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.
This idea of promoting security within a relationship is at the heart of one of our most successful (by successful I mean scientifically validated) couple therapies: emotion-focused therapy (EFT). EFT for couples was developed primarily by Dr. Sue Johnson and is based on the idea that relationship distress is defined by the existence of unmet attachment needs and the difficulties couples have recognizing and meeting these needs. The EFT couple treatment, then, rests on helping couples become more responsive to each other’s attachment needs and to help each individual in the couple learn to handle their own emotions in a healthier way. When emotional experience is deepened within a relationship, as it happens in EFT, we call this a corrective emotional experience.
For example, when a highly avoidant man tells his wife that he worries about their relationship when she’s out with her friends at bar and the wife accepts this worry—that is, when she validates it and understands it as an expression of his fears—and responds tenderly. In turn, the avoidant husband experiences his emotions in a different way, a much more positive way. The corrective experience, when repeated, can build the foundation of security within a relationship, and this can result in some profound changes.
One last question: What should you do if you are not in a relationship?
Perhaps it’s the case that your anxiety about and in relationships keeps you from getting very far once you meet someone. What can you do now? First, take the YouBeauty.com Close Relationships Quiz to determine if you’re more anxious or avoidant. Second, sit down and try to write out the ways in which you are anxious or avoidant in your relationships. Think in terms of excesses and deficits—what do you do that’s “too much” and “too little”?
For example, I am perhaps a little avoidant in my relationships and my wife tells me I am in my head too much when she’s telling a story about her day at work. In short, my deficit here is that I sometimes fail to attend to my wife’s need for support. That would be an example of too little—I need to do more to attend to her needs. I can also be somewhat self-absorbed; I’ll talk about work without asking her about her day. This is an example of too much—I need to be less self-focused and more other-focused. You can identify these patterns in yourself; it’s not too hard if you try. Third, you can be an observer of your own behavior. Watch and see what you do and when you do it. Under what circumstances do you pull back? When do you get too preoccupied?
Once you notice and have a good sense of when, where, and why you do what you do, you want, finally, to start trying to change your behavior. Every excess/deficit you list above should have a corresponding “adaptive” response.
For example, the statement, “I pull away when people start talking about difficult experiences, especially early in relationships” could have the response, “Try to stay present with the person’s emotional experience and offer at least two supportive statements or gestures…make sure the interaction ends with touch of some kind—a pat on the should, a hug, a kiss.”
I believe that most of us know what the adaptive response would be to most of our problem-maintaining behaviors, but if you have no earthly idea of how to proceed or want a little coaching, finding a good therapist can be very helpful. Once you have your list of more adaptive responses, practice, practice, practice. Notice where and when you succeed and where and when it’s hard to change. This is how you will begin on the road to earned security.
I’ve covered a lot of ground in this column and I’d love to hear your thoughts. How have you earned security? What was easy? What was hard? Where are the stumbling blocks? I am aware of the fact that changing behavior is much easier said than done, but that does not mean it’s useless to try. If you’ve had difficult relationship history and want to try changing how you respond within relationships, you can make big changes.
I hope this column helps you feel it’s a risk worth taking. It will be tough, but the payoffs will be great!
Copyright David A. Sbarra, Ph.D., July 20, 2011
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