Stan Tatkin Psy.D.

The Puzzle of Love

How Securely Do You Stand in Your Relationship?

Surprising research that will convince you never to argue in the car.

Posted Aug 05, 2015

Stuart Miles/GL Stock Images
Source: Stuart Miles/GL Stock Images

From research on attachment theory, we know that having a secure relationship with one’s earliest primary caregiver puts one on the course for secure relationships moving forward in life (Gleeson & Fitzgerald, 2014; Hazan & Shaver, 1987). A secure-functioning person is like someone who stands on bedrock. Even in the face of the various challenges life may throw his or her way, someone with a secure foundation will react from a place of security.

But how firm or fragile is our security really? You might be surprised.

A recent study found that subjects who were in a physically unstable position reported that their romantic relationships were at more risk than did subjects who were in stable positions. Amanda Forest from the University of Pittsburgh and her colleagues from the University of Waterloo set up three related studies in which participants either sat at wobbly workstations; stood on one foot; or sat on inflatable cushions while being questioned about their relationships. Results from the three arms of the study all pointed in the same direction: Participants who were physically unstable also reported feeling less satisfaction in their relationship, being less committed, and expressing less affection—all indications that their relationships were not secure-functioning and were instead at risk.

Of course we must take into consideration the obvious limitations of this research: It was a very small study, involving no more than 20 couples, so we can’t draw too many conclusions. Nor do we know how secure the subjects in this study were to begin with—the researchers did not assess their attachment orientation. However, it is unlikely even with such a small sample that everyone in the experimental group was secure functioning and that everyone in the other group was not. In other words, there appears to be some connection between physical instability and one's perception of relationship risk that goes beyond whether a person has a secure attachment foundation.

I would say that the results are thought-provoking. From a psychobiological perspective, it is plausible that subtle physical cues, such as a wobbly chair or unstable cushion, could have a measurable impact on one’s sense of security in a relationship. Another similar phenomenon, called priming, is also known to affect how one feels and is regarded by others: Someone wearing a white physician’s coat might automatically be viewed as having authority, and couples who have been reminded of a security-enhancing experience might feel greater security with each other. As a therapist using psychobiological techniques, I stress the value of taking into account a wide range of nonverbal cues (e.g., posture, gestures, facial expressions) in negotiating relationships, and a stable or unstable position would be one more nonverbal cue to notice.

One thing I take away from this research is: Don’t underestimate the impact of your physical situation. I don’t mean that you should never sit in a wobbly chair; that would be a bit ridiculous. But do become more aware of whether you feel physically and emotionally stable at any given moment. See if you can notice what influences your physical and emotional stability, even in subtle ways. As I just mentioned, when I work with couples, we put a lot of emphasis on paying attention to these kinds of things.

On a practical note, be careful about having important discussions with your partner when your feet (or your partner’s) are not firmly planted on the ground. I often caution against having such conversations while driving or in other situations where you cannot look at each other and read each other’s nonverbal cues. This is especially true when you are trying to address a conflict. Similarly, it is advisable to be mindful of your physical stability. There is no point in making an uncertain situation even more uncertain.

As you work to build a secure-functioning relationship, be sure to keep each other off unstable ground. You want to learn to protect and care for each other by taking rocks out of your path, not by introducing rocks that you might stumble over.

References

  • Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 230–244.
  • Forest, A. L., Kille, D. R., Wood, J. V., & Stehouwer, L. R. (2015). Turbulent times, rocky relationships: relational consequences of experiencing physical instability. Psychological Science OnlineFirst. doi:10.1177/0956797615586402
  • Gleeson, G., & Fitzgerald, A. (2014) Exploring the association between adult attachment styles in romantic relationships, perceptions of parents from childhood and relationship satisfaction. Health, 6, 1643-1661. doi:10.4236/health.2014.613196
  • Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511–524. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.3.511
  • Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner's brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is the author of Wired for Love 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.