Fear is a frightening thing. In marriage, it is usually an invisible force. Like the winds of a storm: invisible itself but threatening and destructive. However, fear is always extinguished by the steady flame of committed love.
I think we all carry some fear in our hearts, at some level. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the more confidence you see in a person, the more likely they have fear issues. So this episode may be particularly relevant to those of us who feel that we really don’t need to hear it. I may just burst your bubble gently. Often confidence is a protective coping stance against the insecurity and fear that deeply troubles us. And nowhere are you more vulnerable to the effects of these fears than in your most intimate relationship: your marriage.
Fears About Me or Fears About You?
Most of us carry one or two kinds of fear. Either we have some level of fear that is really about ourselves: fear of rejection or fear of abandonment or fear of not being good enough, or fear of being unworthy of love and affection. These point at concerns within me and about me.
The other kind is fear about our spouse or significant people in our lives: fears of intimacy (afraid of letting people get too close to you) or fear of dependency (afraid to trust or afraid to count on other people). These are also fears that we carry within ourselves, but they are different from the previous in that they are indicative of our models of others.
So we all carry these models of self and models of others. Those are basic, nearly instinctive ways of relating to the humans around us based either on how we see ourselves or how we see other people. On the ‘other people’ part it’s about: are others reliable, are they trustworthy, can I depend on them. On the ‘self’ side it’s about am I worthy, am I lovable.
These are very deep but often when folks talk about them they use very simple language. For example, for me, I struggle most with the part of myself that asks the question: “if you saw me for who I am, would you still accept me?” The language is simple but the impact of that question touches the way I present myself in every social context of my life.
Another person may just say “I cannot trust others” or “people are just going to let me down”. Again: simple language, but this touches all of their social contexts and all their relationships too. We’ve looked before at issues of trust and why people may be unable to trust their spouse, and this attachment issue is often at the heart of it.
These deep fear construct are indicators of our attachment style. Our attachment style is the way that we have learned to relate to the significant others in our life. Primarily our spouse, but it also impacts our children, our closest friends, and then to a lesser degree, our social network as well.
About half of people are securely attached. That means they are secure in both themselves and their spouse: they believe themselves to be worthy of love and believe they can count on their spouse to love them, and be there for them when they are needed.
The rest fall into three categories but we’re going to focus mainly on what we call avoidant attachment.
Those with avoidant attachment are insecure about the intentions of their spouse and they prefer to keep emotional distance in order to keep themselves safe. Often this comes across as a coolness or distance or can even be interpreted as rejection. Usually where one spouse is avoidant in their attachment style you’re going to see lower levels of intimacy[i]. If you aren’t sure your spouse is going to respond well to you, better to keep the really deep emotional stuff to yourself. See how this attachment style is about your view of yourself?
There’s also anxious-ambivalent attachment style which is more now about your view of your spouse — whether your spouse is actually like that or not. In this case, because of your view of others you are not sure how your spouse will respond to you. You probably feel a strong desire for intimacy but fear rejection — if you struggle with low self esteem and negative self image you may discover that this anxious-ambivalent is your attachment style.
On the other side, those with secure attachment know that their spouses are not perfect but they are confident that their spouse is available and there to support them in times of need. They understand that their spouse is not only accessible and available, but will generally respond appropriately. Consequently people with secure attachment are very comfortable with both closeness and doing things apart from each other.
Fear and Relationship Satisfaction
Now, if you’re both securely attached, your marriage is likely to be more stable, warm and satisfying and likely to exhibit higher levels of self-disclosure, trust, positive conflict solving skills and social support[ii].
Avoidant relationships (that’s fear about your spouse) tend to be more distant and filled with worry about the security of the bond between you. So you can see fretting over the connection, although that may look more like nagging or jealousy or just kind of being needy.
There may also be greater control or suppression of your own emotions — because you’re not sure, you don’t want yourself to be fully seen. There may be reduced frequency and intensity of positive emotions because you cannot allow yourself to fully enjoy your spouse in order to protect you from the disappointment that you expect will come. There is also more frequent and more intense negative emotions usually[iii]. So your fears relating to your spouse and your attachment to them affects not only your relationship but even the emotions you feel day to day.
The reason why this attachment issue is important is that attachment style is stronger and more accurate predictor of relationship quality than personality[iv]. So when I am doing marriage counselling I am not working on making personalities get along; I’m just working on shifting attachment in the relationship. It’s a far more successful approach because it’s addressing the core ability of the couple to create and maintain an enjoyable, secure bond between them.
By this point you’re probably like “oh boy I have some work to do. My attachment style is getting in the way of creating the kind of marriage I want”.
I have a couple suggestions for you. The first thing you should do is become a patron of our podcast so that you can download and work through the guide for today’s episode.
Creating Fear Free Marriages
Today’s guide is going to help you uncover your attachment style and then give you ways to start talking about that with your spouse. It’ll help you reflect on any lasting impact previous relationships may have had, and work towards re-writing any unhelpful rules or beliefs you may have made based on them. Take that and work with it. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
The second thing I suggest is that you consider marriage counselling with me because I can help you create that deep, secure enjoyable bond in your marriage that you’ve really been looking for. If you’d like to learn more about marriage counselling just head over to Only You Forever and click the counselling link at the top of the page.
Now I want to focus in on three areas of marriage: communication, perceptions and conflict. How does fear impact these?
Fear and Communication
Just a brief point here from a study in 1994[v] which looked at 261 married couples and, not surprisingly, found that secure attachment was predictive of relationship satisfaction. What was noted with regards to communication was very important: the link between attachment and relationship satisfaction was largely mediated by communication style, especially for women.
This means that how you communicate is very influential. Think about it this way. Attachment styles are deeply embedded in our psyche. They can shift and heal, which is great. But that’s turning the freighter around: give yourself time and space and compassion to do so.
What can help you continue to grow your marriage as you make that deeper shift is communication. In a simpler way you can compensate for the attachment challenges by really just working on those communication skills. And anybody can learn those. So just take that as encouragement because I know this deeper stuff can be challenging, especially as we address a couple more complications shortly.
Fear and Perceptions
Because highly anxious people have a strong fear of being abandoned or rejected they show “hypervigilance” towards any perceived threats to their relationship. This means they tend to notice far more things which could be perceived as a threat, and show a bias towards interpreting their spouses’ actions negatively. As such even minor issues are seen as a threat to the entire relationship[vi]. You’re constantly on the looking for warnings signs, and primed to interpret anything and everything as a threat to your relationship. So you’re bound to end up finding these threats and reasons to get worried, whether they’re really there or not.
For those of you with anxiously attached spouses this may help you to understand how things appear to get blown out of proportion quickly — in your mind.
But put yourself in the shoes of your spouse who was raised in a family where security and safety and accessibility to a comforting parent was very unpredictable and that, I hope, will start to give you some compassion.
What makes this even more challenging is that the anxious spouse will crave comfort and support from you. However, because they carry the insecurity internally, they tend to be unhappy with the amount of support available from significant others[vii] and can perceive attempts at support as having hurtful intent. Anxious individuals also believe that their own attempts to support and comfort their spouses’ are less effective.
Now you start to see how fear can really impact your perception about your marriage, at so many different levels.
What I like to do here, for anxious spouses, is to ask them to consider if their fearful part is doing the interpreting or if their wise part is. Or, maybe put another way, are you seeing your spouse through the lens of fear or seeing your spouse through a lens that is wisely choosing to trust and to hold onto yourself at the same time?
Fear and Conflict
Note the gender differences here. As you can imagine, fearful relationships cause women to react to conflict with more stress, anxiety and destructive behaviors, while causing men to display less warmth and support[viii]. You can see how fear could cause you to spiral into conflict! By the way — this is just off the cuff — next time you and your spouse are fighting, try this near the start. Ask: are we fighting because we’re truly mad or because one or both of us are just afraid?
Let me refer to a study that shows how fear really comes into conflict. It’s going to sound doom-and-gloom at the start, but I also am going to give you a way to counteract this challenge.
This is a study by Campbell et al in 2005[ix]. Couples were asked to keep diaries for 14 days, and then videotaped discussing an area of conflict that arose during the 14 days. More anxious individuals and those with anxious attachments perceived higher rates of conflict and a higher tendency for conflict to escalate in severity.
This negative perception of conflict went on to negatively influence relationship quality. Observers rated anxious individuals as more distressed during arguments and more likely to escalate arguments. Anxious individuals also perceive conflict as leading to more negative long-term consequences in the relationship.
However, highly anxious people responded to support from their spouse well: perceiving high levels of support as being predictive of long-term relationship satisfaction, and feeling marginally more satisfied with their relationship than non-anxious people on days when they received high levels of support from their spouse[x].
Because anxious people are naturally less certain that the relationship will last, they are more reliant on, and more receptive to, day-to-day signs of love and support. So that is how you want to carry your spouse through conflict if they are highly anxious. And as they perceive your unflinching commitment over time this will begin to shift their attachment from anxious to secure. Which is what we’re going to wrap up with.
Can Attachment Style Change from Fearful to Secure?
Attachment is formed based on early childhood interactions and friendships, especially with the mother/primary caregiver, which then go on to form “working models” of how relationships are supposed to work, which influence adult relationships[xi].
BUT they can be changed by the influence of new attachment relationships, such as marriage, and by being able to “reflect on and reinterpret the meaning of past and present experiences” —largely a reference to psychotherapy[xii]. In marriage, couples can co-create a new working model of attachment and relationships, which can help individuals to recover from the effects of negative relationships in childhood. So past experiences and hurts don’t have to define your current relationship, and you can break free of the effect of old fears. We’ve seen in a recent episode that bringing up past hurts can be painful, but it’s often the only way to overcome them.
Changes in attachment style were linked to changes in self-confidence and ability to cope with problems[xiii]. So improving your self confidence and ability to cope with difficulties is linked to creating a less fearful, more secure view of yourself and your relationship. Enhancing your social skills such as perspective taking, self-efficacy (belief in your ability to succeed) and ability to mutually resolve conflict can also improve the security of your relationship[xiv].
In some ways I would think this would be a very difficult episode to listen to for many of our listeners. But I want to encourage you: you’re probably listening because you’re in your marriage for the long haul. Well, we all come to marriage messed up. This just happens to be your particular set of challenges. Where marriage is a beautiful thing is when both spouses see the relationship as a garden for cultivating growth and the development of beauty. It’s a delightful thing that in a marriage with this goal, as our bodies age, our souls become more beautiful.
So be encouraged. Keep at it.
[i] M. Mikulincer, ‘Adult Attachment Style and Individual Differences in Functional versus Dysfunctional Experiences of Anger’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74.2 (1998), 513–24.
[iii] Judith A. Feeney, ‘Adult Attachment, Emotional Control, and Marital Satisfaction’, Personal Relationships, 6.2 (1999), 169–85 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1999.tb00185.x>.
[iv] Erik E. Noftle and Phillip R. Shaver, ‘Attachment Dimensions and the Big Five Personality Traits: Associations and Comparative Ability to Predict Relationship Quality’, Journal of Research in Personality, 40.2 (2006), 179–208 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2004.11.003>.
[v] Judith A. Feeney, ‘Attachment Style, Communication Patterns, and Satisfaction across the Life Cycle of Marriage’, Personal Relationships, 1.4 (1994), 333–48 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1994.tb00069.x>.
[vi] Lorne Campbell and others, ‘Perceptions of Conflict and Support in Romantic Relationships: The Role of Attachment Anxiety.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88.3 (2005), 510–31 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060>.
[vii] Campbell and others.
[viii] Jeffry A. Simpson, W. Steven Rholes, and Dede Phillips, ‘Conflict in Close Relationships: An Attachment Perspective.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71.5 (1996), 899–914 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.119>.
[ix] Campbell and others.
[x] Campbell and others.
[xi] Judith A. Crowell, R. Chris, and Phillip R. Shaver, ‘Measurement of Individual Differences in Adolescent and Adult Attachment’, in Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications, 2nd Ed, ed. by J. Cassidy and P. R. Shaver (New York, NY, US: Guilford Press, 2008), pp. 599–634.
[xii] Crowell, Chris, and Shaver.
[xiii] Frederick G. Lopez and Barbara Gormley, ‘Stability and Change in Adult Attachment Style over the First-Year College Transition: Relations to Self-Confidence, Coping, and Distress Patterns.’, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 49.3 (2002), 355–64 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-018.104.22.1685>.
[xiv] Kathleen O’Connell Corcoran and Brent Mallinckrodt, ‘Adult Attachment, Self-Efficacy, Perspective Taking, and Conflict Resolution’, Journal of Counseling & Development, 78.4 (2000), 473–83 <https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2000.tb01931.x>.