America Is in Its Insecure-Attachment Era
Discomfort with intimacy seems to be on the rise—and no one’s quite sure why.
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About a decade ago, the social psychologist Sara Konrath led a study that yielded some disturbing results. As a researcher at Indiana University, she’d already found that narcissism rates seemed to be increasing among Americans, and empathy decreasing; that was a combination that didn’t bode well, she feared, for the quality of people’s relationships. So she decided to look more deeply into the state of Americans’ connections—and in order to do so, she turned to attachment theory.
Researchers have identified four basic “attachment styles”: People with a secure style feel that they can depend on others and that others can depend on them too. Those with a dismissive style—more commonly known as “avoidant”—are overly committed to independence and don’t feel that they need much deep emotional connection. People with a preoccupied (or “anxious”) style badly want intimacy but, fearing rejection, cling or search for validation. And people with fearful (or “disorganized”) attachment crave intimacy, too—but like those with the dismissive style, they distrust people and end up pushing them away. Konrath’s team analyzed nearly 100 other studies, completed from 1988 to 2011, that had assessed college students’ attachment styles.
They found an unfortunate trend: a 15 percent decrease in secure attachment, along with a 56 percent spike in dismissive attachment and a nearly 18 percent increase in the fearful style—the two types associated with lack of trust and self-isolation. “Compared with college students in the late 1980s,” the researchers wrote in their 2014 meta-review, “a larger proportion of students today agree that they are ‘comfortable without close emotional relationships.’”
The good news: The trends that initially worried Konrath seem to have abated. Since about 2009, narcissism rates have steadily declined and empathy rates have increased. But at a conference in Chicago last year, Konrath and her colleagues found themselves presenting the same bleak findings when it came to attachment. Their poster showed the results of an updated analysis: From 2011 to 2020, secure-attachment rates had dropped even further; fearful attachment had continued to rise. Below those bullet points sat a stock image: a young man alone in a hallway, forlornly looking at his phone.
These studies have only tracked changes among college students, simply because those are the data that were available—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that discomfort with intimacy isn’t spreading among older people as well. Michael Hilgers, a New Mexico–based therapist who’s been counseling for more than 20 years, told me he’s seen a notable increase in clients—adults of various ages—dealing with dismissive or fearful attachment. “It’s painful to watch just how disconnected people are,” he said. Even when he can sense that these clients do, deep down, want connection, “there’s a lot of confusion and fear in terms of how to get there.”
Perhaps the secure-attachment decline shouldn’t be surprising; surveys show that levels of social trust have been decreasing among Americans for some time. Faith in institutions, for one thing, has been faltering for years: A 2019 Pew Research Center poll showed that public trust in the government never fully recovered from a decline five decades ago, and sits at near-historic lows today. Confidence levels in the media, organized religion, the criminal-justice system, corporations, and the police are all falling. That suspicion seems to have translated to doubt in one’s fellow citizens: Nearly half of the Pew respondents agreed that “people are not as reliable as they used to be.”
And yet, attachment trends signify something else—distrust not just in hypothetical, nameless Americans, but in one’s colleagues and neighbors, and even friends, partners, and parents. William Chopik, a Michigan State University psychologist who worked on those studies with Konrath, emphasized that we can’t truly know what’s causing that. But he did note, “People are feeling precarious right now.” He rattled off a list of fears that people may be wrestling with: war in Europe, ChatGPT threatening to transform jobs, constant school shootings in the news. When society feels scary, that fear can seep into your closest relationships. People tend to think of attachment style as a static personality trait; really, Chopik told me, “it’s an evaluation of the broader world.”
Konrath pointed to financial precarity in particular. The 2008 recession seems to have really rocked people; not long after that, she saw empathy start to rise and narcissism start to dip, and some researchers think the recession contributed to an increase in insecure attachment too. People might have started recognizing, more than ever, the difficulty others were experiencing—hence the empathy rise. But trust, on the other hand: “Trust takes time,” Konrath said. Perhaps people have been so busy hustling—trying to perfect their résumé to get into a good college, working, worrying about bills—that they haven’t had as much time to just hang out with people and slowly let their guard down.
Look at how a typical kid’s time is spent today: Young people are spending less time on play and socializing, and more on homework. And many spend more hours than ever in organized activities, where they might be more focused on nailing their Model UN position paper than on casually, gradually getting to know people. This emphasis on achievement over leisure often continues into young adulthood. Konrath can see how much pressure the students in her college classes are under. “They feel like they have to keep working,” she told me. “They have to kind of get a kind of competitive edge on people. Then they’re not taking the time to care for themselves and to care for others.”
Of course, not every researcher agrees that sociopolitical issues—financial insecurity, climate change, gun violence—are the likeliest suspects behind the rise in insecure attachment. I asked Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University who has studied the pre-2009 rise in narcissism, about that ambient feeling of precarity—the feeling that society is falling apart. “You can make that argument for any decade within the last 50 years,” she told me. (Trust in institutions did start plummeting in the ’60s and ’70s—though, notably, it’s kept getting worse.) Twenge believes that the major change to pay attention to is the rise of social media and smartphones, which some studies suggest is associated with less face-to-face interaction. Yes, trust levels started falling before those developments, but she thinks they compounded the problem.
Researchers have plenty of other theories: More people than ever are living alone. Fewer people are aspiring to marry or have children. American culture is placing more importance on “boundaries,” assuming we need to protect ourselves from others’ bad intentions in relationships. Dating apps allow users to virtually swipe through potential partners so efficiently that they feel disconnected from real people. It could be all of these things, some combination of them, or something else entirely. We can’t determine why people are putting up walls, growing further and further away from one another. We just know it’s happening.
Still, the experts I spoke with were surprisingly hopeful. Hilgers knows firsthand that it’s possible for people with attachment issues to change—he’s helped many of them do it. Our culture puts a lot of value on trusting your gut, he told me, but that’s not always the right move if your intuition tells you that it’s a mistake to let people in. So he gently guides them to override that instinct; when people make connections and nothing bad happens, their gut feeling slowly starts to change.
Konrath, for her part, has “reconstrued her role as a teacher”: Instead of focusing solely on the syllabus, she takes time during each class to ask students how they’re doing or how their weekend was; she follows up on why they’re feeling particularly tired one week, even laughs along with them when they groan about having to come to her class. Knowing that many of them won’t inherently trust her—or one another—she wants to show them that she’s consistent, kind, and safe.
We should all be so lucky to have a therapist or teacher this attuned to attachment. But Chopik reminded me that eventually, change can also happen naturally: Many people grow more securely attached over time. They make friends, go on first dates, fall in love, get heartbroken and survive it. “We all learn from those things, and we try to figure out relationships as we go along,” he told me. The world is a scary place, and our personal lives exist within it. But, as Chopik noted, “there’s a lot of power to a life lived.”