What is it about?

The canalization hypothesis of attachment theory (Bowlby, 1973) suggests that people tend to settle into a typical way of thinking, feeling, and behaving in their romantic relationships, and they become increasingly more likely to stick to that way of being as their relationships progress, even in the face of new experiences. For example, if someone’s partner forgets about date night after only 2 months of going out, that person might experience a spike in insecure thoughts (e.g., “Are they no longer interested in me?,” “Are they going to break up with me?”). However, if someone’s spouse forgets about date night after 10 happy years of marriage, that person is unlikely to experience a dramatic shift, even temporarily, in their current perception of their relationship. Instead, they might choose to give their spouse the benefit of the doubt (e.g., “Maybe something urgent came up at work?”), believing that their spouse truly cares for them. By the same coin, however, people can also get “stuck in a rut” of attachment insecurity. For example, receiving unexpected flowers from one’s spouse after 10 unhappy years of marriage might not evoke a shift, even temporarily, in how a person thinks and feels about their relationship. A person on the path of insecurity might even interpret this act in a negative light (e.g., “Do they feel guilty about something?,” “Are they cheating on me?”) to fit with what they already believe about their relationship. We examined these ideas using data from 1,741 adults involved in romantic relationships, who completed between 3 and 24 monthly survey assessments (7 assessments on average). At each time point, participants completed a measure of their attachment styles (Fraley et al., 2011), reporting on their attachment anxiety (i.e., how concerned they felt about their partner rejecting or abandoning them) and attachment avoidance (i.e., how uncomfortable they felt opening up to their partner and relying on them for support) in their romantic relationship. They also reported whether they had experienced three relationship events since their last assessment: (1) a fight or argument with their partner, (2) a temporary separation from their partner due to work, school, or travel, and (3) their partner doing something special for them. Our results suggest that people in newer romantic relationships demonstrate greater fluctuations, or "ups and downs," in partner-specific attachment anxiety (e.g., how concerned they are that their partner might reject or abandon them), compared to people in more established romantic relationships. Additionally, people in newer romantic relationships experience greater fluctuations in attachment anxiety in response to relationship events, like a fight with their partner, compared to those in more established relationships. However, neither of these trends was observed for attachment avoidance. It seems that people do not fluctuate as much in how comfortable they feel opening up to their partner and depending on them for support, suggesting that people's avoidant tendencies are less malleable and may be more difficult to change.

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Why is it important?

This research helps us to better understand the timeline and processes (e.g., self-reinforcing cognitive biases) that underlie how romantic partners settle into their relationship and develop typical ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving towards one another. Our findings also represent a step towards understanding how we can improve relationship functioning among partners who are “stuck in a rut” of insecure thoughts and behaviors, and alternatively, create healthy feedback loops that promote greater security and stability in people's romantic relationships.

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Testing the canalization hypothesis of attachment theory: Examining within-subject variation in attachment security., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, December 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000488.
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