- Romantic attachment style is more flexible than researchers originally believed.
- Healthy relationships could help people move toward a more secure attachment with that partner.
- New research found that daily positive experiences in a new relationship or marriage led to decreases in attachment avoidance over 3 weeks.
- Another study showed that couples who expressed positive emotions during a conversation with each other showed decreased attachment avoidance.
Attachment style in adults describes the way people typically interact with romantic partners, particularly whether that attachment is "secure" or contains elements of intimacy avoidance or abandonment anxiety.
Early conceptualizations of adult romantic attachment style were based on infant attachment research, positing that adult attachment is the result of internalizing early childhood experiences with parents. In this view, attachment style is relatively fixed. However, researchers today observe that attachment style can change when people are involved in healthy relationships. But what actually happens in those relationships to gradually change people's romantic attachment style? New research by Deniz Bayraktaroglu and colleagues just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores how simple positive interactions between partners may affect attachment.
A Brief Primer on Attachment Style
One useful way of thinking about attachment is to consider two elements of attachment: Attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety. Attachment avoidance refers to a tendency to be uncomfortable getting close to romantic partners, sharing feelings, and depending on the other person.
Attachment anxiety refers to fears that romantic partners will leave or don't really love you. Secure attachment involves being low in both of these characteristics. Securely attached people are comfortable with intimacy, while not being overly worried about being abandoned or unloved by partners. People who are insecurely attached may be high on one, or even both, of these dimensions of attachment insecurity.
Ximena Arriaga and colleagues propose that both of these dimensions – attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety – can decline when people have positive experiences in their relationships. If someone is in a secure relationship and is confident of their partner's love, attachment anxiety should decline. Similarly, if someone is in a relationship where they can start to depend on another person reliably, attachment avoidance should decline.
Daily Changes in Relationship Experiences and Attachment
In the new research, Bayraktaroglu, and colleagues studied couples who were making an important transition into a more serious relationship. This is precisely the type of change that could have a positive impact on people's attachment styles. One study examined newly dating couples who had only been together for a few months, and the other study examined married couples who had wed within the past 6 months.
The researchers asked couples to record positive events in their relationship every day for 3 weeks. Each day, they kept track of whether they had a positive event that involved their partner in several different life domains (social interactions, work or school, at home, a positive event happening to someone they were close to, or any other type of positive experience). Both before and after that 3-week period, the participants completed questionnaires that measured their levels of attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety.
The results showed that the more positive experiences participants had with their partners over the 3 weeks, the more their attachment avoidance declined. They became more comfortable depending on and trusting their partners if they had positive experiences with their partner over those few weeks.
Other types of positive events they experienced were not related to any changes in avoidance—only positive experiences involving their partner seem to lead to this increased security. This change in attachment avoidance was largely explained by the fact that people who had positive experiences with their partners ended up in a better mood each day. However, these positive experiences were not related to any changes in participants' levels of attachment anxiety. That is, positive experiences didn't reduce their fears of being abandoned by their partners.
Discussion of a Happy Memory
The daily studies showed that positive relationship experiences seem to help reduce attachment avoidance, but given that participants merely counted up how many of those experiences they had each day, it's hard to say what really happened during that 3-week period. What kind of interactions did the couples have? To get a better sense of how the actual interactions between partners might work to reduce attachment insecurity, the researchers asked 177 couples who had been dating for 1 to 6 months to come to the laboratory to discuss a positive relationship memory. Once again, the researchers measured their attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance a week before the discussion and a month later.
To start the discussion, the couples were asked to think of a happy memory, such as a romantic moment, a shared new experience, a good day they spent together, or their first date. The couples discussed this memory for 10 minutes, while researchers recorded the discussion. The researchers then watched the recordings to code the couples' behavior for positive feelings (e.g., "disclosed positive thoughts and feelings about the event," "expressed happiness or gratitude about shared positive experiences."), and affirming the partner's identity (e.g., "expressed that they valued things that the partner valued," "complimented or affirmed the partner’s positive qualities").
The more that participants expressed these positive feelings during the discussion, the more their attachment avoidance decreased over the course of the month. Not only did participants' own positive behaviors predict declines in attachment avoidance, but so did the extent to which their partners exhibited those positive behaviors. Note, this doesn't mean that that single conversation itself was responsible for the decline in attachment avoidance; most likely the lab conversations were indicative of the kind of interactions these couples had on a regular basis over that month which had a cumulative effect on their attachment security. Like the daily events study, the researchers did not find that positive behaviors predicted any declines in attachment anxiety.
While early researchers studying romantic relationship attachment presented it as relatively fixed, newer research shows that positive relationship experiences can change our attachment. Even over a short period of time, positive experiences with new partners can increase people's comfort with intimacy and their ability to trust and depend on a romantic partner.