Of all the reasons I wanted to start a podcast, a need to be seen, heard and understood was not what I jotted down as my mission statement. My general response when asked why I began All We Cannot Say was not to explain the field of attachment theory, but rather to rattle off a list vague statements pertaining to the romantic dramedy that was my life in 2016: I ended my first serious relationship, then leapt straight in to bed with a friend; I then began dating casually and was quite horrified by modern dating culture. All of these events encouraged me to explore what love and sex meant on a micro level, which turned into a greater quest for meaning on a macro level.
But a desire to be fully recognised and accepted?
This was a realisation that came to me through the ponderings of a stranger who swiped right on my face. This individual who sat across from me a few nights after our match – and who ironically shared a name with my ex – turned to me across a bowl of edamame and asked:
“Who wasn’t listening to you that made you feel you needed to start a podcast?”
I took another swig of my sake, and I said to my date, “It’s funny you should ask that, Sam.”
It’d be unfair to pin or credit All We Cannot Say’s conception on one individual who filled a few mere chapters in the story of my life. This is because the need to be seen and heard stems from the preverbal stage for all of us, as we grab at meaning through a toddler’s eyes, turning to our mother or father for emotional cues. A desire to have one’s internal landscape seen, recognised and accepted is a core human need, particularly for those whose brains are hard-wired for intimacy. It’s a theory popularised by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine and social scientist Rachel S. F. Heller in their 2012 book Attached. Critically acclaimed by both mainstream media and scientific reviews, their scientific explanation for how we navigate romantic relationships is simple to grasp. Hundreds of thousands of people the world over use their theory as a psychological container in which to stuff themselves and their partners, in a hope to improve their intimacy and communication.
Essentially, there are three attachment styles to help categorise yourself:
- Anxious attachment, where one is preoccupied with intimacy and perceives an inherent lack thereof, resulting in erratic behaviour if their needs aren’t met.
- Secure attachment, a golden aura which eclipses a few select people who effortlessly glide through life feeling comfortable with both giving and receiving love.
- Avoidant attachment, where one perceives intimacy as a lack of freedom and flees at signs of emotional intensity.
A 2-minute online quiz reveals the diagnosis. For myself, this is that my romantic relationships are ruled by a need for acknowledgment, deep intimacy and lashings of affection.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you tend to get attached very quickly, even just on the basis of physical attraction,” says Levine. “One night of sex or even just a passionate kiss and, boom, you already can’t get that person out of your mind. As you know, once your attachment system is activated, you begin to crave the other person’s closeness and will do anything in your power to make it work even before you really get to know him/her and decide whether you like that person or not.
But it’s not a desire that only bubbles to the surfact just for those I choose to kiss on the lips. Friends too have been subject to my desire for closeness, and woe behold them if I’m denied this. Protest behaviour ensues, a type of behaviour coined to describe the cries of children who anxiously await their caregiver’s affection and attention.
Some protest behaviour is pure parlance of relationship communication, such as when we query our partner’s whereabouts, or ask them why they neglected to call after repeated promises to check in. But then there’s the anxious, overly insecure type protest behaviour. Rather than achieving the ultimate goal of increased intimacy, it turns into an activity which drives a partner away.
Levine and Heller have a good list of protest behaviours:
- Calling, texting, or e-mailing many times, waiting for a phone call, loitering by your partner’s workplace in hopes of running into him/ her.
• Withdrawing: Sitting silently “engrossed” in the paper, literally turning your back on your partner, not speaking, talking with other people on the phone and ignoring him/her.
• Keeping score: Paying attention to how long it took them to return your phone call and waiting just as long to return theirs; waiting for them to make the first “make-up” move and acting distant until such time.
• Acting hostile: Rolling your eyes when they speak, looking away, getting up and leaving the room while they’re talking (acting hostile can transgress to outright violence at times).
• Threatening to leave: Making threats—“ We’re not getting along, I don’t think I can do this anymore,” “I knew we weren’t really right for each other,” “I’ll be better off without you”—all the while hoping [partner] will stop you from leaving.
• Manipulations: Acting busy or unapproachable. Ignoring phone calls, saying you have plans when you don’t.
• Making him/ her feel jealous: Making plans to get together with an ex for lunch, going out with friends to a singles bar, telling your partner about someone who hit on you today.
Whether I’m blowing up someone’s phone with memes or storming off in a fit of rage, I have been known to throw my toys out of my crib when I feel like I’m being ignored.
But how does one end up analysing an inherent lack of emojis on their lunch hour break? How is it that some can react to a lover’s quarrel in a calm and collected manner, and others resort to counterintuitive behaviour?
According to John Bowlby, who pioneered the field of attachment theory that inspired Levine and Heller, it’s our relationship with our caregivers that influences our sense of stability and security. If our parents provided a supportive environment full of adoration, praise, and unconditional love, we go on to thrive. If we have this stability, we in fact become more independent, finding comfort in the fact that we have a safe shore to return to.
The reverse is also true. If our caregivers are not as easily accessible, attentive or present, children go to great lengths to re-establish this proximity. And it’s a type of behaviour that Levine and Heller posit we carry with us into our adult lives.
If you’re anxious, when you start to feel something is bothering you in a relationship, you tend to quickly get flooded with negative emotions and think in extremes,” says Levine. “Unlike your secure counterpart, you don’t expect your partner to respond positively but anticipate the opposite. You perceive the relationship as something fragile and unstable that can collapse at any moment. These thoughts and assumptions make it hard for you to express your needs effectively.
“Instead of thinking how you can change yourself in order to please your partner, as so many relationship books advise, think: Can this person provide what I need in order to be happy?
It’s common to find reprieve in the written word, and I have found myself derailing an otherwise productive morning routine as I stare at a spot on the floor, engrossed in an audio version of Attached. I find puzzle pieces of myself within the chapters, carving an identify for myself through statistical data and carefully constructed prose. And when those words can be backed up by scientific evidence, it’s even more likely that we’ll find ourselves within the pages of this book, analysing ourselves and those around us. Although Levine and Heller’s work serves as a useful way to study the similarities between different attachment styles and how we behave within romantic relationships, its limitations mean it doesn’t account for all differences within attachment styles. Does being avoidant mean you’re immediately dismissive, cold-hearted and incapable of emotional depth? Or is there something else percolating beneath the surface of an avoidant attachment style, like fear and anxiety?
Subsequent research has explored attachment theory further in a variety of ways. For example, Kelly Brennan and her colleagues collected a number of statements (e.g., “I believe that others will be there for me when I need them”) and studied the way these statements “hang together” statistically (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). Brennan’s findings suggested that there are two fundamental dimensions with respect to adult attachment patterns (see Figure below).
One critical variable has been labelled attachment-related anxiety. People who score high on this variable tend to worry whether their partner is available, responsive and attentive, much like those with an anxious attachment style. People who score on the low end of this variable are more secure in the perceived responsiveness of their partners. The other critical variable is called attachment-related avoidance. People on the high end of this dimension prefer not to rely on others or open up to others. People on the low end of this dimension are more comfortable being intimate with others and are more secure depending upon and having others depend upon them.
A prototypical secure adult – the ideal state of chillness we all hope to embody – is low on both of these dimensions, positioned between low avoidance and low anxiety.
In other words, it’s all a matter of degrees, rather than different kinds of attachment styles. We all exist on a spinning wheel of dependency, each of us an intricate puzzle piece of emotional history and ethology.
In trying to deduce why I chose to broadcast a series of introspections to the world, one could fathom that perhaps creating a podcast is a form of protest behaviour. But I’d wager it’s more than that: it’s a series of declarations, each an episode in extracting mine and other’s philosophies on love and sex. I want to be seen, heard, recognised and understood, but it’s not a reactionary behaviour running on autopilot. But I can’t entirely refute the original argument: I was both retaliating against and processing a deeply wounding experience.
Yes, All We Cannot Say is an attempt to establish connection through the audiosphere, through personal stories, and through interviews with experts in their field. But it’s also an attempt to better understand emotional landscapes through macro-level experiences, with an inherently selfish genesis. My heart was broken. And now it’s not, and I hope that others can glean meaning and find solace within the content created too.