"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."
The Golden Rule is certainly good advice for navigating social interactions. It tells us to put ourselves in other people's shoes and imagine how we would feel. If I forget to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home from work, I want my wife to be understanding, not scornful. And so when she walks through the door without the suit I wanted to wear tomorrow, I should be forgiving and not vent my anger. Thus, empathy shows us the way to treat others.
The reason why the Golden Rule generally works is that we're all alike in many ways. We have the same basic needs for love and acceptance, and we experience the same joys and sorrows, fears and disappointments, as everyone else. How we would feel in a particular situation is also quite likely how other people would feel. But there are also situations in which we don't all have the same needs or experience the same emotions, and in these situations, the Golden Rule can lead us terribly astray. A case in point is attachment styles in intimate relationships.
Attachment is the deep emotional bond that develops between infant and mother (or other primary caregiver) during the first weeks and months of life. When children are securely attached to their mothers, they use them as a safe base from which to explore the world. But at the first sign of danger, the child retreats to its mother, who provides physical comfort and emotional support. About two-thirds of American children are securely attached, and the rest, who are insecurely attached, fall into two types: Avoidantly attached children find that they can't rely on their caregiver to comfort them, so they learn to self-soothe instead. Anxiously attached children instead find out that if they're fussy enough, they can capture their caregiver's wandering attention.
The attachment style we form in early childhood develops into a working model of relationships that guides us in our interactions with friends and significant others for the rest of our lives. This working model consists of two components: One is a model of what significant others are like; namely, whether they can be trusted or not to provide support when needed. The other is a model of the self; that is, how likely it is that you can get your needs met by others, and whether you're even worthy of receiving such support.
When two securely attached adults enter into an intimate relationship, their working models guide them intuitively toward seeking and giving physical comfort and emotional support as needed. For these lucky couples, the Golden Rule works. But when attachment styles don't match, trouble in a relationship is inevitable.
As psychologists Jeffry Simpson and Steven Rholes point out in a recent article in Current Opinion in Psychology, attachment behaviors aren't general-purpose guides for negotiating intimate interactions. Rather, they're ways of coping with stress in relationships. When times are good, as for example in the limerence of new love, partners' attachment styles may not be apparent. It's only when a couple encounters a stressful event — forgetting to call, not responding right away to a text message, arriving late for dinner — that attachment behaviors emerge.
Simpson and Rholes describe two types of attachment behavior:
Avoidance. This refers to how comfortable a person is with emotional intimacy in a relationship. People high in avoidance fear being vulnerable, and instead seek strength through self-reliance and independence. In times of stress, they withdraw from their partners and seek solace in solitude.
Anxiety. This refers to how much a person worries about being abandoned or unappreciated by a partner. They're heavily invested in the relationship, but they're constantly questioning their partner's commitment, because they feel unworthy. Their clinginess often drives their partner away, only reinforcing their insecurities.
Note that these are dimensions, not categories, so you or your partner can be avoidant or anxious to varying degrees. People who are low on both dimensions are deemed securely attached. They seek strength through physical closeness and emotional openness, and their partner's commitment to the relationship goes unquestioned, because they see themselves as worthy and deserving of it.
Although attachment styles are set in the first year of life, they can slowly change as individuals have new relationship experiences. An avoidant or anxious individual whose spouse is securely attached can gradually learn to tone down their insecurities. However, it does take a lot of insight and effort on the part of the securely attached spouse to effect this change. You'll need to give your anxious mate far more reassurance than you'll feel is necessary. Likewise, you'll have to learn not to encroach on your avoidant partner when they need time and space to themselves.
Simpson and Rholes call this process partner buffering. In other words, you respond to your significant other in a way that fits their attachment style. When you do this, your partner's distress is relieved, and the conflict in the relationship can be resolved. So, when your anxious wife wants a phone call even if you're only going to be a few minutes late, be diligent about making that call — every time. With her worries assuaged, she'll be more responsive to your needs. Or when your avoidant husband recedes to his man cave, let him be — but bring him his meals, so he still knows you care. If he senses it's safe to retreat when he feels overwhelmed, he'll actually be more comfortable opening up on other occasions.
You may think partner buffering reinforces bad behavior, rewarding clinginess with unnecessary demonstrations of commitment, or encouraging aloofness by giving even more space. Reward and punishment may be effective at shaping simple habits. But attachment is not a simple habit: It's a complex structure of cognitions and behaviors, a system of viewing relationships, significant others, and one's self. You can help your avoidant or anxious partner change that structure over time, but you have to build on what's already there, not tear it down and start anew.
Partner buffering requires a considerable amount of self-awareness, and a willingness to act against your intuitions. This is especially true in a relationship between avoidant and anxious individuals. To buffer your partner, you first need to introspect deeply, until you clearly understand your own and your partner's attachment styles. And then you need to commit to buffering, letting intention and not intuition be your guide.
If you're the anxious one, you'll have to reign in your clinginess and trust, against all intuitions to the contrary, that your partner is actually committed, and that you are worthy of that commitment. And by all means, don't pursue when your partner retreats. If you're the avoidant one, you'll need to give more emotional support than you feel comfortable with. And when your partner pursues, don't retreat, but stay put and give all the reassurance he or she needs. In either case, you'll have to act contrary to the way you would want to be treated.
Intimate relationships are all about meeting each other's needs. But using the Golden Rule to intuit our partner's needs can lead us astray. Instead of giving our significant others what we ourselves want, we need to give them what they want. And when we meet their needs, they'll feel secure enough to meet ours.
Simpson, J. A. & Rholes, W. S. (2017). Adult attachment, stress, and romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 19-24.
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