Virtual Attachment - Dating During Lockdown
Updated: Jun 9
“He’s not an avoidant we were FaceTiming every day” Stephanie asserted, “I just don’t know why everything has changed all of a sudden”.
Stephanie and Matt connected on Bumble in early April, just days after the Covid-19 lockdown. After a few playful messages they moved quickly into voice and video calling and, essentially, rode out lockdown together. Stephanie was over the moon. Matt filled the social gaps that had been intensified by living alone, and the ease and frequency of their connection made her suspect he was ‘the one’. His dragging of feet when it came to a real-life date, now that restrictions have eased, had left her feeling confused and fragile.
Stephanie had an anxious attachment style and was seeking therapy to address this. Individuals with anxious attachment styles often come from parents who weren’t able to consistently meet their emotional needs. At times the parent may have been attuned and nurturing and at other times they may have been insensitive, intrusive or emotionally unavailable. The child grows up not trusting in their parent’s love and not knowing which response to expect, so they often become clingy and suspicious.
In Stephanie’s case her attachment foundations were defined by her father’s absence, he left when she was barely three years old, and her mother, a sales manager who often worked long hours or was distracted by the various turbulent romantic relationships she had in her own life. When it was good, Stephanie and her mother had a wonderful time, beach holidays, movie outings and the occasional bike ride. However, when her mother got caught up in work projects or romance, these mother-daughter times were suddenly pulled away and Stephanie would spend many hours alone each day, her pleads for connection transcending into cries of neediness which infuriated her time poor and distracted mother when she returned home.
Stephanie, now in her late twenties, had acted out this pattern in her own adult love life. She was drawn to distracted and avoidant men who oscillated between being very present to her, especially in the beginning, and then withdrawing which evoked the same fears of abandonment she felt as a child. This often led to her trying to control the situation by perusing them intensely, her tight clinging, now a hardwired survival instinct, irritating them as much as it did her mother.
Dating Matt felt different. He was contacting her frequently, there was no drama or chase involved. Stephanie who had been working on shifting her anxious and insecure attachment style to a secure attachment felt that their virtual relationship ticked all of the boxes. Each day Matt would ‘check in’ with her in the morning and they would have a long video chat at some point throughout the day.
Matt’s parents were also chaotic, often too caught up in their own fights to notice his needs. From an early age he was deemed capable and mature which allowed his parents to not only abdicate their responsibilities to his emotional world, but it also made them decide it was ok to lean on him for their own emotional needs. His dad would tell him how his mother was sucking the life out of him and his mother would cry to him about the emptiness in her own life and say she was lucky she had Matt as ‘her rock’. From an early age Matt learnt to tend to his own needs efficiently, while also learning that attached relationships were invasive and draining.
So, while Matt joined Bumble because he wanted someone in his life, he didn’t want someone who was going to get too close as he feared he would be engulfed by their needs. He also wasn’t prepared to be overly vulnerable as he was content with his own ability to meet the needs of his inner world and had not built up a trust that others could.
Stephanie had learnt love wasn’t safe and predictable so tried to control by grasping on to closeness, he had learnt love was intrusive and invasive so tried to control by creating distance.
The Picnic Ground
I often refer to healthy, securely attached relationships with a metaphor about hiking through life together. This involves sharing the journey and resources, allowing space and connection, defining a direction together, being interested in the others experience, being prepared to try different paths for the other and knowing the other will try different paths for you. People with secure attachment patterns have learnt that relationships can be safe, predictable and reliable, so enjoy sharing their path, without needing to control through intensity or distance. In the avoidant-anxious relationship, however, it is almost as if their meeting points take place at the picnic ground. The avoidant partner likes to check in. Being avoidant doesn’t mean they don’t want a relationship, most do, but they don’t want someone intruding on their path.
Avoidants like the picnic ground because they can meet their mate, share some time and space but not have to venture into the others trek and certainly not have them venture into theirs. The idea of pursuing a trek of togetherness would be overwhelming for the avoidant. The anxious partner, however, desperately wants to let the avoidant in to see where they have been on their path and what is important to them and they want to see and share the avoidants path. When the avoidant keeps them at a distance, the anxious partner desperately seeks comfort by chasing them down their path asking for reassurance and acknowledgment, which only serves to make the avoidant retreat further and be more covert as a form of self-protection.
Stephanie had learnt to recognise her anxious attachment pattern and had worked on her self-worth and on developing a trust in relationships. She had also learnt how to self-regulate strong feelings rather than to pursue and she had become fairly astute at picking up the early steps of the avoidant dance before falling back into a relationship that replicated those of her past. So, Matt’s reluctance to get together after eight weeks of daily connection (a far cry from the ‘now you see him, no you don’t, there he is again’ hallmark of avoidants) left her confused.
What Stephanie didn’t see was that, while she and Matt were meeting regularly, they were only meeting at picnic ground, that familiar haunt to her that kept conversations based in the here and now with minimal venturing onto each other’s paths and next to no talk of creating a path together. When Stephanie’s became concerned about being made redundant at work, Matt listened but didn’t follow up as the weeks went by and Stephanie learnt to keep those worries to the side of their chats. When Matt had to suddenly end a call because of a text from his mother, he later told Stephanie that it was ‘nothing’ leaving her none the wiser to his family dynamics or happenings. Instead they spoke about his home gym, the Netflix series they were both binging on, what they were cooking that night and engaged in volumes of surface chit-chat that in quantity kept Stephanie feeling connected and in quality kept Matt feeling safe. Any visits to the past were presented in a show and tell manner with Stephanie’s probing of deeper insights diverted to other topics and Matt quite simply, not probing at all.
By contrast, many couples with secure attachment styles have found that lockdown dating allowed them to fast-track the process of very deep connections as they walked each other’s virtual paths. Without the distractions of date nights and sex, they embraced deeper explorations of compatibility and emotional connection. Conversations about their inner worlds, explorations of politics and world views, follow ups on the people and happenings that were important to them and even some early references to creating a trek together, such as ‘we should try this restaurant’ or “I really want you to meet my cousin Elli, you two have so much in common”, have meant that many couples with secure attachment styles have used lockdown to pave the potential for a solid path of togetherness.
For Stephanie and Matt, the easing of restrictions has highlighted the fact they had spent two months at the picnic ground (no lockdown overeating pun intended). As Stephanie continues to work on a healthy relational template to move her into a securely attached relationship, she will become more aware of the quality of interactions that lead to connections and her deservability for such connections.
And as for Matt, when life taps him on the shoulder, as life always does (whether that be through Stephanie, a book, therapy, a scene from a movie or even a deep yearning within) and gives him the chance to learn that relationships can be safe, connection doesn’t have to mean intrusion and that freeze response that floods his body when he wants to risk feeling vulnerable, can be overcome, let’s hope he feels that tap and takes heed of its message. For no matter what he has convinced himself about safety and love…life with an insecure attachment style is no picnic.
Stephanie and Matt are fictional representations of current themes in the clinical setting.