Fortifying Romantic Relationships by Healing from the Past

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Past relationships with caregivers can influence a person’s future relationships. When children have needs met through the consistent accessibility and responsiveness of a caregiver, a secure attachment is often created between the child and the parent figure. Secure attachment is linked with better relationships in the present and the future.1, 2, 5, 8, 9 Secure individuals tend to be more trusting and able to be vulnerable in relationships.1, 5, 8

Children who do not have their attachment needs met in consistent ways may form insecure attachments to caregivers.1, 2, 5 These individuals face challenges from their past that can influence future relationship formation as well. 2, 5, 8

Below are some defense mechanisms that may develop because of past experiences with inaccessibility and non-responsiveness. The first set of responses can be called anxious. These people may have seen their caregivers loving others but did not receive steady love from them. They may try to do all they can to earn the love of a romantic partner but never feel fully safe in that love.1, 5, 6, 9 Signs of an anxious attachment style include:

  • Desperate need for closeness
  • Worry their partner will leave or hurt them
  • Struggle to see themselves as loveable
  • Overthink signs
  • Become easily jealous and concerned about the relationship

The second category is often labeled avoidant. Based on the past, individuals often feel they cannot trust or get close to others fearing harm or rejection.7, 11 Common aspects of avoidantly attached people include:

  • Feel they cannot trust or depend on others
  • Distance themselves from others
  • Bury need for closeness and intimacy
  • Independent
  • Withdraw and become defensive
  • Hide problems to protect loved ones
  • Feel they should be able to solve problems on their own and not burden others

These challenges and behaviors may make forming relationships difficult. All is not lost. Certain actions, called partner buffering, are a way to shield and strengthen the relationship. Partner buffering is defined as actions taken by the couple to help the insecure partner feel and be better. Here are some of the actions that can fortify partners and the relationship.

Show Love and Support

The first strategy is the romantic partner showing love and support.6 11 People from an insecure background are often battling thoughts and fears of their partner leaving them or no longer loving them.1, 5, 11 Many of them struggle with doubt that they are loved, valued and can trust others for support.1, 5, 7 To ease these fears, the partner can give words of reassurance, validation, comfort and love.

Individuals who showed love and support often, had partners who had less anxiety.6, 7, 11 As support continues, the insecure individual may connect feelings of security, comfort, love, with his or her partner, even if childhood experiences proved otherwise.6,11 This increases the quality of the relationship and strengthens the bond between them.11

Positive Communication

Another powerful strategy is using positive communication and influence. This tries to make stressful conversations less threatening and more positive. Strategies include: 

  • Decreasing the intensity of the issue
  • Pointing out good things in the relationship
  • Being caring and accepting
  • Being optimistic about the problem
  • Softening harsh or negative reactions with positivity and humor.7, 11

Using these strategies while talking about negative issues brought more success working through problems.3, 11 These methods help both partners see that the conflict is not a threat but a source of growth. The use of these methods is associated with lower negative emotions and better conflict resolution.7, 11 This includes less defensiveness, pulling away, hostility, or anxiety.4, 7 These positive interactions decrease the tension and combat defensive reactions.7

Recognize Partner’s Positive Past Actions and Express Confidence

Validating the partner’s worries and distress while bringing up a tense subject can ease the partner’s possible defensiveness.3, 7, 12 Individuals can also focus on their partner’s past efforts to change and better the relationship.3, 7, 11 Recognizing past acts by the partner shows support and gratitude for the efforts made.3 This reminds insecure individuals that change is possible. In addition, the appreciation of past efforts shows that their partner remembers and values the changes.

Expressing confidence also motivates the individual with insecurities to change, even if their first reaction is to place up defenses.3, 7, 11 This strategy increases cooperation.7, 10 Some insecure partners were even more obliging to their partner’s requests than those without past insecurities when buffering was in place.3, 7, 10 This pattern proves to be true even with big sacrifices.

Remembering positive experiences and voicing confidence in the partner’s abilities helps the insecure partner feel supported and able to accept criticism. The couple is then able to work together better and has more success working through problems or conflicts.

Outcomes of Partner Buffering

Partner buffering can reduce insecurity and help partners feel and be better.3, 11 The actions taken by the partner can be in response to a defense mechanism or can stop negative responses before they start.3, 11 Past insecure attachment may negatively affect an individual and the romantic relationship. However, the following benefits can come to relationships that recognize the past obstacles and have the partners approach the challenge together.

  • Trust, Commitment, and Security. Deeper trust, commitment, and security is associated with those couples who buffer against negative defense mechanisms.3, 7, 10 Without partner buffering, these relationships may struggle with feelings of insecurity, discontent, and a lack of trust.2, 5, 8 However, when buffering is in place, these relationships are linked with a greater sense of trust and security in the relationship.
  • Less Harmful Tendencies. Buffering is linked with more acceptance and less harmful tendencies by the insecure partner.3, 7 Individuals with a past of insecure attachment may withdraw, become jealous, lash out, or push away in response to stressful or threatening situations.3, 7, 11

In relationships with supportive partners, there is an increased desire for closeness during and after emotional distress rather than withdrawal or anxiety.12, 13 When these individuals see the relationship as high quality, they are willing to risk closeness even during stressful situations that trigger defense mechanisms.12 Partner buffering lessens the defenses of the partner and builds security rather than the urge to protect against possible rejection.

  • Strengthens Relationship. These tactics may be able to protect the relationship against the possible defenses of the past and increase the quality of the relationship. Partner buffering motivates and helps the insecure partner to act, think, and feel in ways that are helpful to the relationship rather than harmful.3 As buffering methods are used, the relationship quality increases.3, 7 In fact, when these strategies are used by both individuals in the relationship, couples with an insecure partner can have as strong or stronger relationships as those with past secure attachment.2

Conclusion

As couples draw closer together, even the dark parts of their past, their fears, and the shadows of their experiences can increase their bond rather than threaten their relationship. Regardless of past circumstances, they help each other, support one another, and walk the path together. As they do so, they can shield the relationship from prior negative tendencies which either of them may have developed. The couple lowers the walls and build in that place a sanctuary: a place of love, trust, and light.

Written by Allie Stites, edited by Brittany Passmore and Professors Julie Haupt, Jonathan Sandberg, and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. January 26, 2019.

References

  1. Banerjee, S., & Basu, J. (2014). Personality factors, attachment styles and coping strategies in couples with good and poor marital quality. Psychological Studies, 59(1), 59-67. doi:10.1007/s12646-013-0233-7
  2. Bradford, A. B., Burningham, K. L., Sandberg, J. G., & Johnson, L. N. (2017). The association between the parent-child relationship and symptoms of anxiety and depression: The roles of attachment and perceived spouse attachment behaviors. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43(2), 291-307. doi:10.1111/jmft.12190
  3. Farrell, A. K., Simpson, J. A., Overall, N. C., & Shallcross, S. L. (2016). Buffering the responses of avoidantly attached romantic partners in strain test situations. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(5), 580-591. doi:10.1037/fam0000186; 10.1037/fam0000186.supp (Supplemental)
  4. Girme, Y. U., Overall, N. C., Simpson, J. A., & Fletcher, G. J. (2015). “All or nothing”: Attachment avoidance and the curvilinear effects of partner support. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 450-475. doi:10.1037/a0038866
  5. Knoke, J., Burau, J., & Roehrle, B. (2010). Attachment styles, loneliness, quality, and stability of marital relationships. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 51(5), 310-325. doi:10.1080/10502551003652017
  6. Lemay, E. P. Jr., & Dudley, K. L. (2011). Caution: Fragile! Regulating the interpersonal security of chronically insecure partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 681-702. doi:10.1037/a0021655
  7. Overall, N. C., Simpson, J. A., & Struthers, H. (2013). Buffering attachment-related avoidance: Softening emotional and behavioral defenses during conflict discussions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 854-871. doi:10.1037/a0031798
  8. Rackham, E. L., Larson, J. H., Willoughby, B. J., Sandberg, J. G., & Shafer, K. M. (2017). Do partner attachment behaviors moderate avoidant conflict-resolution styles and relationship self-regulation? American Journal of Family Therapy45(4), 206-219. doi:10.1080/01926187.2017.1338975
  9. Sandberg, J. G., Bradford, A. B., & Brown, A. P. (2017). Differentiating between attachment styles and behaviors and their association with marital quality. Family Process, 56(2), 518-531. doi: 10.1111/famp.12186
  10. Shallcross, S. L., & Simpson, J. A. (2012). Trust and responsiveness in strain-test situations: A dyadic perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1031-1044. doi: 10.1037/a0026829
  11. Simpson, J. A., & Overall, N. C. (2014). Partner buffering of attachment insecurity.Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 54-59. doi:10.1177/0963721413510933
  12. Slotter, E. B., & Luchies, L. B. (2014). Relationship quality promotes the desire for closeness among distressed avoidantly attached individuals. Personal Relationships, 21, 22-34. doi:10.1111/pere.12015
  13. Winterheld, H. A. (2017). Hiding feelings for whose sake? Attachment avoidance, relationship connectedness, and protective buffering intentions.Emotion, 17(6), 965-980. doi:10.1037/emo0000291