Psychologists have long been interested in the concept of attachment, which has its origins in childhood experiences, primarily with those who raise us. Being raised in a family where nurturance is combined about equally with structure creates what are called secure parent-child (or caregiver-child) attachments. The secure child, in turn, is likely to grow into an adult who is not afraid to venture into the world, and who is also capable of forming and sustaining intimate friendships and relationships. But what happens if something goes awry in this ideal scenario?
Anxiety and Avoidance in Real-World Relationships
There are two variations of so-called insecure attachment styles that can emerge from developmental years that are characterized by a great deal of rejection, ambivalence, or abuse. These are called anxious and avoidant styles, and they describe how we act in relationships.They are described well in an article published by R. Chris Fraley and colleagues at the University of Illinois (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, Vol 78, No. 2 p. 350-365).
What's Your Style?
To get an idea of how well these two attachment styles describe you (or someone you are close to), respond to the following questions as each of them describes you, as follows:
0 = Not at all
1 = Describes me a little
3 = Describes me a lot
___ I worry that my loved one might end our relationship.
___ I think I love my partner more than he/she loves me.
___ I tend to feel anxious whenever I and my partner are not together.
___ I often feel unlovable.
Add up your score (from 0 to 12) to see how much the anxious attachment style describes you or your loved one.
Next, respond to the following questions using the same 3-point scale:
___ I don't care to share my deeper feelings with others.
___ I hesitate to rely on my partner to do things for me.
___ I am uncomfortable with too much affection from my partner.
___ I value my independence.
Again, add up your scores to see how much the avoidant attachment style describes you or your loved one.
How Anxiety and Avoidance Poison Relationships
As you might imagine, it is likely that individuals who score relatively high on either "anxious attachment" or "avoidant attachment" styles will experience stress and difficulty in close relationships.
Anxiety: These individuals chronically worry about losing their relationship, especially by doing something wrong. They therefore put extra effort into it, can seek a lot of reassurance, and like to maintain a lot of contact. The more anxiously attached people in this group are often described as clingy, and at worst smothering. The fact that they can come on strong initially in a relationship can be appealing, but their insecurity eventually can become a burden on those close to them.
Avoidance: These men and women do form relationships, but depending on just how avoidant they are they also tend to maintain a certain distance. Their partners may describe them as aloof or self-sufficient, meaning that they are inclined to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves and not rely on a partner very much. For the person who has been in a relationship with someone who has an anxious attachment style the avoidant style can seem refreshing at first. Over time, however, the avoidant person's reluctance to be truly intimate can drive a fatal wedge into a relationship.
Anxiety and Avoidance in the Cyber World
We know how attachment styles operate within the realm of real-life relationships. But what about the cyber world? After all, Web-based communication is now an integral part of most people's lives, including establishing and maintaining "friendships" through social media sites such a Facebook. Do we have any idea if the above attachment styles play a role in the world of cyber-relationships? And if so, how? Finally, is it possible that these two attachment styles could interact in any way?
Researchers operating out of two universities in Israel have ventured to begin to answer these questions. Their research is the first of what will hopefully be much to follow, so that those who use social media to connect to others can better understand possible differences in the cyber behavior of those in their social network.
In a study reported this year in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (Vol. 38, pp. 127-135) 354 participants with a median age of 27 volunteered to join a temporary Facebook network and then, for a period of time, to share information about themselves--including their attachment styles--and their use of social media. They all completed the Experiences in Close Relationships questionnaire, which the above questions are modeled after. They also provided information on how many people they had invited to be their "friends" through this Facebook network, and how many of these friendships had been initiated by others. They also provided information about how much time (in hours) they spent the previous week interacting with others via this network, and if they had initiated any new friendships in that week. Last but not least they indicated whether or not they communicated anything of an emotional nature via the web, such as how they themselves were feeling or how they felt about something.
What They Found
This research employed complex statistical techniques, but here are some of the more significant findings in a nutshell:
• Those people who scored low on both avoidance and anxiety tended to have the broadest cyber networks. In other words, they initiated more friendships, accepted more friend invitations, and spent more time communicating with friends. These individuals were most open to connecting with others via the cyber world. They are the most likely individuals to become a social media hub, and the researchers labeled them secure.
• A decrease in avoidance was associated with an increase in willingness to share information with others, including information of an emotional nature. In effect, the avoidance attachment style appears to work in the social world much as it does in the real world, with avoidant individuals being the least disclosing and having smaller social networks.
• People high on the anxious attachment style indicated a willingness to communicate with network friends but not when it involved emotional content. One possible explanation for this is that people with an anxious attachment style are inclined to fear abandonment and/or rejection. This may be why they hesitate to risk sharing information that might lead others to reject them. They are, in other words, playing it safe, emotionally speaking, on their social network.
Take a moment, now, to reflect on the above descriptions of how a person's attachment style gets played out in real life and in the cyber-world. Do you see any consistency between the two, either for yourself or someone who you consider close to you? Do you know anyone who you would consider "secure" meaning that they are "comfortable in the own skin" -- not overly worried about being rejected, and willing to be open about their thoughts and feelings? Would you say that these individuals are social "hubs," both in real life and cyber life? Finally, are there any ways in which you would like to change the way you relate to others, within either or both of your social networks?
Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. is the author of Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder and Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One's) Drinking A Problem?