When considering the three major attachment classifications—secure, anxious, and avoidant—most research demonstrates that people who are highly secure have positive relationship outcomes. People who are very secure have a “working model” in their mind of relationships as fundamentally good and that relationships can meet basic needs for support in times of distress.
Armed with this information, what is the insecure person to do? Are attachment anxiety and avoidance one-way tickets to a lifetime of misery in relationships? Let me be as clear as I can be in my answer to this question: No.
In this week’s column, I’ll discuss the idea of earned security, the process through which people can overcome a difficult history in relationships to become more secure in their adult relationships. Earned security is possible, and if you are someone who feels insecure in relationships (or that relationships are much more effort than they’re worth), earned security is possible for you… starting today.
One misconception I want to address right away is that “becoming more secure” will be as easy as simply deciding to do so. We might get ideas like this from Hollywood. For instance, I recently watched the movie "No Strings Attached" starring Natalie Portman (Emma) and Ashton Kutcher (Adam). Emma is quintessentially avoidant, whereas Adam is happy-go-lucky secure, and all he wants is for Emma to see the beauty and possibilities of a relationship together.
At the risk of spoiling the movie for you, Emma fights and fights the idea of a relationship with Adam, until she finally succumbs to, in essence, his security. Once this happens, it seems she mysteriously gains access to her own feelings of security and, from there, the relationship can flourish.
I wish this was the case!
On one hand, the idea you can change your relationship behaviors by simply deciding to do so is patently false. On the other hand, movement in the direction of security begins the decision to change, then hinges on the willingness to practice this changed behavior over-and-over again, just like we do when we start an exercise regimen, learn a new language, or try to be healthier in our food choices.
To me, the phase “fake it until you make it” always sounds more pejorative than it should; indeed, this is what we need to do to start changing our relationship behaviors. We start by acting more secure until this becomes part of who we are. Stated more scientifically, we change our “working models” of relationships by changing our behavior in relationships.
How do these changes actually occur? There are now quite a few studies on earned security and changes in attachment classification, but I want first to focus on a study demonstrating that who you choose as a partner matters for the quality of your relationship. This study, led by Deborah Cohn, examined positive and conflicted couple interaction patterns in the laboratory as a function of each person’s attachment classification. The major finding was that having a secure partner was correlated with less conflict and better marital functioning. In the insecure-insecure relationships (where neither partner was secure), there was less positivity, more conflict, and, in general, these couples were rated as more poorly adjusted.
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