Lauren Reed and her colleagues at the University of Michigan recently published some intriguing research. There are of course many studies looking at the impact of social media on dating and other relationships, but not many consider that issue from the perspective of attachment theory. So my attention was immediately piqued.
Specifically, Reed investigated the phenomenon of electronic intrusion in dating relationships, and what effect an individual’s insecure attachment style might have on that behavior. The subjects were 365 college students who completed a written survey.
In essence, electronic intrusion is a fancy way of saying “stalking.” An insecure attachment style can be either anxious or avoidant—or what I like to refer to as the wave and island styles, respectively (Tatkin, 2012, 2016). In short, waves tend to cling to their partners, while islands tend to distance themselves, especially when under stress. And without a doubt, dating can induce stress.
According to the results of Reed’s study, both men and women who were identified as waves were more likely to engage in stalking behavior. For women only, being an island made it less likely to engage in stalking. Notably, individuals who reported engaging in stalking were also more likely to report being stalked.
These results make a lot of sense given what we know in general about attachment styles and the kinds of issues waves and islands encounter when they start dating. It also stands to reason that social media can play into these dynamics, and potentially exacerbate problems that might more easily and effectively be resolved with in-person contact. I often advise partners—especially those who are dating, but truly speaking all partners—who have something serious to discuss to avoid communicating through texts or email or any means that does not allow them to be face to face and maintain eye contact. Stalking is a more extreme way to avoid a serious discussion.
As Reed’s findings suggest, waves may be at particular risk here. If you are a wave, you’re likely to feel needy in a relationship, but also ambivalent or anxious. For instance, if you start dating someone you find highly attractive, you may feel the urge to hold onto that person even before he or she has demonstrated a clear intent to reciprocate. You feel insecure that this new potential partner may let you down. Having been let down before in your life, this is a scary prospect. What do you do? Well, this is where waves in particular may act in a counterproductive manner.
Suppose you see your new date on Facebook looking a bit too cozy with someone else. That sparks an anxiety that was already simmering within you as part of your wave nature, and turns it into a blaze. You may start stalking the third person, whom you see as potential competition. Or you may bother your new date with intrusive questions about his or her whereabouts. You may sneak a peek at texts on a phone that were not meant for you to see. Reed refers to this as a cycle of anxiety through which dating anxieties get play out in social media. Her findings did not indicate what percentage of relationships ended as a result of this cycle, but I think it is safe to say few new dating partners would survive for long in this scenario.
Is there a better way? Of course. In a nutshell, it involves making secure functioning the goal and the foundation of your dating relationship as a means to give yourselves the best chance at lasting success. This can be accomplished with the aid of education and self-help strategies (including, ironically, through social media) and in some cases, therapy.
Interestingly, Reed (in press) also reported that more than 60% of college students had engaged in some form of online stalking. We know from various sources (e.g., Princeton University, 2014) that the proportion of both children and adults with an insecure attachment style is only about 40%. This raises some provocative questions: Are otherwise secure folks acting in insecure ways through social media? Are college students more at risk than older adults when dating? Does dating generate more stress, leading to more insecure tendencies than generally recognized?
Reed, L. A., Tolman, R. M., & Safyer, P. (2015). Too close for comfort: Attachment insecurity and electronic intrusion in college students’ dating relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 50, 431–438.
Reed, L. A., Tolman, R. M., Ward, & L. M. (in press). Snooping and sexting: Digital media as a context for dating aggression and abuse among college students. Violence Against Women.
Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. (2014). Four in 10 infants lack strong parental attachments. Science Daily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140327123540.htm
Tatkin, S. (2016). Wired for dating: How understanding neurobiology and attachment style can help you find your ideal mate. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is the author of Wired for Love and Wired for Dating and Your Brain on Love, and coauthor of Love and War in Intimate Relationships. He has a clinical practice in Southern CA, teaches at Kaiser Permanente, and is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. Tatkin developed a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT) and together with his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, founded the PACT Institute.