Past experience of relationship and current concerns

Many studies have explored the way in which there can be a gradual transfer of the form of attachment to parents and other significant relationships in the past, to future attachment towards a partner in a close relationship. Family experience will shape attachment in relationships. Some individuals may become avoidant and very unconcerned and non-anxious about future relationships. Others may become fearful and anxious, or insecure, about future relationships.

Judith Feeney, a researcher with the University of Queensland, recently conducted a study in which questionnaires assessing age, relationship length, involvement, relationship closeness, conflict, attachment dimensions (anxiety and avoidance), and attachment figures were completed by 107 young adults. The study was designed to “…to explore the role of individual and relationship variables in the transfer process.” (Journal of Family Studies, 2004, 10, 220-38).

Two important findings were:

  1. Weak attachment to a partner was associated with the tendency to be avoidant in relationships and to be low in anxiety about relationships.
  2. Individuals high in anxiety about relationships tended to report higher levels of desired than actual attachment.

The implication is that when we are working with premarital couples we should be alert to two possibilities associated with Feeney’s findings:

  • Some individuals may be under pressure to be in a close relationship, not due to their own motivation, but due to social pressure to conform. They are struggling to form a close and intimate relationship because they have tended to be avoidant and unconcerned about relationships in the past. The issue of motivation, and whether there is new set of possibilities in this new situation, can helpfully be explored with couples where one partner is in this position.
  • Other individuals may be very anxious and almost obsessive about their relationship and have needs for closeness that they will find very hard to satisfy. 

Helping couples to explore what is a reasonable and appropriately reassuring level of closeness will be an important strategy.
Reference: Feeney, J. (2004) Journal of Family Studies, 10, 220-38

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