Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 09, 2018

The Ebbs and Flows of Attachment Insecurity

Image of people riding a rollercoaster as it twists sideways and upside down

Consider the following relationship scenario: Jamie and Sam are in a committed and loving relationship. Jamie has always thought of Sam as a supportive, loving, and dependable partner. Recently, however, Jamie has been experiencing doubts about their relationship – there are times that Jamie feels secure in their relationship, but there are other times that Jamie questions where she can truly rely on Sam and feels insecure in their relationship. This relationship scenario is not uncommon. Relationships often feel turbulent and tumultuous.

What consequences might relationship ‘ups and downs’ have for peoples’ relationship satisfaction? Are some individuals more susceptible to the potential impact of relationship fluctuations? A study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored these questions by examining the prevalence and consequences of peoples’ fluctuations in their attachment security towards their current intimate partner.

Attachment Security: Developmental History and Future Expectations

Attachment security is one of the most well-studied individual differences in relationship research. According to attachment theory, peoples’ early life experiences with caregivers provides the foundation of how people expect to be treated in their close relationships. People high in attachment anxiety have had caregivers who have provided them with inconsistent care, and so worry about whether their loved ones truly care about them. People high in attachment avoidance have experienced constant rejection from caregivers, and so distance themselves from others in order to avoid being hurt again. People who are low in attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance are considered ‘secure’. Secure individuals have had consistent and responsive caregiving and feel comfortable and safe in close relationships.

So how do these attachment histories impact peoples’ expectations about the future of their current intimate relationships? Unsurprisingly, Girme and colleagues found that secure people (who were low in attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance) expected their current relationships to be more stable and consistent in the future (Study 1). But if secure individuals expect their relationships to be stable, what happens when secure people experience inconsistencies (or fluctuations) in their feelings of relationship security (like with Jamie’s feelings about her partner Sam)?

Prevalence and Consequences of Within-Person Fluctuations in Attachment Security

In order to assess how common fluctuations in attachment security really are, and the impact that greater fluctuations have on relationships, Girme and colleagues asked people to report on their attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance towards their current relationship partner multi-times across a year (Study 2) or two years (Study 3). Although the longstanding view in the attachment literature has been that peoples’ attachment insecurities remain relatively stable over time, Girme and colleagues found that most people tend to experience quite dramatic and significant fluctuations in their attachment security towards their intimate partner over time.

When secure people experienced greater fluctuations in their attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance, their relationship satisfaction declined over time. The authors argue that the ups and downs in attachment security violate secure individuals’ expectations of having a stable relationship, which undermines their relationship wellbeing.

Interestingly, although insecure people (who were high in attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance) were more unsatisfied in their relationships, experiencing greater fluctuations in attachment security did not have a strong impact on insecure peoples’ relationship satisfaction. This is likely because insecure people expect relationships to be turbulent and inconsistent, and so are less fazed when confronted with ups and downs in their relationships.

Attachment Security: A Dynamic and Flexible System

Contradictory to long-standing views, attachment security is not as stable as we once thought. People’s relationship-specific attachment security is dynamic and flexible. Although secure people may be more susceptible to greater fluctuations in their felt security, it appears the ups and downs in attachment security is an adaptive process – they reflect important changes in peoples’ relationship environment. Understanding how peoples’ expectations help brace them for the inevitable ups and downs in relationships may shed light on how couples, like Jamie and Sam, can grow together and build even stronger relationships through the ebbs and flows of attachment-related experiences.

Written by: Yuthika U. Girme, Assistant Professor, Simon Fraser University.

Yuthika Girme is an Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University. Her primary research goals involve identifying the ways people can effectively provide support and generate closeness in their romantic relationships. Her research focuses on how contextual factors and partners’ relationship insecurities can help explain when providing support can be beneficial or costly.

Journal Article: Girme, Y. U., Agnew, C.R., VanderDrift, L. E., Harvey, S. M.,  Rholes, W. S., & Simpson, J. A. (2018). The Ebbs and Flows of Attachment: Within-Person Variation in Attachment Undermine Relationship Wellbeing across Time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114, 397-421.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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