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Are Americans Becoming Less Secure?

We’ve written extensively about attachment styles1 in romantic relationships (for example, read here and here for more on this topic). In a nutshell, people who are anxious tend to intensely desire connections with other people and are worried that their partners will abandon them whereas those who are avoidant tend to be wary of closeness to others and often feel that their partners want to be closer to them than they would like. Anxiety and avoidance are forms of insecure attachment, and those who do not have these characteristics have a secure attachment

Research on attachment styles in romantic relationships began in the late 1980s; more than 25 years of research on the topic has shown the importance of attachment for many aspects of relationship functioning. And now with two decades of data on attachment researchers can ask, and answer, interesting questions about whether adult attachment styles have changed at the population-level over time. In other words, have American young adults become more or less secure since the late-1980s?

In a recent meta-analysis (read more about meta-analysis here), researchers combined data from 94 different samples, involving more than 25,000 American undergraduate students, collected between 1988 and 2011. In 1988, 49% of people said they had a secure attachment style (51% were insecure in one form or another). By 2011 there was a 7% decline in security, with 42% reporting that they were secure (vs. 58% insecure).

While this research shows a downward trend in attachment security, it doesn’t indicate why security may be declining. The authors speculate that changes in parenting styles (since attachment is thought to arise from interactions with parents), media content and consumption, or economic uncertainty may be related to this change; however, these explanations are still speculative since they have not been empirically tested.

What do you think? Have American young adults become less secure in their romantic relationships over the last two decades? If so, why?

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1Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. (1987) Romantic Love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

2Konrath, S. H., Chopik, W. J., Hsing, C. K., & O'Brien, E. (2014). Changes in adult attachment styles in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18, 326-348.

Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships. 

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