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Analysing the attachment styles of One’s Day’s Emma and Dex – only minor spoilers included!

One Day is the phenomenally successful Netflix adaption of the book by David Nicholls, published in 2009.


This article is based solely on the Netflix series and not the book, nor even the 2011 film.


I thought it would be interesting to explore the attachment styles of the two main leads.


Attachment styles

Attachment styles refer to patterns of relating to other humans that we learn as children, and which carry into our adult relationships.


The four primary styles are as follows -

*Secure Attachment: when we can balance dependence and independence in relationships, and feel secure in our own identity.

*Insecure Avoidant (or dismissive) attachment: here, we have an outwardly-seeming, strong sense of self-sufficiency, with the individual seeming more emotionally detached.

*Insecure Ambivalent (or preoccupied) attachment: we can feel more ‘needy’, and can be overly dependent in our relationships.

*Insecure Disorganised (or fearful) attachment: here, we may desire close relationships, yet fear vulnerability. Often related to trauma or family dysfunction, there’s often unpredictably in our relationships.


Back to the One Day TV series!

One Day is a beautifully-shot and acted, incredibly period-detailed showcase of two people’s relationships(s) over the course of two decades. We meet Dexter and Emma in 1988, so both our protagonists were born in the mid-to-late 1960s.


While the Netflix’s mini-series doesn’t say how old Dexter and Emma are, David Nicholls’ reportedly book says that Dex is 23 and Emma is 22 when they first meet at their university graduation day party. Hence, we can assume that Dex is born in 1965 and Emma in 1966.


Emma Morley’s family


Let’s start with Emma, and see what we know about her family, from the Netflix series. The answer is, very little! Dex asks Emma about religion on one occasion, and she explains that her mum is Hindu, and her father a Catholic - the fact this union took place at all perhaps means they were quite free thinking and liberal as a couple, who perhaps got married in the early 1960s.


There is a thriving Hindu community in Leeds, where Emma is from; the religious community reportedly developed following immigration from South Asia to the UK in the 1950s, when many Hindus came to Yorkshire to work in the textile mills.

A passionate activist and advocate


Interestingly, the city was home to very many individuals demonstrating activism around feminism, racism and LGBT rights in the 1970s and 80s, and local women protested against the patriarchy at the Reclaim The Night march in 1977. Perhaps this is something Emma’s Mum was involved in?


I like to imagine that Mrs Morley was involved in advocacy and activism, and passed on this strong sense of values to Emma, who we know to be a passionate activist and advocate, as an adult. Or at the very least, the eleven-year-old Emma could have had an awareness of the feminist scene, perhaps from pioneering teachers, or other family members.


Assuming that Emma was in fact born in Leeds (as her accent suggests), and knowing she was involved in advocacy and social justice at Uni, it is a romantic notion, but at the same time possible, that she got this strong moral compass from her mother.


Emma’s Mum only features in one episode when Dex’s daughter comes to stay - Emma‘s mum telephones, wanting to speak to Jasmine, and they happily talk away on the phone, indicating, even though the viewer has not seen this level of connection at all, that it is a regular and happy occurrence for Emma’s Mum to call. (Pic of Leeds' county arcade by Vintage News Daily).

Strong connections

Emma does seem to keep very strong platonic relationships and friendships, notably with her long-term friend Tilly. We also see Emma in intimate, romantic relationships; and this is where things start to unravel a little bit. She casually has an affair with her married boss, and also seemingly gets engaged to Ian the comedian, yet although he is besotted by her, she doesn’t really feel the same way. When we see them dating, it doesn’t feel like a really good fit together. She almost seems to feel a little sorry for him.


Although the romantic relationships we see Emma undertake appear to be very unfulfilling, there’s nothing I see to suggest that Emma’s relationships between her and her family of origin are anything other than loving and connected (secure attachment).


She’s highly intelligent, has very strong values, and does have good self-esteem and self-worth. She could have slept with Dex on that first night just because it was the expected thing to do (mostly expected by him), but chose not to, and then importantly, despite being attracted to him and caring for him, didn’t sleep with him in the intervening years, memorably turning him down by holding his head underwater when they holidayed in Greece. Therefore, despite some unfulfilling intimate relationships that we are seeing, Emma does seem to be securely attached, to me.


One day’s Dexter

Moving onto Dexter, we do see quite a lot in the series about his family of origin. We know they are wealthy, his Dad being a businessman and his Mum seemingly trading antiques - and their family home appears to be very valuable, so he definitely comes from a financially privileged background.


We see a little bit about the relationship between Dex and each of his parents as the episodes move on. There’s definitely some tension and anger from Dexter’s Dad to Dex, and what looks like an incredible amount of distance between them for most of the series. Yet in the latter episodes, Dex and his father seemingly have a much stronger and more connected relationship. (With Emma’s encouragement, Dad even allows Dex to use his inheritance for his new business, Café Belleville.) Of course, this distant-father relationship would not have been terribly unusual for a child growing up in the seventies.


More complex is that Dex seems to have a somewhat dysfunctional (or maybe just enmeshed) relationship with his mum. We first meet her when he’s on something like a gap year, travelling around Europe, and she has a very cavalier attitude to his sexual conquests; almost encouraging or delighting in them, in some strange way. I’m sure a reference is made to his bachelor pad in one of the final episodes, and there is some kind of sexual connotation there which his Dad completely colludes with. So, it makes me wonder if there was a cavalier attitude in the family around sexual relationships? It makes me think this is one reason why Dex uses sex as some kind of emotional currency?


He’s perhaps grown up without explicit values around respecting the opposite sex, and has used his looks and charm as a way to gain validation.


It’s also interesting to see that alcohol plays a big part in Dex’s life; we know that his mum likes to drink as well. Emma enjoys a drink, but doesn’t seem to modulate her emotions with alcohol in the same way Dexter does (also with drugs). Which makes me wonder what’s missing in his emotional make-up, that the alcohol provides for Dex.


I don’t know if any more information is available to readers of the book, but if I were to guess at Dexter’s parents’ attachment styles, his father seems like more of an insecure avoidant individual, and his mum would be insecure ambivalent.


The relationship between Dexter and his mother

There’s just something in the way Dexter’s mum talks to Dex that seems quite clingy, and that makes me think their relationship has been somewhat dysfunctional; perhaps he did grow up being a little bit of a ‘mummy’s special prince’, and was put on a pedestal - probably for his looks and charm. He presumably always had an engaging personality.

At one point, his mum tells Dex something like, he has everything going for him, but at this point he needs to basically get a life, and she’s disappointed in him.


All of the above leads me to think that Dex is also insecurely ambivalently attached, and has this slightly unboundaried relationship with his mum (i.e. telling her at one stage his mates always fancied her); and probably grew up with very little boundaries in place from her.


Dex probably had plenty of wealth and opportunity. Lots of motherly adulation – yet perhaps no really strong connected  or moral guidance from his dad.


This would explain why he’s quite entitled and narcissistic as an adult; we see him go through women and relationship like pairs of socks, not showing any emotional depth or respect. Ultimately, I think what Dex is truly craving is a solid, dependable, honest person in his life who doesn’t put him on a pedestal like his Mum did.


Sadly, it takes him a long time to break those familiar patterns of relating with people. He knows that Sylvie’s family, including herself sometimes, are pretty shallow and unpleasant. She quickly has an affair, and the union between her and Dex never feels loving and respectful - although she does look after Dex in later episodes, and supports him.

 

Dex’s platonic relationship with friends are also dysfunctional - he doesn’t stay in touch with his Uni, friends, and aside from Emma, it seems that no one is really there for him, apart from all the sycophants and hangers-on.


Emma and Dex’s union in One Day


So how would such a union or relationship work in real life, with Emma and her seemingly secure attachment style, and Dex with his avoidant attachment and mummy-and-daddy-issues? I think if the pair had the opportunity to settle down together for a long-term relationship, they could make it work. Emma doesn’t fawn over Dex. We see her in a later episode becoming frustrated and grumpy because of a situation that’s unfulfilling for them both, and as her friend Tilly acknowledged, this is just normal relationship fodder, with ups and downs.


By this time in the series, episode 13 of 14, Dex seems to have had a personality transplant. By this point, he is very supportive of his partner; he really has seemingly changed his ways and has become a committed, loving and respectful partner. When his marriage to Sylvie broke down, this obviously broke him, and he had to face up to a lot of personal demons around what success means to him, how he deals with his problems through alcohol, and presumably what he actually wants out of life.


So yes, I think that with an understanding of his coping mechanisms around alcohol, good supportive people around him, and a constant effort to consider other people’s needs and feelings, Dex and Emma’s eventual union would work well in real life.


Towards the end of the series, there’s also a better relationship with Dex’s Dad, which we definitely see when his Dad allows Dexter to use his inheritance for the new café business, and also in the final episode, when people rally around to support Dex in his time of need.

Hence in summary, I think we’re seeing a person in Dex who has shifted their attachment style into something more secure, thanks to Emma’s secure base, and loving connection.



 

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