Better Living With Technology

Navigating the profits and pitfalls of modern screen time

Romantic Attachment and the Dangers of Social Media

Attachment predicts whether Facebook will wreak havoc in your relationships.

Photo credit: Buzz Farmers on Flickr.
BuzzFarmers on Flickr. Creative Commons.

So, here’s a little quiz. Pick the statements that you think best describe your feelings towards romantic relationships.

1. I feel comfortable and secure in my romantic relationships. It’s easy for me to get close to and trust others. I don’t worry about being single or getting rejected by a partner.

2. I don’t really need a romantic relationship in my life. If I have a partner, that’s fine, but I want to be independent and not have to rely on a romantic partner.

3. I don’t like being single. I want to be very close to my romantic partners, but they don’t seem as into me as I am into them. In my relationships, I worry that my romantic partners may leave me.

4. I feel uncomfortable getting too close to a romantic partner. I want to trust them, but it’s difficult for me. I’m afraid of getting hurt.      

One of the major predictors of how we use communication technologies such as social media and texting is known as attachment. The four descriptions above represent different attachment styles. Attachment theory says that the relationships with have with providers as infants shape how we feel about relationships as adults. Given that attachment is considered a relatively stable trait, this means that our experiences as infants have implications for the rest of our lives.

Of course, we can’t go back and time and relive our infancy. The best we can do is acknowledge our attachment style and seek to understand what this means for our relationships. Different styles have different things to worry about in the context of establishing and maintaining successful relationships—and also dealing with the aftermath of a breakup.

A Primer on Attachment

Attachment has two components, avoidance and anxiety. Avoidance is the degree to which we avoid closeness with others. Anxiety is the degree to which we are worried or insecure about the viability of our relationships.

Individuals who are low on avoidance and anxiety are considered secure in their relationships. If you chose 1 above, you are a secure individual. You are confident in your relationships and are fine being single or with a partner. Secure individuals are more trusting and have fewer issues with intimacy.  

If you chose 2, you are dismissive. Dismissives are high on avoidance and low on anxiety. You don’t really need relationships, but you’re fine being in one. Depending on your partner’s style, s/he may think you’re a bit detached. You may have intimacy issues because you don’t want to get too close to your partner.

Individuals who are low on avoidance and high anxiety are preoccupied, reflecting choice 3. Preoccupieds are often insecure in their relationships. You may be described as being clingy. You want to know everything about your partner and be close on every level. At the same time, you constantly wonder if your partner is as committed to you as you are to him or her. You fear rejection and often feel uncertain about your partner’s feelings or the future of the relationship.

If you chose 4, you are high on both avoidance and anxiety and are deemed fearful. You probably have trust and intimacy issues because you are afraid of your partner’s commitment to the relationship. Alternatively, you may avoid relationships in general because you don’t think it’s worth the potential pain or rejection.

Attachment and social media use

Several studies have investigated how attachment predicts our use of technology in our romantic relationships. Specifically, anxious styles (preoccupieds and fearfuls) are at the greatest risk for using these technologies in a destructive manner in their relationships. Although these tips are useful for any attachment style, they’re particularly relevant to preoccupieds and fearfuls.

Don’t let Facebook define your dating relationship. Since when does Mark Zuckerberg tell you that your relationship is serious or meaningful? It’s not a sign of a healthy relationship if you need a corporation to validate its meaning. Don’t get hung up on whether or not your partner wants to advertise your relationship in his or her relationship status. If you’re in a committed relationship, it’s reasonable to ask your partner to take down a “Single” status, but if your partner prefers to just hide the status, respect the decision.

Don’t Facebook stalk your partner. Research tells us that people who are high in their levels of anxiety—preoccupied and fearful individuals—spend more time monitoring their romantic partners on sites like Facebook. This monitoring is not healthy—it promotes more jealousy and less relationship satisfaction, both of which are associated with a higher likelihood of a break up. Try to resist the temptation to scope out your partner’s every move.

Don’t dig into your partner’s social media history. Learning every detail you can find about your partner’s former relationship is not going to make your relationship healthier—you will find something to be insecure or jealous about. If you have questions about former relationships, have conversations with your partner instead of getting an extremely skewed view from Facebook. Don’t look up your partner’s exes, either. It won’t do you any good for your relationship or your security to know that s/he once dated a supermodel or a millionaire or even someone who has the exact same favorite band. You’ll only fixate on what you don’t have instead of what you do have going for you as a mate.

Don’t read too far into what you see. Without Facebook, you wouldn’t necessarily know how attractive her new co-worker is or that he just wished his ex a happy birthday. Before social media were so popular, a lot of our friendships and interactions weren’t visible to our partner. Also keep in mind that your partner doesn’t necessarily control what is on his or her page—so if a flirty ex is posting on your partner’s wall, don’t assume your partner did anything to solicit it. Making judgments or reading into things without context is a recipe for disaster.

A final precaution: everyone knows a story about someone who got caught cheating on Facebook. Those who are anxious in their relationships will use this as justification for constantly monitoring their partners on Facebook. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that for every person who caught a significant other cheating on Facebook, there are probably 100 other instances where partners fought about or got unnecessarily jealous over nothing. Personally, I would not be surprised if more people break up over jealousy and suspicion aggravated by Facebook than people who break up over actual cheating observed on Facebook. So, keep in mind if you go looking for trouble, you will likely make it, whether or not it’s actually there.

 

Further reading:

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.

Fox, J., & Warber, K. M. (2014). Social networking sites in romantic relationships: Attachment, uncertainty, and partner surveillance on Facebook. CyberPsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 17, 3-7. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0667

Marshall, T. C., Bejanyan, K., Di Castro, G., & Lee, R. A. (2013). Attachment styles as predictors of Facebookrelated jealousy and surveillance in romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 20, 1-22. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01393.x

 

Jesse Fox, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at The Ohio State University and director of the Virtual Environment, Communication Technology, and Online Research (VECTOR) Lab.

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