence at bay. To do this he has to aggressively overcome whatever feeling or person threatens to “tie him down.” The very thing that first attracted him to Kristina—a similar history, a unique sense of understanding one another—turns out to be the thing that repels him after some time together (in this case, that time is an ill-advised week of non-stop time together, which is probably too much closeness too soon for anyone). So he starts to “deactivate.” He tries to throw off the yoke of exclusivity by telling Kristina to go on other dates. He retreats from her emotionally and becomes a limp cuddler, and ultimately, he chooses to pursue a whatever-that-was with D.Lo. Sensing his distancing, Kristina’s attachment system goes into overdrive. She attempts one conversation with him after another to try and understand what’s going on with him, and importantly, to try to figure out what she’s doing wrong. All these actions are done in service of fixing whatever is going wrong so that they can go back to being close.

So here’s the bitch of the thing, and part of what makes the anxious-avoidant trap indeed a trap: Every once in a while, Dean gives Kristina some tiny sign of caring for her. A little crumb. It’s what happens the night they talk before they sleep together. Dean tells her in some dubious terms that he still wants her, and with that, she feels hopeful again. They have sex, and she gets exactly the kind of closeness she has been deprived of for days.

When the anxious gets that intermittent show of affection and connection from the avoidant, it’s literally a high for them (a rush of dopamine, etc.). And as with the high of a drug, they keep chasing it, even though for every minute of the high, they pay dearly with hours of anxiety, sadness, and fear of abandonment. It’s that powerful.

As for Dean? It’s not a coincidence that mere hours after he sleeps with Kristina, he gets with DLo for the first time. Having just experienced that level intimacy with Kristina, he starts to freak out. So his reaction is to pull away in the most fuckboi way imaginable, and in doing so, show himself and everyone else that he doesn’t need Kristina. He can easily detach and be with someone else.

Except of course, he can’t. Insofar as anything on this show is real, Dean’s tears and proclamations of hating himself after Kristina leaves strike me as authentic. And this is the thing that makes me feel sad for Dean. Despite his egregious selfishness throughout the season, I believe that on some deep level Dean longs to be understood and loved as much as anyone else. Unfortunately his life experiences have made it so that as soon as he gets these things, he feels very scared and rejects the love. He’s trying to manage two conflicting impulses, and neither having love nor pushing it away feels like the right choice. He doesn’t understand what’s happening, so he makes a mess of the whole thing and hurts the person he cares about.

Now there are certainly ways to manage an avoidant attachment style that involve less collateral damage, and I’ve known plenty of people with this style who are kind and considerate of their partners’ feelings and needs. So I’m not letting Dean off the hook for his atrocious behavior. I’m just recognizing that he acted the way he did not out of malice, but out of what I think was deep-seated fear and confusion.

I’m glad that for the time being, Kristina has made it out alive. My hope for her is that she resists the temptation to get back together with Dean, or any other alluring-but-ultimately-toxic-for-her avoidant fellow. The redeeming part of all this is that the research shows that when an insecurely-attached person gets into a relationship with a securely-attached one, they are just as happy and well-adjusted as when two securely attached people get together. So that’s pretty cool. As for Dean, I hope he follows in DeMario and Corinne’s footsteps and gets himself to therapy…

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