In our blog post on NRE as a variation of limerence, I discussed how this phase of a relationship should not be mistaken for attachment or attachment style. I want to look a little closer at what attachment is and how your attachment style might influence the way your NRE shows up. I also want to help you understand how your attachment is separate from NRE. This will help you understand why, when the NRE wears off, some of you revert to a state that is very different from the NRE state.
What is Attachment Theory?
Attachment Theory was originally developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth to describe the different ways babies reacted to their caregivers when they exited and re-entered the room. It has been subjected to the nature vs. nurture debate as much as any other psychological theory. Like all those other psychological phenomena, the answer is that it is probably a mix of both. Others have since then hypothesized that the attachment that shows up in childhood is the attachment you end up with in adulthood, and you are unlikely to move it much. More recently, that has been shown to be inaccurate. Adult experiences, therapy, and intentionality can do a great deal to shift your attachment style.
Oxytocin and Vasopressin have both been linked to the development of attachment in animals and humans. Extensive research has been conducted with oxytocin nasal spray and measuring levels of oxytocin in the blood to better understand attachment, and how levels of this hormone affect a wide variety of attachment related behaviors, everything from threat detection, anxiety, in-grouping, and xenophobia to desire, cooperation, and betrayal aversion.
Depending on what source you are engaging with, you end up with roughly four or five attachment styles: Secure, preoccupied/anxious, fearful/anxious avoidant, dismissive avoidant, and disorganized. Some sources place disorganized as part of the fearful/anxious avoidant quadrant, but many disagree, stating that disorganized is more of a movement between fearful/anxious avoidant, preoccupied/anxious, and dismissive avoidant. A person who grew up feeling that their parents generally cared for them and provided for them is likely to feel secure in their adult relationships. People who didn’t feel like their parents cared for them, or were there for them, may adopt any one of the other strategies to deal with the distress, depending on their biological inclination.
To help simplify attachment, I think of it like a rope between two people. The way you react to that rope and the person at the other end of the rope will help you get an idea about your attachment style.
Secure Attachment and NRE / limerence
Let’s go back to the rope analogy. If you have a secure attachment, several places along the rope feel okay to you. If you get too close in, you might notice and back up a step, or check in with your partner to see how you got this close and if something is going on that moved you there. Or you might move closer when times are hard to make sure you both have a good hold on the rope. Or sometimes you will find yourself more distant from each other. Again, you’ll notice, but you won’t become immediately distressed. You might ask about it, or if you know what’s happening, you’ll accept that it’s going to be this way for a bit. But ultimately, you trust that the rope is there, and that it’s going to keep you connected, even if sometimes it’s hard to see the person on the other end.
Someone who generally experiences secure attachment may be thrown off if they also experience NRE as a strong limerent (someone who is feeling limerence). It may start to feel as if they are sliding into preoccupied territory. Suddenly, they care strongly about how another person feels about them, and their mood is dependent on if that other person is reciprocating. This may throw the secure person off, and they may feel like they don’t know themselves anymore. When the NRE wears off, they may try to hold onto a relationship much longer than they would have otherwise because they generally feel like they can work through hardships and build a strong foundation for a lasting love. Or they might be blindsided by the reality of the rose-colored glasses coming off and realize they need to end the relationship before it gets much further. After that, they might be very confused by how they ever ended up in that relationship in the first place.
Avoidant attachments and NRE / limerence
In avoidant attachments, the rope feels big and heavy, like a burden. You want a lot of space on it, or you would prefer to drop it altogether because it weighs too much. Holding the rope feels vulnerable, and either you want to drop it because you assume the person on the other side is just going to drop their side, or you feel the rope is pointless because it’s never done anything for you anyway.
So here was an interesting thing that was discovered by scientists. Men with avoidant attachment who were given intranasal oxytocin were significantly more likely to have higher trust, lower betrayal aversion, and were more cooperative than their securely attached counterparts. There were several hypotheses posited for why those with avoidant attachment styles were more likely to suddenly become more cooperative. This also means that once the NRE wears off, someone who is more on the avoidant side is more likely to revert back to their avoidant tendencies. If you find you fall more towards this end of the attachment spectrum, this is an important thing to keep in mind and to relay to new partners. Unfortunately it is difficult to get oxytocin, so you can’t just dose your partner into a secure attachment style.
However, if you have had significantly negative experiences during the NRE phase, you may come to distrust it. People who have been traumatized to the point that cues of safety and security are paradoxical – don’t trust the cues anymore – and may find themselves becoming extra avoidant as soon as they start to feel safe and secure in the relationship. Their thinking brain may override the good feelings, and they may jump ship, because experience has told them safety is a trick. If you struggle with this, it’s an indicator that you should seek a trauma informed therapist.
Preoccupied Attachment and NRE / limerence
In preoccupied attachment, you don’t trust in the rope itself to hold your relationship together. You feel it’s your duty to manage the rope, or you feel you need to be right up on your partner holding their hand, because that rope could break at any moment! The rope feels more like a line of fragile silk, tenuous and thin.
For those who feel generally insecure in their relationships, the NRE stage can kick the problem into high gear. Although oxytocin helps those with avoidant attachment styles to build more trust and become more cooperative, it seems to do the opposite for those with preoccupied attachment. In several studies done by Bartz in 2010, they found those with a more anxious attachment style increased their negative interpretations of the behavior of others when given oxytocin.
Disorganized Attachment and NRE / limerence
This is a very rare attachment style, and not well studied or documented except in extreme pathological situations. It is basically a mix of preoccupied and avoidant states. Given that, I will say that I don’t have the training, education, or experience to spend any time discussing it.
In disorganized attachment, the rope changes shape and form. Today it’s a heavy burden, tomorrow, it’s light as silk, sometimes it’s a snake trying to strangle you. Either way, you don’t trust it. You might pick it up and pull someone in, desperately trying to hang on to them, and moments later drop the rope when it feels like that’s not working either.
What I will say about this is that NRE is likely a very confusing landscape for someone with disorganized attachment. I would strongly recommend a good therapist to help.
Regardless of your attachment style, NRE can feel like a wild ride. The more insight you can build into yourself, the more work you do to process and address the traumas you have experienced, and the greater your ability to communicate what you are experiencing will lead to increased enjoyment of your new relationships, and lessen the negative impact on your existing ones. This is where our Nonmonogamy 101 class series can help you develop those skills, and avoid some of the major tripping hazards.