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Attachment and Breakups: The Whole Matters More Than the Parts

Thinking about the recent meta-analysis on breakups in dating couples, one of the interesting findings of that study was that someone’s attachment “style” (whether someone is secure or insecure) doesn’t predict whether that person’s relationship will last or end. It would seem that people who are secure would have longer lasting relationships, and insecure people would be more vulnerable to breakups. But the picture is a little bit more complicated (and interesting) than that.

It’s true that an individual’s attachment style, when considered alone, does not strongly predict break-up. However, pairs of people with opposing or incompatible attachment styles are more likely to break up than couples with compatible attachment styles.1 In other words, likelihood of breakups depends on the interplay between two partners’ attachment styles, not on any one individuals’.

Couples with two secure partners have the most stable relationships.1 Assuming that everything else with the relationship (high commitment, love, closeness, network support, etc.) is right, these couples will live happily ever after, even if they endure significant life stress.2 Secure people understand relationships better; they know what ingredients go into a well-functioning relationship and are adept at providing and receiving interpersonal support. For example, when a secure person is upset, he/she feels comfortable turning to his/her partner for emotional comfort and accepts that they are each dependent on each other for assistance as problems arise. No one is immune to stresses and strains in life, but secure partners provide a buffer to deal with bumps in the road, by communicating more constructively and helping each other maintain emotional stability.

Couples with one secure partner and one insecure partner (i.e., anxious or avoidant people) are most vulnerable to breakups and divorce. Secure people can detect when a relationship isn’t working properly, and sense when their partners’ insecure personality is causing difficulties (e.g., when their partner gets upset often because of trivial things, or resists emotional intimacy). Once they realize this, they often exit the relationship, and try to find a more secure person to pair up with.3

What about pairs of insecure individuals? Surprisingly, they are not as vulnerable to breakups as one might think. Pairs of avoidant men and anxious women are likely to stay intact for long periods of time, despite the fact that these insecure folks experience greater amounts of relationship dissatisfaction and conflict, and feel less trust in their partners.

So why would pairs of insecure people stay together so long? Part of the answer is because insecure people lack an understanding of what distinguishes good and bad relationships, and they actually don’t realize that anything is wrong with theirs or their partners’ behaviors.2,4 They might stay together for years simply because they don’t know any better (the way secure people do).

Another answer lies in gender roles. In general, men are more likely to report being avoidant, whereas women are more likely to think of themselves as anxious.5 This is likely due to gender-role socialization, with men conditioned to be more emotionally self-reliant and women conditioned to be more focused on emotional closeness and intimacy. Because of this difference, avoidant men and anxious women frequently pair up in relationships; it’s far less common to find two avoidant people or two preoccupied people together.1 Avoidant men and anxious women are demonstrating stereotypical gender roles, with men acting more emotionally distant and women acting more clingy and dependent.

Insecure people seek out partners that confirm their expectations for how relationships work, even if those expectations are misguided or based on gender stereotypes, and they feed off each other’s negativity. They believe that their insecure partners are exhibiting behavior that is to be expected in any normal relationship, even if it is dysfunctional. So, the sad truth is that when insecure people suffer in their relationships, they also may also assume (erroneously) that their distress is inevitable, and stay together over the long-term.

For more on this topic, see this post on Attachment Theory.

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

1Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Davis, K. E. (1994). Attachment style, gender, and relationship stability: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(3), 502-512.

2Treboux, D., Crowell, J. A., & Waters, E. (2004). When 'New' Meets 'Old': Configurations of Adult Attachment Representations and Their Implications for Marital Functioning. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 295-314.

3Collins, N. L., & Read, S. J. (1990). Adult attachment, working models, and relationship quality in dating couples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(4), 644-663.

4Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY US: Guilford Press.

5Levy, K. N., & Kelly, K. M. (2010). Sex differences in jealousy: A contribution from attachment theory. Psychological Science, 21(2), 168-173.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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Reader Comments (3)

What about growth and destiny beliefs? How do they come in play here?

October 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDR

I can't speak to how growth and destiny beliefs relate to attachment, but in terms of breakup, we assessed the role of growth and destiny in the study I wrote about in this post: http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2011/8/29/should-i-stay-or-should-i-go-five-predictors-and-five-not-so.html

Although I didn’t discuss the results for growth/destiny in the post, in our data set we found that destiny had a relatively small association with breakup (higher destiny beliefs = slightly more breakup), but growth beliefs didn’t correlate with breakup. You can see our original research paper here: http://bit.ly/SG5gkY

See more about growth and destiny beliefs here:

October 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterDr. Benjamin Le

So how do we become secure? Like you wrote, he's avoidant and I am anxious. We used to be OK, but I destroyed his trust with a single act almost like 6 years ago . Since cooking Clea 4 years afloat about it, life has gotten later and we've regressed, in a serious way. I just want us to go back to how we were but everything I've true d has made it worae

February 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBecca
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