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The coronavirus crisis has put a strain on many relationships and marriages. Almost one out of every three couples already reported serious relationship issues before the crisis. Attachment insecurity is a threat to relationships. However, the negative impact of this may be lessened if partners show similar traits in this respect and demonstrate similar levels of clinging or avoidance behaviour. This is the outcome of research conducted by UvA clinical psychologist Henk Jan Conradi and his colleagues. The team studied a representative sample of more than 1,000 Dutch couples.

A satisfying relationship benefits one’s emotional and physical well-being. For example, a good relationship may act as a buffer to stress. Vice versa, dissatisfying relationships may cause or amplify stress. ‘The quality of a relationship is largely determined by how the partners deal with their emotions and the extent to which they feel their needs are met, such as feeling loved and supported by their partner in times of stress,’ Conradi says. Attachment plays an important role in this process. ‘Securely attached people are confident that their partner will be there for them and offer support when asked. When they experience stress, they seek to get closer to their partner and ask for validation and help. This is beneficial to the relationship.'

Demands, recriminations and avoidance

On the other hand, people who have experiences of being rejected  when seeking proximity to their partner may develop fear of rejection. To combat this fear, anxiously attached people tend to cling to their partners and demand support and validation from them. If they do not receive this support and validation, they may become angry and resentful. As Conradi explains, this puts the relationship under pressure. By contrast, some people are avoidantly attached. These people assume that their partner will not support them and therefore choose to keep their distance. ‘They would rather not ask for support, nor do they usually offer it. Such people prefer to solve their problems on their own, in spite of the negative impact this has on the relationship with their partner.’

Less unstable than expected

According to Conradi, ‘Our research confirms the outcomes of earlier studies, which showed that attachment insecurity is bad for a relationship. Attachment anxiety and especially attachment avoidance are linked to greater dissatisfaction with the relationship and increased relationship instability. But what if the partners are similar? Are they better off, for instance because they have a better understanding of each other? ‘The relationship between two similarly anxiously  or avoidantly attached partners is less unstable than you might think at first,’ Conradi says. ‘If both partners are equally likely to get closer to or act independently of the other, this may lessen the negative impact of attachment insecurity. As a result, the couple is less likely to break up. Possibly partners recognise each other’s way of dealing with emotions and therefore have more understanding for each other, to the benefit of their relationship.’

For couple therapists, Conradi argues that the outcomes mean that the primary objective should be to increase the security of the attachment between the partners. At the same time, it suggests that there is not necessarily an issue if partners experience similar levels of mild residual  anxious or avoidant attachment problems.

Publication details

H.J. Conradi, A. Noordhof and J.H. Kamphuis: ‘Satisfying and stable couple relationships: Attachment similarity across partners can partially buffer the negative effects of attachment insecurity’, in: Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (25 January 2021). DOI: 10.1111/jmft.12477