Dear Researcher,

I’ve been seeing some articles here and there saying that attachment style can change over time. If that’s true, what can anxiously or avoidantly attached people do to become more securely attached?

A curious worrier,

Jane

 

Hi Jane,

The flexibility of attachment style in the psychological community is still being debated, but there is longitudinal evidence that adult attachment style can fluctuate over the course of a few years (Davila, Burge & Hammen, 1997; Zhang & Labouvie-Vief, 2004). There have been various hypotheses proposed and partially supported about what is related to these changes, such as stable vulnerability factors (Davila et al., 1997), coping mechanisms (Zhang & Labouvie-Vief, 2004), and the influence of romantic relationship partners (Arriaga, Kumashiro, Finkel, VanderDrift & Luchies, 2014).

Davila et al. (1997) found that certain women were more prone to attachment fluctuation than others. Specifically, they ascertained that stable vulnerability factors (such as personal or familial dysfunction) could influence how likely these women were to experience a change in attachment style over the course of six months or two years (Davila et al., 1997). Additionally, women who were susceptible to attachment change tended to have personal or familial histories of psychopathology and come from nonintact families (Davila et al., 1997). Of their participants, only 72% reported the same attachment style six months later and this number dropped to 66% after two years (Davila et al., 1997).

Zhang & Labouvie-Vief (2004) similarly discovered that coping mechanisms and age were correlated with fluctuations in attachment style over the course of six years. Individuals with maladaptive coping mechanisms (such as rumination and social withdrawal) often reported feeling less secure alongside feelings of depression (Zhang & Labouvie-Vief, 2004). Zhang and Labouvie-Vief (2004) also found that participants’ coping styles varied at each assessment, which would affect their attachment security at the time. Furthermore, there was evidence that as participants grew older, they had a tendency to become more secure, more dismissing, and less preoccupied.

Finally, in the context of romantic relationships, there is evidence that perceived goal validation and developing trust can move anxious or avoidant individuals closer to having a secure attachment toward their partners (Arriaga et al., 2014). Over a longitudinal study, Arriaga et al. (2014) found that perceived goal validation can help an anxiously attached person regulate their insecurity by being encouraged to pursue personal goals, which could bolster their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Avoidant individuals could similarly become more security attached through the development of trust, which could make them more comfortable with depending on their romantic partner (Arriaga et al., 2014).

Long story short, yes, attachment style can be changed, although to varying degrees (Davila et al., 1997; Zhang & Labouvie-Vief, 2004). Most of the research focusing on changes in adult attachment style is correlational, meaning that their results can only show us what behaviors or what mechanisms are associated with attachment fluctuation but not what causes or explains it.

In regards to becoming more securely attached, Zhang and Labouvie-Vief’s (2004) research suggests that changing our coping mechanisms from maladaptive to constructive can be a good first step. If we can change the way we perceive the world and approach difficult events, we may be able to alter the amount of attachment security we feel toward the people around us. Additionally, Arriaga et al.’s (2014) study gives us some evidence that making a clear effort in our romantic relationships to either be more supportive of our partners’ pursuit of personal goals or taking time to develop trust can help them develop more attachment security.

I hope this helps!

Ada

 

References:

Arriaga, X., Kumashiro, M., Finkel, E. J., VanderDrift, L. E., & Luchies, L. B. (2014). Filling the void: Bolstering attachment security in committed relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 398. doi:10.1177/1948550613509287

Davila, J., Burge, D., & Hammen, C. (1997). Why does attachment style change? Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 73(4), 826-838.

Zhang, F., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2004). Stability and fluctuation in adult attachment style over a 6-year period. Attachment & Human Development, 6(4), 419-437. doi:10.1080/1461673042000303127

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