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Attachment theory in pop culture - the film High Fidelity, starring John Cusack

I have been enjoying my foray into deconstructing attachment theory in pop-culture, having previously considered Bridget Jones’ Diary and Friends, and today wanted to delve into attachment with the backdrop of one of my favourite films, High Fidelity (released 2000).

The film is an American romantic comedy-drama film based on the 1995 British novel of the same name, by Nick Hornby. I haven’t read the book, or seen the recent re-booted TV show, so my reflections here are purely based on the film.

Here, I want to look at the possible primary attachment styles of some of the main characters, especially Rob Gordon, Laura, Charlie Nicholson and Sarah Kendrew.

Rob Gordon’s personal journey of connection

Rob is such a fantastic character – so well-written and completely embodied by John Cusack. Is Rob a nice guy? Not really. But he’s so well developed and acted by Cusack, that we do feel on his side; we do understand his challenges and are rooting for him and Laura to reconcile, as Rob ‘grows’ and develops on his personal journey of connection.

For me, Rob is quite disorganised as his primary attachment style. (At first – perhaps this changes as the film progresses.) He is (initially!) a selfish, insensitive, immature grown up who acts in quite a childlike manner. One of the biggest clues to his background is the ‘cold’ phone call from his Mum, who cries because Rob’s girlfriend has left him. Her character only has a couple of minutes’ screen time, but she seems very disconnected from Rob’s emotions, and he clearly wants her to be ‘upset’ because she isn’t empathising with him, which angers him greatly.

The reason I feel he’s disorganised primarily is that he swings between quite needy behaviour, more ambivalently skewed; and avoidant, which is the direction he can go in when a relationship is getting ‘comfortable’ and established. Rob has a tendency to jeopardise his relationships when they become successful, and somewhere close to committed. He connects deeply with music, but can’t seem to transfer this visceral connection to the women he dates. He alludes to listening to ‘thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss’; and heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss really tells us most of what we need to know about Rob’s attachment patterns.


Describing the breakup with Alison Ashmore, Rob says: ‘It would be nice to think that since I was 14, times have changed…. But there seems to be an element of ‘that’ in everything that’s happened to me since.’ By ‘that’, he means rejection, being dumped. Rejection is his trigger wound, the relational pattern that keeps repeating itself.

Rob seems to have an emotional ‘pull and push’ mentality. ‘I want you, please like me’; and then when the partner moves towards him in a connected way (at least, this we see this with Laura), he backs off and won’t commit. (He says in the film: ‘I can see now I never really committed to Laura. I always had one foot out the door, and that prevented me from doing a lot of things, like thinking about my future. I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing. Keep my options open.’ His foot out the door was Rob’s own trauma response, presumably somehow linked to his Mum’s narcissistic parenting style. It was protective – Rob used it to protect his vulnerability and wounding. He was rejected in some way (and is still being rejected by his Mum, even as an adult), and his patterns of relating are protecting that wounded, inner child. Penny, Charlie and Sarah

With Penny Hardwick, Rob didn’t do the dumping, although he definitely had one foot out of the door; he broke up with Penny because she wouldn’t ‘put out’. (Rejection of Rob?) We see him turn away from her kiss (in flashback), and reject her in a very avoidant way.

With Charlie Nicholson, Rob admits he ‘never got comfortable.’ Hence, he never walked away or disconnected from her. But he eventually finds out that Charlie is actually quite a terrible person. She seems to have many narcissistic traits – she seems to use people for her own gain (remember also how she dumps Rob for Marco?), is completely self-absorbed, and uses her allure for the purposes of manipulation. Maybe as his nervous system was used to being around a narcissist (Rob’s Mum) growing up, Rob was drawn to someone (Charlie, seemingly primarily avoidant in attachment) who would treat him in a similar way, e.g. engender neediness, pushing him away and being ‘superior’, and then encouraging him to crave connection on her terms.

Rob’s disorganised attachment hits a beautiful sweet spot when he meets Sarah Kendrew, a fellow primarily disorganised individual – at least that’s my perception based on the short scenes in which we see Sarah here. We don’t know much about Sarah, although at one point she’s on new medication for an unnamed condition, presumably anxiety or depression; but we are never told what the condition is. Rob and Sarah’s social nervous systems matched each other perfectly at that moment in time; both were hurt and terrified of (and wounded by) rejection. Perhaps Rob got comfortable, to use his words, as he didn’t see her rejection coming, and didn’t have the chance to run first.

How do Rob and Laura reunite?

Rob has never really been content with himself. He depends on his girlfriends to keep him happy, and judges the success of his life according to the women he’s with. Rob seemingly can’t be alone. He asks himself: ‘What is wrong with me? Why am I doomed to be left?’, in quite a ‘victimmy’ way. Rob has clearly also objectified the women he dates.

When Rob does eventually reunite with Laura, there’s a small blip when the resident manic pixie dream-girl of the piece, Caroline, turns up as a reporter, and he starts to de-commit to Laura with his usual ‘one foot out of the door’ approach. But fortunately he’s now seeing sense, and re-connects to Laura before it’s too late – she’s simply amused by his dalliance with Caroline.

Dick and Annagh

Just a note on characters – probably the sweetest and most charming character is record-store assistant Dick, who’s seemingly coded by the writers as being autistic. (Coded being when a fictional character has been knowingly written that way – even if the writers didn’t know that the character they’d created was autistic, for example if they based it on a family member or friend who was autistic, but undiagnosed. David Tennant’s Dr Who is also a good example of this, e.g. a character that fans see as being 'coded' as autistic.)

In High Fidelity, Rob constantly rolls his eyes at Dick, and their colleague Barry is similarly impatient with their friend. Pleasingly, Dick gets together with Annagh, and there seems to be to be nothing to suggest that these two charming individuals aren’t primarily securely attached.

Moving up the social engagement ladder

Laura’s had the moral high-ground throughout the relationship between her and Rob, at least that we see in the film. Rob admits at the end that he can see now that he never really committed to Laura. Implying (and we see this too) that now he’s seen the error of his ways, he is starting to commit.

So for me, Rob’s journey is about looking back to see where he went wrong – and he realises that he’s mis-remembered many of his relationships, and painted himself in quite a victimmy way. And now he’s taking responsibility, and seems to be moving up the social engagement ladder. I would say we leave Rob in a primarily ambivalent state – he seems to still be vulnerable, but is embracing that, rather than reverting quickly to avoidant behaviour.

Laura - primarily ambivalent

But what of Laura? She probably can’t be primarily secure in attachment, although she does seem to have a very strong family of origin, which doesn’t quite fit with her choices of boyfriends. It just seems unlikely to me that Laura and Rob would have been a strong relational unit, if she were primarily secure, what with Rob being primarily insecure in attachment. I imagine she is primarily ambivalent – there’s indications she was more insecure (needy, less self-assured or confident?) when they met, but has grown and developed over time. If Laura’s primarily ambivalent, then being with Rob, who swings between ambivalent and avoidant, would be a good fit. So why did they drift apart? It feels to me as if Laura has moved further up the social engagement ladder, re-parented herself, and has become more assertive and self-aware in the time before she splits with Rob.

(Laura does get together with the strangely alluring Ian for a time, who also strikes me as being insecurely attached somehow, although his character is written for comedic value, so we don’t get to know him.) This chasm between Laura’s increasingly secure attachment style and Rob’s insecurity and instability becomes too great, and they simply cannot connect healthily; so she does the brave thing, and breaks up with him.

So, how do they end up getting back together? I believe that in some way, Rob goes from disorganised to ambivalent attachment in the course of his journey back into time, assessing what has caused his previous break ups. He re-parents himself, takes responsibility and starts to accept himself more; he doesn’t need Laura’s validation so much in the process, and she finds these three aspects of him attractive. Their attachment states have both risen and adapted, and they re-discovered the things (especially music) that connect them. (High Fidelity also contains perhaps the single most important line in cinematic relational history – ‘What really matters is what you like, not what you are like.’ How profound is that! Common interests breed connection, after all).

So there we have it, the High Fidelity character’s primary attachment styles, decoded.


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