There are always times when you worry about whether or not your relationship is going well. You fret over something that your partner said to you, or are convinced that you said the wrong thing to your partner. Although you had an agreement, for example, that your partner would check in with by phone during the day, by 5 pm there was neither a call nor a text and no explanation of why your partner failed to get in touch with you. The concerns may fleet through your mind and you figure you misunderstood your agreement, or you may become so preoccupied that you can hardly concentrate on anything except why you haven’t heard from your partner.
People high in what psychologists call attachment anxiety chronically assume the worst about their relationship partners. They fear being dumped at any given moment, and as a result, may seem overly needy and clingy. This behavior, of course, only makes their situation worse unless they have a patient and understanding partner. Israeli psychologist Guy Doron and a team of researchers from the School of Psychology in Herziliya in a December 2013 publication believe that attachment anxiety is only part of the picture when it comes to explaining the fears and worries that people develop about their relationship partners.
Doron and colleagues propose that some people fall victim to double relationship-vulnerability in which they are not only anxiously attached, but also rely heavily on their relationships to define their feelings of self-worth. The doubly vulnerable may be particularly prone to another set of relationship concerns in which they become obsessed or preoccupied with doubts and fears about the future of their relationship. The combination of double relationship vulnerability with obsessional worries can spell emotional chaos to individuals with these psychological tendencies.
In an experimental investigation to examine this possibility, Doron and his team devised a task that might sound a bit cruel, but was necessary to provide a true test of their theory. Participants in their study, female undergraduates ranging from 18 to 29, completed a task which they were told would reveal their capacity for maintaining a long-term relationship. In the mildly negative condition, they were informed that their performance revealed them to be “less than average,” suggesting not that their prospects were terrible, but certainly not up to par. In the other, mildly positive condition, they received the opposite feedback, informing them that they were “somewhat above average.” Thus, neither set of participants were made to feel like total losers, on the one hand, or on the top of the world, on the other, but their self-concepts were certainly tweaked with these manipulations.
Prior to completing this task, all participants filled out questionnaires designed to measure their attachment anxiety along with its opposite, attachment avoidance (wanting to stay distant in long-term relationships). They rated the extent to which their feelings of self-worth hinged on their relationships with questions such as “Knowing my romantic partner loves me makes me feel good about myself.” The doubly-vulnerable should score high on both attachment anxiety and relationship-contingent self-worth.
Following the relationship self-esteem manipulation, Doren and his coworkers next asked their participants to answer questions about the extent to which they obsessed about their relationships. Participants imagined themselves in a series of possible situations and then rated their degree of distress, their urge to act, their urge to do something about their concerns, and the likelihood that they would, in fact, act on their urges. Here were three of those situations—see how you would respond:
As you can see from the second situation, relationship-related obsessions can include thoughts not only about whether your partner loves you, but whether you in fact actually love your partner. Obsessing about your relationship can work both ways, because ruminating about your own feelings can also become a preoccupation for those so inclined.
Doron and team realized they needed to control for other, related psychological symptoms, so they also assessed feelings of depression and anxiety, using scores on these measures in their statistical analyses.
To recap, the crucial test in this partially experimental study was whether the doubly-relationship vulnerable (high in attachment anxiety and relationship-contingent self-esteem) would show greater obsessional tendencies when their self-concept regarding whether they could succeed in long-term relationships was threatened. The findings showed that, in fact, this is exactly what happened to these young women. When faced with the label of being relationally deficient, they reacted with more obsessional thoughts to hypothetical situations in which there was reason to be concerned.
If these participants reacted so strongly to a hypothetical situation, we can only imagine how they would behave in real life when faced with the situation I described at the beginning of this article. The scenarios used in the Doron et al. study were slightly different from this one, though, in that each situation involved cases in which you wonder whether you really love your partner as well as whether your partner really loves you. What can happen if you suffer from double relationship-vulnerability is that these doubts and concerns spiral out of control. You try to resist your urges to act, which creates internal strife, or you act on your urges, which threatens the quality of your relationship. In either case, what may be groundless concerns take on a life of their own and can cause real relationship conflict to develop.
What do you do if you think you may be one of the doubly relationship vulnerable? The Doran group’s study suggests some clear paths to easing your emotional pain.
As is true for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder more generally, you could benefit from the cognitive-behavioral approach, in which you learn to recognize your unrealistic doubts about your partner and your relationship.
Start by identifying the triggers that set off your worries, whether it's a missed phone call or just something thought or event that makes you wonder whether your partner truly loves you, or vice versa. Recall from the Doran et al. study that the doubly-relationship vulnerable were badly affected by situations in which their relationship competence was threatened. These may be just like those triggers that set off your own worries.
Once you get past that first step, then you can work on changing those troublesome thoughts. You know your own thought patterns—“Do I really love him?” “Does she really love me?” “Things are going well now, but it can’t last forever.” As these thoughts start to pour into your head, try to turn off the faucet. If you’re unable to do so, which I’ll discuss shortly, there are ways to find help.
Next, see if you can reduce your urges to act on your thoughts. Compulsive behaviors often do follow obsessional thoughts. You have worries about your partner’s loyalty to the relationship, which may lead you to perform the compulsive behavior of calling or checking in with your partner. Find a way to prevent yourself from engaging in these behaviors in response to your worries. Again, this might not be something you can do yourself, but eventually you will be able to do so.
Let’s also look at the attachment anxiety part of the equation. Your partner may be willing to talk you through your difficult moments, but this may again take some outside intervention. It’s important, in either case, for you to communicate your fears to your partner and together, identifying this as an area of vulnerability, you can tackle the problem together.
If you’re challenged by these steps, or have tried them to no avail, there are ways that as an individual, and as a couple, your vulnerabilities and obsessions can be alleviated. Fortunately, you don’t have to be stuck forever with these problematic behaviors, and over time, improve both your individual mental health and that of your relationship.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Doron, G., Szepsenwol, O., Karp, E., & Gal, N. (2013). Obsessing about intimate-relationships: Testing the double relationship-vulnerability hypothesis. Journal Of Behavior Therapy And Experimental Psychiatry, 44(4), 433-440. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2013.05.003