Quick—think of someone you know who’s in a relationship (or has been in the past). This person can be a friend, a family member, your own past or current relationship partner, or even yourself. Which one of these statements best describes something that the person you thought of might say?
A) I feel comfortable depending on romantic partners.
B) My desire to be very close sometimes scares people away.
C) I don’t feel comfortable opening up to romantic partners.
These descriptions* have formed the basis of research on adult romantic attachment for some time.1 Attachment is a topic we’ve covered extensively here at ScienceOfRelationships. Whether you realize it or not, attachment is evident virtually everywhere (even in popular fiction!), having been linked to all sorts of outcomes in relationships. Briefly, researchers think of adult attachment as a tendency to approach relationships in a particular way, primarily based on experiences with childhood caregivers.2 Usually, researchers view attachment in terms of the degree and kind of insecurity (avoidance or anxiety) a person might have (see our earlier work for a full review of how attachment styles play out in relationships).
Studies often show that both patterns of insecure attachment (i.e., avoidance and anxiety) are linked with poor relationship outcomes. Studies also commonly show that relationship satisfaction generally declines over time.3 However, relatively few studies have explicitly examined whether insecure attachment styles might speed up the typical decline in relationship satisfaction observed as relationships grow older. In a recent meta-analysis (i.e., a study that statistically combines similar results from numerous other studies), researchers examined evidence of the effects of attachment on long-term relationships across 31 published studies.4 The researchers wanted to know whether having an insecure attachment style might exert additional influence on the typical decline in relationship satisfaction over time, by making that decline even steeper as time goes on.
Across the wide range of studies examined, researchers found that the longer a relationship lasts, the more strongly a person’s insecure attachment (especially avoidant attachment) predicts dissatisfaction. In most cases examined, the negative association between insecure attachment and satisfaction was weakest in “younger” relationships (e.g., 6 months) and strongest in “older” relationships (e.g., 8 years).
Although plenty of evidence suggests that insecure attachment can make sustaining relationships challenging, these findings tell us specifically about how insecure attachment might affect those relationships that endure. It seems that insecure attachment may be more than just toxic to relationship functioning – it could be somewhat corrosive, having long-term, downstream effects on relationships that continue to get worse as the years go on.
The findings raise interesting questions about “insecure” relationships that last. For example:
- Why is it that some relationships last, despite one partner (or both) being insecurely attached?
- What does it say about someone when he/she willfully persists in a romantic relationship with a person who is avoidantly or anxiously attached?
- Is there something special about certain combinations of dispositional traits and life circumstances that enable (or coerce) people to remain in what we presume to be challenging relationships with people whose attachment styles might make the relationship harder to maintain?
Perhaps such enduring relationships are special in that both partners have made lots of investments into the relationship (e.g., many shared belongings, lots of mutual friends, shared goals, having already “put time in” over the years)? These kinds of investments make it more difficult to break things off, even in abusive relationships.5,6 Alternatively (and perhaps more upliftingly), those who remain in longer relationships with insecurely attached partners may have more faith in their partners’ potential to improve over time (that is, they have strong “growth” beliefs7), which might allow them to persevere in the relationship and make an effort to help their partners learn to enjoy higher quality relationship experiences.
One thing that we do know is that the effects of partners’ attachment styles on relationship quality are often fairly complicated. Answers to questions such as those above may go a long way toward helping people sort out the complexities of building lasting, loving relationships.
*These statements are characteristic of a) secure, b) anxious, and c) avoidant attachment styles, respectively.1
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1Fraley, R. C., Waller, N. G., & Brennan, K. A. (2000). An item-response theory analysis of self-report measures of adult attachment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 350-365.
2Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511.
3Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (1995). The longitudinal course of marital quality and stability: A review of theory, methods, and research. Psychological Bulletin, 118(1), 3-34
4Hadden, B. W., Smith, C. V., & Webster, G. D. (2014). Relationship duration moderates associations between attachment and relationship quality: Meta-analytic support for the Temporal Adult Romantic Attachment model.Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(1), 42-58.
5Rusbult, C. E. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(1), 101.
6Rusbult, C. E., & Martz, J. M. (1995). Remaining in an abusive relationship: An investment model analysis of nonvoluntary dependence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(6), 558-571.
7Knee, C. R., Patrick, H., Vietor, N. A., & Neighbors, C. (2004). Implicit theories of relationships: Moderators of the link between conflict and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(5), 617-628.
Fred Clavél, M.A. – Science of Relationships articles
Fred is interested in social support dynamics in romantic couples, the effects of context on relationships, relationships and health & well-being, and issues of the self in relationships. He draws primarily on theories of social exchange, attachment, motivation, and social cognition in his research.