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Relationships at a glance: Trust, security, and emotional well-being

May 5, 2017

Jeffry Simpson is a professor of social psychology in the U of M psychology department. Collaborating with several research teams, his major areas of study include attachment processes, social influence in relationships, social development, and health outcomes.

In an interview with Professor Simpson, he discussed how relationships work within a psychological model based on attachment theory, which was developed by John Bowlby. Attachment theory claims there are basically three types of people: secure, avoidant, and anxious.

Attachment theory: Who are we as relationship partners?

“Secure people, who constitute people in society, have a positive view of both themselves and their romantic partners in the context of relationships. When their partners need them, secure people are there for them. And when they need help from their partners, secure people trust they can go to their partners for comfort and support,” Professor Simpson said. Roughly 60% of people are securely attached.

There are two other kinds of people who tend to feel insecure in their relationships. One type form avoidant attachments with others because, based on their past experiences, they have learned not to trust people. Most avoidant people have been rejected or ignored in prior relationships, so they have learned to become self-reliant, independent, and autonomous. About 25% of people are avoidantly attached. The third type is known as anxious. These individuals have received mixed signals from their past partners, who sometimes have been supportive and sometimes have not. This makes anxiously attached individuals sure whether or not they can really trust their current partners. Approximately 15% people are anxiously attached.

Social interaction lab: What makes secure, well-functioning relationships?

Professor Simpson works with several graduate students in the social interaction lab to study couples and how they communicate. To understand how different attachment styles lead to different outcomes in romantic relationships, they measure the attachment style of each relationship partner using validated self-report scales. They then study how each relationship functions in terms of how each couple solves problems, how they regulate their emotions, how they support each other, and so on.

Over the years, Professor Simpson and his students have found that secure people tend to have fewer major problems in their relationships, they tend to be happier, and they are better at being supportive of their partners when it is truly needed. In relationships where one partner is insecure, the secure person often shows forgiveness and is able to appreciate the positive aspects of difficult or even negative events, which can “pull up” the insecure partner and often stabilize the relationship.

“The way in which you have been treated in the past by important people in your life--especially romantic partners--reflects how you view and think about relationships in general,” Professor Simpson said. Caring and supportive experiences in prior relationships often leads to positive views of current partners and relationships and, ultimately, better relationship functioning. “When you have those positive views, you are more likely to trust your current partner, disclose important information to them, and be a good source of support when they need help. As a result, your relationship functions better,” he said.

Professor Simpson went on to explain that securely attached people more effectively deal with both good and bad events in their relationship, which allows to remain well-regulated emotionally and achieve important personal and relationship goals. “Security is not merely a lack of bad things that have had happened to you in prior relationships. It is also the presence of positive attributes and capacities that build you interpersonal self-confidence, which allows you to trust others more,” said Professor Simpson.

In fact, trust is a foundation of attachment security. Well-functioning relationships are those in which we trust our partners, remain open to them, and are good sources of support when they need help or comfort.

Importance of studying relationships: Why do we need to understand one another?

“It is important to understand how relationships function because the quality of relationship functioning accounts for a large percentage of a person’s daily well-being,” Professor Simpson stressed. “When people are asked ‘What makes your life meaningful?’ in nationally representative surveys, the majority of Americans list some kind of relationship--with a spouse, a child, a mom or dad, or a sibling. And well-being is closely tied to the people with whom you spend the most of your time.”

Professor Simpson’s current work Taking the long view on wellness, which was recently published on Scientia, addresses how our earliest experiences in childhood shape our lives into adulthood.

For more information on his work, go to professor Simpson’s website

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.