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Have We Become Less Capable of Forming Relationships?

New research finds troubling trends in the way we connect to others.


Two recent studies point to a difficult predicament in modern American life: We need relationships to be happy, but we see others in a less positive light than we used to.

On the one hand, meaningful relationships can help us thrive. This is the finding of a study by psychologists Brooke Feeney and Nancy Collins, and it's consistent with work firmly establishing that individuals with supportive, rewarding relationships report higher levels of well-being.

On the other hand, however, new research has also found that we are increasingly more dismissive of others, and taking a more avoidant stance in relationships.

So are we less invested in relationships than we used to be? Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan and her colleagues investigated whether the social landscape has shifted among university students over a 20-plus year time span. Technically speaking, they wanted to see if “attachment styles” among this population has changed significantly. The attachment paradigm offers a framework to understand relationships, and to explain differences in how people connect with others.

Attachment grows out of the relationship between infants and their caregiver, with particular respect to responsiveness and availability. Early attachment lays the foundation for how we perceive ourselves and others as we grow into adults. Generally speaking, individuals who experience loving and consistent early caregiving develop secure attachment, while those who receive harsh and/or inconsistent treatment from their early caregivers develop insecure attachment. Subsequent research has demonstrated that attachment to caregivers in early childhood parallels the dynamics in adult romantic relationships, and also influences relationships with friends and coworkers. In addition, attachment styles are relatively stable over time, but vulnerable to environmental influences such as negative life events.

There are four attachment styles that are organized along positive views of self and other:

  1. Securely attached individuals have a positive view of self and a positive view of others. They possess both healthy self-esteem and self-worth, and value their relationships with others, as they feel comfortable with intimacy.
  2. Dismissing individuals have a positive view of self and a negative view of others. They are independent, self-confident, and have high self-esteem; at the same time, they don't much care what others think and devalue the importance of relationships. Moreover, their romantic relationships are comparatively less satisfying.
  3. Preoccupied individuals have a negative view of self and a positive view of others. They lack self-confidence and are highly sensitive, often making frantic efforts to win over others' acceptance and validation. If their overtures are not responded to, they become easily unraveled.
  4. Fearful individuals have a negative view of self and a negative view of others. They also lack self-confidence and are extremely sensitive. And though they are highly dependent on others' acceptance and approval, they avoid relying on others for fear of rejection.

Together, the dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful styles comprise insecure attachment.

In order to pursue the question of whether adult attachment status has changed significantly among American college student over time, Konrath and her team conducted a meta-analysis of responses to a measure of attachment styles among this group from the late 1980s through 2011. The authors note that the college population hasn't changed considerably on key demographic variables, including socioeconomic status and racial composition. In the final tally, the study included 94 samples consisting of 25,243 individuals over this 20-plus year time period.

The results were striking:

  • The percentage of students with Secure attachment styles has decreased in recent years, from 48.98% in 1988 to 41.62% in 2011.
  • By contrast, the percentage of students with Insecure attachment styles (Dismissing, Preoccupied, Fearful combined) has increased over the same time period, from 51.02% in 1988 vs. 58.38% in 2011.
  • Of particular curiosity, the percentage of students with Dismissing attachment styles has also risen significantly over time, from 11.93% in 1988 vs. 18.62% in 2011, even after controlling for age, gender, and race.
  • Positive views of others diminished across this same time span.

What might account for the significant rise in Dismissing attachment? The authors offer several speculations, based on complementary research:

First, they argue that children may be receiving less investment from their caregivers due to increases in divorce and the participation of women in the labor force. Similarly, extended families are less integrated in households than they used to be. The researchers also note that single-family homes tend to have less parental supervision and control, an environmental tenor that may foster Dismissing attachment.

Konrath and her colleagues also point to media usage, citing that exposure among children increased from nearly 7.5 hours per day in the 1990s to 11 hours on average by the 2000s. There is also research suggesting that we are becoming more disconnected in this age of super-connectivity, as people invest more in their online “selves” than actual offline relationships. Along similar lines, Americans are spending less time with their families and communities, and thus have less by the way of social support than previously. The lack of quality social support is believed to an important determining factor in Dismissing attachment.

The authors also speculate that the poor economy and military conflicts may have uniquely contributed to the rise of Dismissing attachment styles: Nearly 90% of college seniors in the early 1990s were employed within a year of graduation, a rate which had plummeted to roughly 70% by 2011. They assert that an increase in Dismissing attachment styles may reflect a coping strategy against these challenging conditions.

Konrath and her colleagues conclude their report by acknowledging the troublesome nature of these findings. But, they add, it offers an opportunity to better understand the nature of social connections, and to better foster them in today's world. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote, “Man is a knot into which relationships are tied.” In other words, let's not forget that relationships are the stuff of life.

Dr. Mehta is the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse.