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Thursday
Jul172014

Have To or Want To?: Deciphering Your Partner’s Motivations for Helping You

Think about the last time your friend or romantic partner did something nice for you. Now think about that other person’s motivations: Do you think s/he did it for you out of care for you or out of obligation? We asked people this question in two studies; across both studies, people who were more avoidantly attached—that is, people who were more uncomfortable depending on and opening up to others—were more likely to think that their friends or romantic partners did things for them because they felt like they had to, not because they wanted to.1 These perceptions may help avoidant people keep their partners at arm’s length and protect avoidant people from depending on or opening up to their partners. After all, if someone does something for you because they feel like they have to—not because they truly want to—you might assume they don’t really care about you anyway, so why should you depend on them in the future?

In the first study, 100 soon-to-be married couples responded to a questionnaire that measured their attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety.Several months later, the couples responded to a new set of questionnaires over the course of five days; at the end of each day, participants listed everything they had done for their partners that day, as well as everything their partners had done for them. Participants also rated their own and their partners’ motivations for each thing they gave or received. For example, if Sally said that Harry gave her a massage, she’d indicate whether she thought Harry gave her that massage because he truly wanted to or because he felt like he had to. Similarly, if Harry said that he gave Sally a massage, he’d indicate whether he gave her that massage because he truly wanted to or because he felt like he had to. We found that the more people were avoidant, the more likely they were to think that their partners did something for them because they felt like they had to, not because they truly wanted to. These perceptions may help avoidant people justify why they’re reluctant to depend on others.

One limitation of our first study was that we simply measured people’s levels of avoidance, which makes it hard to determine cause-and-effect relationships. For example, we proposed that avoidant spouses were more likely to believe that their partners did things for them out of a sense of obligation, but maybe partners who felt obligated to do things for their spouses actually caused their spouses to become avoidant over time, or maybe some other factor—like spouses’ levels of neuroticism—caused them to feel avoidant, as well as to believe that their partners did things for them out of obligation. In our second study, we tried to rule out these other explanations by increasing people’s feelings of avoidance experimentally. Thirty participants listed three specific things that friends recently had done for them. A few days later, we temporarily triggered feelings of avoidance by asking participants to write about a person they were uncomfortable being close to, and to describe a time when they did not trust that person and did not allow themselves to depend on that person. Participants also rated whether their friends had done each thing for them because they wanted to or because they felt like they had to. To see how feeling avoidantly attached would influence these ratings, half of participants completed the ratings after writing about a time when they felt avoidantly attached and half of participants completed the ratings before writing about a time when they felt avoidantly attached. As expected, people who were reminded about a time when they felt avoidant before rating their friends’ motivations believed their friends had done things for them more because they felt like they had to and less because they truly wanted to.

Taken together, these studies suggest that avoidant people may be more likely to believe that their friends and romantic partners do things for them out of feelings of obligation instead of care. These perceptions may help avoidant people protect themselves from opening up to or depending on others in the short-term, but it’s also possible that these perceptions may help people maintain their avoidant attachment styles in the long-term.

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1Beck, L. A., & Clark, M. S. (2010). Looking a gift horse in the mouth as a defense against increasing intimacy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 676-679.

Dr. Lindsey Beck - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Beck’s research examines how people initiate and develop close relationships, including why some people—but not others—choose to avoid situations that would help them form relationships, how partners ask for and offer support as they develop relationships, and how couples respond to stressful situations in newly-formed relationships.

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