How Facebook Fuels Relationship Anxiety

May 30, 2016

John Bowlby, born in 1907 London to an upper class family, had little parental love. His mother believed (as was common at the time) kindness would spoil children, and his father, a knighted surgeon, left home to fight in the Great War; his primary caregiver, a nursemaid named Minnie, who did love him, was let go when Bowlby was four. At seven, he was sent to boarding school. (“I wouldn’t send a dog away to boarding school at age seven,” he later remarked.)

After boarding school and a brief stint in the Navy, he was accepted at Cambridge to study medicine, which he abandoned after three years to work with a group of maladjusted children. This led Bowlby to study psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital, in south London, now the largest mental health-training center in the United Kingdom.

What Bowlby experienced as a child, and what he learned from maladjusted children, culminated in a theory of attachment that became a cornerstone of developmental psychology. As Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, once said to her students, as she presented material from Bowlby’s then forthcoming 1980 book, Attachment and Loss, “Here is chapter 4 of the Bible.” Bowlby’s theory has impacted childcare policies and childhood clinical therapy practices.

Today, as children grow up amidst the ubiquity of the iPhone, researchers are now applying Bowlby’s ideas to our relationships on—and with—social media. Attachment theory, says Lauren Reed, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a useful framework to understand how social media can trigger a “cycle of anxiety” in romantic relationships.

Bowlby’s “attachment theory” doesn’t stray far from common sense. Grounded in Darwinian evolution, it describes the types of bonds humans form with their primary caregivers and how they shape, for example, peoples’ expectations of how their future relationships will function. Those bonds, according to Bowlby, can be either “secure” or “insecure.”

Children with nurturing and dependable caregivers develop a secure attachment style, learning to trust others to be there for them; children with neglectful or malicious caregivers develop an insecure attachment style. (It can be further qualified as either “insecure-anxious” or “insecure-avoidant.”) It has also been shown that the attachment styles we develop in our youth are relatively stable over time.

A 2002 meta-analysis of 24 studies, for example, found that “despite the junctures afforded by life, there is an enduring tendency for people to remain relatively close to their original routes.” The way we communicate and act in relationships as adults, in other words, can very often be traced back to the attachments we formed as infants and children.

“Social media presents an opportunity to monitor and look at your partner’s information more than that’s good for you.”

Understanding how attachments are formed and how they influence our lives as adults can help us better manage our relationships, and understand our partners and ourselves, says Reed.

She, along with colleagues at the University of Michigan, recently investigated the relationship between attachment insecurity and electronic intrusion—furtively examining a partner’s phone, checking their location on social networks, and so on—in college students’ dating relationships.

Their subjects—230 undergraduate psychology students—were split fairly evenly, 43 percent male and 57 percent female, and nearly half were currently in relationships, with the remainder having been in at least one relationship within the previous year. (Almost all subjects reported exclusively heterosexual relationships.)

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