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"Baby Reindeer" and the Psychology of Attachment

Why we attach to abusive people.

Key points

  • "Baby Reindeer" stages the conflict between authenticity and attachment needs.
  • We often form negative or abusive attachments because we have learned to prioritize attachment at all costs.
  • Getting in touch with our instinctive, protective needs can feel foreign and uncomfortable.

One of the strengths of the new Netflix show "Baby Reindeer" is the honest way that it depicts negative or abusive attachments.

In the series, the main character Donny develops two abusive relationships: one with a stalker and another with a groomer. In many cases where such relationships are represented, a film or TV show may provide hints or context clues as to how these dynamics happened, but in "Baby Reindeer," the character’s monologue presents an explicit and reflective take on the process through which Donny arrived to be in these situations. In so doing, it reveals a complex psychological tug of war between what Gabor Maté describes as the primal pull between “authenticity” and “attachment” needs.

Attachment Vs. Authenticity

In The Myth of Normal, Maté outlines a theory of attachment which, he argues, serves as our primary need as infants. Because we are dependent creatures from birth, we are “hard-wired” for attachment as a survival impulse; we have a need to be connected and interdependent with another human, usually a caretaker. When we are young and vulnerable, we do not have the option of selecting or discerning the quality of the attachment, since abandoning this would imperil our survival.

As a result, we often have to circumvent our authentic “gut” impulses about our attachment figures in order to stay attached. Better to have a bad attachment than none at all.

It is this struggle or conflict between an authentic “gut” impulse and an attachment need that is thematized so well in "Baby Reindeer," as we witness Donny in his inner monologue questioning and asking himself why he continued to go back to the abusive groomer’s apartment, or why he decided to “friend” a known stalker.

One answer to the question is that those weaned on negative attachments can lose the capacity or notion that they have agency or options in attachment situations. They are oriented primarily to what the other wants and become highly tuned in to accommodating the attachment under their terms. They lose touch with their inner radar system for the sake of the attachment.

This often translates into tolerating and accommodating a lot of bad behaviour from others, particularly under the fear of conflict, confrontation, and ultimately loss of the attachment. One of the common core beliefs experienced by those with negative early attachments is “I am responsible for other people’s feelings.” This often results in self-sacrificing behaviour for the sake of others and can make one vulnerable to abuse and manipulation.

This conflict-avoidance or people-pleasing is seen throughout "Baby Reindeer" as Donny works to manage and accommodate the bad moods experienced by his stalker. At the outset, he gets her a tea on the house instead of enforcing the rules of the bar. He takes personal and professional risks in order to smooth out the interpersonal situations and manage the feelings of Martha, instead of risking a scene that might be dramatic or conflict-laden. What might under some conditions look like a kind gesture, can be seen from Maté’s lens as a negation of his authentic, perhaps protective instinct to cast someone negative from the establishment.

The series then offers a working through and recalibration of his instincts and boundaries with the help (no surprise) of a girlfriend who is a therapist. The show, thus, reveals the importance of interpersonal relationships as a way to re-orient negative attachment patterns and re-draw healthy boundaries around abusive people.

It also shows the difficulty of re-training negative attachment, since what often feels familiar or comfortable is the abusive pattern, while what can feel foreign and strange is in fact the positive and healthy attachment, like the one Donny experiences with his new girlfriend Teri.


Maté, Gabor. The Myth of Normal. Toronto: Knopf, 2022.

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