If you had to describe your approach to romantic relationships, which of the following descriptions would come the closest?
A. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting close to me.
B. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and, often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.
The three categories were based on John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s classic work on mother–infant relationships. They had found that some children had a secure attachment style—easily expressing affection toward their mothers and unconcerned about being abandoned. Other children had an anxious/ambivalent attachment style—they became visibly upset at any separation from their mothers, and seemed preoccupied with possible abandonment. Still others had an avoidant attachment style—they were defensively detached from their mothers, spurning affection if their mothers returned after a brief absence.
Cindy Hazan and Phil Shaver suggested that early mother–infant experiences might translate into different styles of loving in adults. Adults who chose statement A above, for instance, were classified as secure; those who chose statement B were classified as avoidant; and those who chose statement C were classified as anxious/ambivalent.
Later research also shows that securely attached individuals are easy to get along with, and good at resolving relationship conflicts. Unsurprisingly, secure people stayed in love relationships longer than those who scored themselves as either anxious/ambivalent or avoidant.
But avoidant lovers find intimacy unpleasant, and they are uncomfortable with the level of sharing that tends to benefit long-term relationships. In stressful situations, avoidant individuals offer their partners less social support. And consequently, their relationships don't last as long.
Anxious/ambivalent lovers, on the other hand, experience relationships like an emotional roller-coaster, with more highs and lows, and relatively higher levels of sexual motivation. Anxious people often drive away the very partners they want so much to keep, by making excessive demands that the partner demonstrate love and commitment. Anxious/ambivalent lovers perceive their partners as less caring, and Jeff Simpson and his colleagues have found that anxious/ambivalent women are prone to develop postpartum depression if they do not feel their partner is giving enough support.
People with anxious and avoidant attachment styles are more likely to be unhappy in their relationships, and their relationships are more likely to break up. Thus, it’s easier to be in a loving relationship with a secure partner.
Conflict resolution, attachment style, and frequent sex
If you happen to be in a long-term relationship with an anxious or avoidant partner, the outlook is not hopeless. Jeff Simpson and Nickola Overall have conducted research on how relationship partners handle one another during times of stress. In a recent review of that research, they suggested that you are more likely to live happily ever after if you match your style of conflict resolution to your partner’s attachment style. Simpson and Overall suggest that an anxious partner is likely to be most reassured by clear demonstrations of your love and support, whereas an avoidant partner does better if you don’t threaten his or her autonomy and independence.
In one study, Simpson and Sisi Tran videotaped couples as they discussed things they would like to change in one another. That topic led anxious people to feel more negative emotions, and to be less accommodating toward their partners. But more committed partners responded by being more accommodating on their side, which in turn made the anxious people feel happier and more accepted.
Another study by Overall, Simpson, and Helena Struthers found that avoidant partners were especially likely to get angry at any discussion of their partner changing them. However, the discussions went a lot more smoothly if their partners responded by softening their communications, rather than digging in and becoming demanding.
Another line of research by Michelle Russell and Jim McNulty suggests that it’s not only how you handle conflict that can buffer against a partner’s insecurity, it’s also the frequency of sex. Those researchers measured newlywed couples’ satisfaction and their frequency of sex over the first four years of marriage. They found that, although general anxiety was associated with generally lower marital satisfaction, that association did not hold for partners had had frequent sex during the previous 6 months. Of course, frequent sex may be an outcome of getting along better, but Russell and McNulty’s statistical analyses of the time course, as well as the results of another daily diary study, suggested that it might also be a cause of satisfaction.
Douglas Kenrick is author of The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. and of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life:A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.
Ainsworth, M. S. (1979). Infant–mother attachment. American psychologist, 34(10), 932.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss, Vol. 2: Separation. NewYork, NY: Basic Books
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
Little, K. C., McNulty, J. K., & Russell, V. M. (2010). Sex buffers intimates against the negative implications of attachment insecurity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(4), 484-498.
Overall, N. C., Simpson, J. A., & Struthers, H. (2013). Buffering attachment-related avoidance: Softening emotional and behavioral defenses during conflict discussions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104(5), 854.
Russell, V. M., & McNulty, J. K. (2011). Frequent sex protects intimates from the negative implications of their neuroticism. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(2), 220-227.
Simpson, J. A., & Overall, N. C. (2014). Partner buffering of attachment insecurity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 54-59.
Simpson, J. A., Rholes, W. S., Campbell, L., Tran, S., & Wilson, C. L. (2003). Adult attachment, the transition to parenthood, and depressive symptoms.Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(6), 1172.
Tran, S., & Simpson, J. A. (2009). Prorelationship maintenance behaviors: the joint roles of attachment and commitment. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(4), 685.