Attachment theory: what social media gets badly wrong about human psychology

Beware of the online rush to pathologise and categorise. ‘If you had a swelling, you wouldn’t go: Oh I have lump, I better check TikTok!’

“They f**k you up, your mum and your dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.” These words by Philip Larkin, from his poem This Be the Verse may as well be from a Psychology 101 lecture. It’s now largely accepted among mental health professionals that if you grew up receiving consistent, attentive love and care, you are likely to grow up expecting and accepting the same kind of consistent, reliable, trustworthy affection and comfort. However, if you grew up feeling like the love you received was conditional, inconsistent or inattentive, your future love life may well be – to slightly censor Larkin – fecked.

This is the basic premise behind attachment theory, which was first formulated by British psychologist John Bowlby in 1958, who was interested in how an infant’s relationship with their mother could shape their approach to the world. Collaborating with American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby observed dozens of mother-infant pairs and established three main types of attachment: anxious, avoidant and secure. Later, other hybrid categories would be identified, but the three main archetypes continue to be the most acknowledged and discussed, including in psychologists Cindy Hazen and Philip Sharer’s 1987 paper exploring how attachment styles could influence a person’s romantic life. This romantic application of attachment styles was then popularised by neuroscientist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel Heller’s 2010 book Attached: Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure?

The book suggests that the attachment style developed in infancy can influence how people approach intimacy, trust and emotional connection in their adult romantic relationships. People with anxious attachment tend to worry about the availability of their partner, seek constant reassurance and fear rejection, often leading to heightened emotional reactions in relationships due to their fear of abandonment. People with avoidant attachment value independence, tend to suppress their emotions and are uncomfortable with emotional intimacy, often creating distance in relationships to protect themselves from potential hurt. And those with secure attachment feel comfortable with emotional intimacy, communicate openly and trust in the stability of their relationships, leading to a balanced sense of independence and closeness while managing challenges in a healthy manner.

Attachment theory is decades old, but the past three years have seen the theory explode in popularity. Over 2021 and 2022, Levine and Heller’s book spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, as well as becoming a staple on Amazon’s top 200 books. It has been translated into 20 languages and continues to increase its sales annually – a rare feat for any book.


What’s the secret behind this new obsession with an old theory? For the answer, look no further than TikTok, where the hashtag #attachmentstyle has nearly a billion views. Across other social media platforms such as Instagram, self-styled life coaches, relationship gurus and lay users post inspirational quotes about the power of your attachment style, dole out advice on how to cope with a partner who has a different attachment style to you, and post videos with titles such as “Things you probably thought were your personality but are actually your attachment style”. Unsurprisingly for the platforms involved, most of these video creators are Millennials or Gen Z, who are also sharing the now endless think pieces explaining how your attachment style influences your texting style, conflict resolution skills and sex life.

But why are younger generations latching on to attachment style so passionately, and how has it become such a viral topic online?

A lot of the attachment content is varying in content and usefulness. Some of it just plays into the drama, like ‘How to spot these red flags!’

—  Relationship coach Stephanie Rigg

One person with unique insight into the popularity of attachment theory on social media platforms is Sydney-based relationship coach Stephanie Rigg. During Covid, Rigg left her job as a corporate lawyer, realising she didn’t want to spend her life agonising over the details of mergers and acquisitions. As someone with an interest in psychology and relationships, she completed targeted life and relationship coaching certificate programmes and started to promote herself online, steadily building up a following of people who appreciate how she combined theory with personal experience. But it was when she started homing in on attachment theory that her online success rocketed. She now hosts a weekly podcast, On Attachment, has more than 80,000 followers on Instagram and runs courses such as Healing Anxious Attachment, How to Navigate Anxious-Avoidant Relationships, and Sex and Attachment – many of which have hundreds of people on the waiting list.

Rigg was surprised by how quickly her online career took off, but she understands why Covid became a time where people began looking for ways to understand themselves better. Not only did many people have some time and space from their normal daily routine to stop and evaluate whether their relationships were working for them, but they were also noticing their stress responses to extraordinary circumstances and were eager to understand them.

“I noticed that attachment was really the thing that people were latching on to, and I was getting these responses of ‘I’ve never felt so understood; how do you know what’s going on inside my head?’ People were really feeling seen and understood,” says Rigg. “On a basic level, stress brings all of this stuff up. The way I’ve explained attachment styles is: how do I respond to what things stress me out relationally? And so when the environment is high stress, when relationships are high stress and our household is high stress and everything around this feels unknown and uncertain, there’s just going to be a heightened baseline in terms of our reactivity and how safe and resourceful we’re feeling within ourselves. I think from that point, it makes sense that all of this other insecurity would be heightened, whether we’re in a relationship or not.”

But we can’t blame everything on the pandemic. Modern dating culture is causing a huge amount of stress and anxiety, and so younger people are seeking out help not only understanding themselves and combating their anxiety, but how to actually authentically connect with romantic partners in a culture of gamified swiping.

“Social anxiety and the world of dating apps are not a good combination,” says Rigg. “I don’t think that works wonders for people who are insecure, particularly if they’re more anxious. Social media and all of these things are very much designed to be very addictive, to be very validation- and approval-seeking, and then you put that together with things like ghosting and swiping and situationships and all these modern dating tropes that are just like fuel on the fire of anxious attachment. Because one of the things that trigger anxiously attached people is uncertainty and consistency and reliability and not knowing where you stand with people, and unfortunately, a lot of those buttons are getting pushed in that landscape. So I think it’s a confluence of all of those factors, and then people are increasingly encountering content that speaks to that experience and feeling really validated by it.”

Despite the popularity of attachment theory among many social media users, researchers and psychologists are quick to point out its limitations. Bowlby’s studies often used boys who were in a juvenile prison, but then attributed their dysfunction not to social factors such as class but to a deficient attachment with their mothers during infancy. There is also a lot of research showing that a person’s attachment style and behaviour can be different across their professional relationships, friendships and romantic entanglements, debunking the all-encompassing nature of attachment theory. A lot of online content focuses on labelling people with an attachment style and leaving it at that, without offering any tools or guidance to help manage relationships stress or move towards a more secure attachment style.

A lot of ill-informed, drama-fuelling online content paints people with an avoidant attachment style as cold, apathetic or – the internet’s favourite insult – narcissistic

Rigg’s content is thoughtful and considered, offering tools that people can use to self-regulate their own anxiety, understand and empathise with different attachment styles and navigate difficult conversations and conflict. As she notes, not all online content is as helpful. “A lot of the attachment content is varying in content and usefulness,” she says, laughing. “Some of it just plays into the drama, like ‘How to spot these red flags!’ and ‘Don’t send them this!’ and speaking in absolutes that probably just puts people more on edge and on guard.”

While attachment theory can prove valuable when used to start introspective conversations and foster self-awareness, its potential takes a different turn when used as a reductive, oversimplified tool for deciphering others. Labelling yourself or someone else as avoidant or anxious and treating that like an immovable fact should be treated with the same suspicion of someone who excuses bad behaviour by citing their star sign. As Dublin-based psychologist Sean O’Connell notes, this attitude ignores the possibility of personal growth and evolution.

“I think with social media, especially younger generations, we like to label things and like to put things in boxes a little bit,” he says, “and I would like to commend people for actively seeking out their self-development, I think that’s amazing, but you have to be so, so careful about where you’re getting your information from. I think we do a huge, huge, huge disservice when we start labelling ourselves in one way. If you look at research on brain plasticity, there’s a huge, huge possibility for the brains change and react in different ways; it’s never just set in one way.”

Many of Rigg’s courses are targeted towards people with an anxious attachment style, and the vast majority of online content is created by anxiously attached people. In one way, this bias makes sense, as anxiously attached people are more likely to seek out information and insight about relationships to help soothe their anxiety. But as a result, a lot of ill-informed, drama-fuelling online content paints people with an avoidant attachment style as cold, apathetic or – the internet’s favourite insult – narcissistic. Not only are these labels unfair, they can understandably discourage avoidant people from engaging with attachment theory at all.

“I think avoidant people get really tired of getting labelled and then conflated with things like narcissism and all sorts of other really negative connotations,” says Rigg, “and some of the mainstream content really feeds into that. It’s like avoidant is the villain and anxious is the victim. I really try to steer people away from that because it’s just not helpful. It’s not going to get you any closer to security or any sort of acceptance of whatever has happened in the past. Instead, it’s about thinking ‘Can I get really curious around what’s going on for this person in their experience, with the mindset that their experience is as real as mine is? Can we see their fear as equally valid, and get really curious about it, rather than just saying ‘That person is bad because I don’t like how their behaviour makes me feel’? Dismantling those very limiting tropes around who the characters in the story are and looking at that person underneath and getting really curious and compassionate about what might be going on there, that’s a much more thoughtful way to engage with attachment theory and attachment styles than just keeping it very surface level and reductive.”

A concerning trait that Rigg and O’Connell have both noticed is when people try to diagnose other people’s attachment style, pathologising them in the process – a trend that isn’t helped by online articles analysing you favourite movie characters or reality stars’ attachment styles. Do you want an in-depth exploration of how Big from Sex and the City was avoidant, or Aussie from The Ultimatum: Queer Love? You got it. And if the internet says you can easily pathologise a fictional character or a complete stranger, why wouldn’t you be able to decipher your partner’s attachment style and treat them accordingly?

Are you looking to it because it’s entertaining, are you looking for an underlying need to be addressed?

Rigg refuses to engage with armchair diagnosing of other people’s attachment styles – even if her clients beg her to. “I get inundated with messages saying ‘My partner’s avoidant and they behaved like this – what are they thinking?’” says Rigg. “I’m not going to respond because that would just be feeding into it. For a lot of anxious people, these questions become about trying to decipher someone without ever having to speak directly to them. And that really, more than anything, should really hold up mirror and prompt the question ‘Okay, what’s this about for me, the fact that I’m trying to figure it all out so that I can problem-solve this person in their behaviour without having to get uncomfortable and communicate?’ Becoming overly attached to the labels and trying to deduce too much about a person based on your assessment of their attachment style is probably less about them and maybe more about your desire for control, and that’s the thing to work on.”

O’Connell sees this desire to label and pathologise ourselves and other people as part of a larger conversation about how social media is portraying information, and what people seek out. “At the moment, there’s a big push on social media of people talking about ADHD and neurodiversity, but you have people who maybe don’t know enough about neurodiversity or emotion, and encourage others to label themselves,” says O’Connell. “So you could have someone saying ‘Oh I must have ADHD’ – and they might, or what they’re experiencing might be symptoms of heightened anxiety or a trauma-related event – it’s not one-size-fits-all, by any means. And that’s what happens with attachment theory.”

Rigg and O’Connell’s work with clients involves getting individuals to notice when they become activated or anxious, giving them tools to help ground themselves, and working on communication strategies to help them with their romantic partners.

“Really, the essence of the work for anxiously attached people is ‘How can I become an internal anchor in terms of safety?’” says Rigg. “Because for anxiously attached people, their overwhelming drive is feeling safety via relationships – so when they’re feeling connected to their partner, they’re great, but when there’s any kind of ripple in the water, if their partner is a bit irritable or there’s any kind of rupture, their body goes into this hyper-activated state of ‘I’m not okay, I very urgently need to do something, and I don’t know how to do that separately from fixing things relationally or making you okay.’ And that’s a really vulnerable way to live because it’s just so outside of us. Really, the essence of the work for anxiously attached people is ‘How can I become more grounded within myself?’ I talk a lot about self trust, self-respect, self-awareness, self-worth – these really foundational pillars of ‘Can I cultivate a connection and relationship with myself such that I know who I am, and I can advocate for myself, I know what’s important to me? Then I can come to a relationship as a full person, and make space for another person because I don’t see them as so intensely frightening. And most importantly, I can trust that no matter what happens, I’ll be okay. Because that fear of abandonment is always there for the anxious person, so it becomes about creating spaces of safety within themselves.”

As well as recommending that people go to individual and couples counselling if they think it would be helpful, O’Connell recommends people interested in attachment theory to – ironically – not get too attached to the labels, and cultivate some self-awareness and responsibility around why and where they seek out information.

“I would be very cautious of social media because it’s unregulated, but I would also question why you’re wanting to be drawn into this. Are you looking to it because it’s entertaining, are you looking for an underlying need to be addressed, are you vigilant to something, or is it something else – and asking ‘Is this the best forum for me to get information or insight?’ Like, if you had a swelling in your body somewhere, you wouldn’t go, ‘Oh I have lump, I better check TikTok.’ And be wary of your own mind trying to compartmentalise and label yourself or a situation, because you’re just doing yourself a disservice. We’re always growing and evolving.”

In today’s world, where we’re accustomed to having control over many things, dealing with relationships can feel trickier. People don’t always do what we expect, so we try to fit them into a mental framework to feel more in control. However, this approach can sometimes hide more than it clarifies. Especially when we spend so much energy labelling others and pointing out their flaws, we tend to overlook our own behaviour, and minimise our capacity to grow. While attachment theory’s popularity indicates that it offers many people a helpful framework to draw on, we must remain aware that it is only that: one framework among many. People are too complex and multifaceted to be reduced down to simplified labels – as is love. And isn’t that the entire, glorious, messy, unpredictable point?