Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Honest Emotional Expression is Good for your Relationship.

Attachment Theory
A familiar and important concept in family science is Attachment Theory. Attachment theory is typically used to describe the relationship between parents and children as children grow from infancy to adulthood. The theory states that from infancy, we signal to our parents that we are in need of connection, shelter, food or safety. When those signals for support from our parents are returned with love, warmth and acceptance, we generally feel safe and secure in that relationship (hence the term "secure attachment"). However, if those signals are not returned in warm and loving ways, other types of attachments are formed (i.e. insecure, avoidant, anxious). More recently family scholars are identifying attachment patterns in romantic relationships. What is being noticed is people who had secure attachment relationships with their parents, are more likely to establish "secure" loving attachment relationships with their romantic partners. The same is being found with those who experience "un-secure" parent-child relationship. 

Study about Adult Attachment
An article published this month in The Journal of Family Psychology by Seedall and Wampler (2012) sought to investigate the emotional processes that take place in romantic relationships and how attachment patterns are evident in these processes. Utilizing a unique scientific method, Seedall and Wampler (2012) had 65 couples engage in two discussions with each other while connected to a machine that measured skin conductance (when most people become stressed, they sweat; therefore, this machine measured stress). They were asked to discuss an episode that occurred in the previous week in which they felt upset or angry toward their partner. In the first discussion, they were allowed to freely discuss the topic as though they would at home. The next discussion took place in the presence of a therapist/coach to help resolve the problem. They were then asked to rate how they felt toward their partner using a continuous rating dial as they watched the interactions. In short, the skin machine measured their real time stress, while the rating dial measured their own perceptions of their feelings toward their partner during the interaction. 

What Seedall and Wampler (2012) found was that individuals who exhibited high attachment avoidance (or behaviors that do not support secure attachment) also tended to report more positive feelings toward their partner. Those who actively created barriers to secure attachment also reported more positive feelings about their partner. While at first this sounds good, it is actually a problem. These individuals are not honest in their feelings about their partner. For instance, those who reported low attachment avoidance (or those who tried to develop a secure attachment environment) also reported lower positive feelings toward their partner. 

Take Home Message
The take home message from this study is that when we feel like we can be honest about our feelings toward our partners we are more likely to be creating an environment in which a secure loving relationship exists. John Gottman's findings also support this study. Gottman found that as long as Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Withdrawal (the Four Horseman) are not present in a relationship, volatile discussions (a passionate exchange between two impassioned people) are not likely to lead to relationship destruction. 
Here are some quick things couples and parents can do to create an environment for secure relationships: 
  • Ensure a 5:1 ratio of positive (5) to negative (1) interactions.
  • Increasingly, honestly acknowledge your emotions to yourself, then to your partner. 
  • Provide warm and loving responses to bids or signals for connection from your partner or child.
    • Recognizing emotional expressions from a child or partner as an opportunity for closeness.
  • Repair instances in which warm responses are not provided to bids for connection.
    • Don't be afraid to be wrong or to ask for forgiveness.
  • Be patient with yourself, your partner and your children when in the height of intense emotional interactions. 
What are some ways you think your family can benefit from this research? Are there any other suggestions you would give to create a secure relationship. 

Seedall, R. B., & Wampler, K. S. (2012). Emotional congruence within couple interaction: The role of attachment avoidance.Journal of Family Psychology, doi: 
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