When people are uncomfortable with developing intimacy and closeness in their relationships, can they work to overcome this?
The tendency to distance yourself from others is characteristic of an “avoidant attachment style,” which research traces back to childhood. When caregivers are available to respond to children’s needs, attachment theory says, children develop a secure attachment style: They trust others and feel comfortable relying on the people they are close to. However, when caregivers fail to meet children’s needs, they can develop insecure attachment: either attachment avoidance or attachment anxiety (the worry that others will fail to be there for them).
Unfortunately for some, attachment style seems to be relatively stable over time. Indeed, research has found that people with secure attachment styles tend to have more stable and long-lasting romantic relationships as adults, whereas people with more avoidant attachment styles tend to experience more negative emotions in social situations and often behave in less constructive ways during conflicts.
However, a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that people can actually start to change their attachment style over time and feel better about their relationships—and it might not be as hard as we think.
In one experiment, 70 heterosexual couples completed surveys about their relationship and then participated in a series of brief activities in the lab. Half of the couples completed activities designed to increase closeness and intimacy: They took turns answering questions about themselves (similar to these 36 questions, which other researchers have found to increase feelings of closeness). They also participated in partner yoga, where they held hands or otherwise connected to create poses. (The other half of the couples discussed more impersonal questions and participated in individual yoga).
After the intimacy-building exercises, participants with more avoidant attachment styles rated their relationships as higher-quality than they had beforehand. Meanwhile, participants with more secure or anxious attachment styles did not report increases in relationship satisfaction, nor did the couples who completed the other activities—suggesting that intimacy-building can uniquely benefit people with avoidant attachment.
The benefits of connecting through shared activities appeared to be long-lasting, as well: According to a survey of participants one month later, more avoidant participants who had done intimacy-building had actually decreased in attachment avoidance.
The researchers found similar benefits for spontaneous interactions that couples had at home. In a different study, 67 heterosexual couples in long-term relationships filled out diaries each night for three weeks about their feelings and their partner’s behaviors towards them. The researchers found that, when participants’ romantic partners acted in positive ways—such as listening to them or making them feel loved—the participants felt more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, and rated their relationship as higher-quality. These links were most pronounced for participants with more avoidant attachment styles, suggesting (again) that they can especially benefit from good experiences in a relationship.
Importantly, the activities that helped people with an avoidant attachment style didn’t require a huge effort or time commitment. The researchers found that even simple things, like taking turns answering thoughtful questions with your partner or trying an activity together, can have benefits. (Another experiment they conducted found that simply reflecting on positive relationship memories could help reduce the elevated negative emotions that avoidantly attached people tend to experience.)
Sarah Stanton, assistant professor at the University of Edinburgh and lead author of the paper, explains that changing your relationship can start with straightforward activities like these. As she tells Greater Good, “It really can just be as simple as talking to your partner and opening up a little bit.”