America’s Intimacy Problem
People seem to be losing trust in one another.
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In recent years, Americans appear to be getting more and more uncomfortable with intimacy. Why? And is this trend reversible?
First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:
When my colleague Faith Hill recently interviewed Michael Hilgers, a therapist with more than 20 years of experience, he painted a worrying picture of intimacy in America: “It’s painful to watch just how disconnected people are,” he said. Even when Hilgers can sense that clients do want to pursue deep social connections, “there’s a lot of confusion and fear in terms of how to get there,” he noted.
One might say that America is in its insecure-attachment era.
Let’s back up a little: Insecure attachment is a term used to describe three of the four basic human “attachment styles” that researchers have identified. The framework has risen in popularity in recent years, appearing alongside astrology signs and Enneagram types as social-media-friendly ways to understand the self. Faith lays out the four styles in her recent article:
People with a secure style feel that they can depend on others and that others can depend on them too. Those with a dismissing 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 dismissing style, they distrust people and end up pushing them away.
Over the past few decades, researchers have noticed a decline in secure attachment and an increase in the dismissing and fearful styles. These two insecure styles are “associated with lack of trust and self-isolation,” Faith explains. She notes that American distrust in institutions has also been on the rise for years—it’s well known that more and more Americans are feeling skeptical of the government, organized religion, the media, corporations, and police. But recent research and anecdotal evidence suggest that Americans are growing more wary not only of “hypothetical, nameless Americans,” but of their own colleagues, neighbors, friends, partners, and parents.
The root causes of America’s trust issues are impossible to diagnose with certainty, but they could well be a reflection of Americans’ worries about societal problems. One psychologist who did research into Americans’ insecure-attachment trend “rattled off a list of fears that people may be wrestling with,” Faith writes: “war in Europe, ChatGPT threatening to transform jobs, constant school shootings in the news,” as well as financial precarity. As Faith puts it: “When society feels scary, that fear can seep into your closest relationships.”
Some researchers argue for other likely suspects, such as smartphone use or the fact that more Americans than ever are living alone. The decline in emotional intimacy is also happening against the backdrop of a decline in physical intimacy. Our senior editor Kate Julian explored this “sex recession,” particularly among young adults, in her 2018 magazine cover story.
A lack of trust is showing up in the workplace as well. In 2021, our contributing writer Jerry Useem reported on studies suggesting that trust among colleagues is declining in the era of remote and hybrid work:
The longer employees were apart from one another during the pandemic, a recent study of more than 5,400 Finnish workers found, the more their faith in colleagues fell. Ward van Zoonen of Erasmus University, in the Netherlands, began measuring trust among those office workers early in 2020. He asked them: How much did they trust their peers? How much did they trust their supervisors? And how much did they believe that those people trusted them? What he found was unsettling. In March 2020, trust levels were fairly high. By May, they had slipped. By October—about seven months into the pandemic—the employees’ degree of confidence in one another was down substantially.
All in all, as Faith writes, “we can’t determine why people are putting up walls, growing further and further away from one another. We just know it’s happening.” The good news is that if humans have the capacity to lose trust in one another, they can also work to build it back up. “The experts I spoke with were surprisingly hopeful,” Faith concludes:
Hilgers [the therapist] 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.
As Faith argued in an earlier article, attachment styles are not destiny, despite what the internet might lead you to believe. “Your attachment style is not so much a fixed category you fall into, like an astrology sign, but rather a tendency that can vary among different relationships and, in turn, is continuously shaped by those relationships,” she wrote. “Perhaps most important, you can take steps to change it”—and connect with others better as a result.
- Russia’s Defense Ministry said that it had targeted Ukrainian army reserve units with high-precision missile strikes to prevent them from reaching the front lines.
- A Utah judge postponed ruling on a statewide abortion-clinic ban to next week, following the failure yesterday of two anti-abortion bills in Nebraska and South Carolina.
- Former Vice President Mike Pence reportedly appeared before a federal grand jury for more than seven hours to testify in a criminal investigation into alleged efforts by Donald Trump to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
- Books Briefing: We need to make room for more voices in philosophy, Kate Cray writes. With a wider canon, enlightenment could come from anywhere.
- Work in Progress: AI tools are a waste of time, Derek Thompson argues. Many people are simply using them as toys.
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A Teen Gender-Care Debate Is Spreading Across Europe
By Frieda Klotz
As Republicans across the U.S. intensify their efforts to legislate against transgender rights, they are finding aid and comfort in an unlikely place: Western Europe, where governments and medical authorities in at least five countries that once led the way on gender-affirming treatments for children and adolescents are now reversing course, arguing that the science undergirding these treatments is unproven, and their benefits unclear.
The about-face by these countries concerns the so-called Dutch protocol, which has for at least a decade been viewed by many clinicians as the gold-standard approach to care for children and teenagers with gender dysphoria.
More From The Atlantic
Read. “The Renovation,” a new short story from Kenan Orhan about exile from Turkey and longing for a homeland.
Watch. The latest episode of Succession (streaming on HBO Max), which features the creepiest corporate retreat ever.
Last year, Faith wrote one of my favorite Atlantic articles in recent memory, about people with a very unique social appetite: the “nocturnals,” or the ultra-introverts who come alive when most people are fast asleep.
Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.