COUPLES ATTACHMENT INSECURITY IN STRESSFUL COVID-19 CONTEXTS

The COVID-19 pandemic represents an acute, challenging event that puts to the test whether models in relationship science help identify whose relationships are vulnerable to disruption in the wake of this unprecedented global event. The current longitudinal study  leveraged to examine whether  pre-existing vulnerabilities  (attachment insecurity) assessed  prior to the pandemic and stress  during a mandated quarantine  predicted residual changes in  relationship functioning. Partners’ attachment anxiety emerged as a  consistent vulnerability that, along  with stress, increased the risk of  poor relationship functioning,  including greater relationship  problems, a more chaotic and less  cohesive family environment and lower relationship quality. These  results uniquely emphasize that the  potential detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on relationships will depend on the  partners with whom people are  confined with during quarantines

Partners’ attachment anxiety indicating that partners’  attachment anxiety is likely an  important preexisting vulnerability  when people are confined with their partner during crisis. Partners  high in attachment anxiety  experience intense negative  emotions, seek reassurance in counterproductive ways, and are  difficult to soothe during stressful  contexts. Moreover, because they  remain distressed even when they receive care and support, partners  high in attachment anxiety often  behave in punishing ways that amplify conflict, undermine  caregiving, and damage love and closeness. Receiving  negative reactivity and excessive reassurance seeking by highly  anxious partners is burdensome  and dissatisfying, especially during  challenging contexts. Accordingly,  partners’ greater attachment  anxiety predicted greater problem  severity, lower satisfaction and  lower commitment during a  mandatory COVID-19 quarantine.

Consistent with diathesis-stress  attachment models, partners’ attachment anxiety also predicted greater problem severity and a poorer family environment when people were experiencing high, but  not low levels of stress. Compared to the evaluative outcomes that  involved only main effects of partners’ attachment  anxiety (satisfaction, commitment), the  outcomes that involved interaction  effects with stress (problem  severity, home chaos, family cohesion) may more closely capture couples’ ability to work together to manage the challenges  of family confinement. Despite  feeling less satisfied, some people  are able to soothe anxious  partners, ease difficult interactions, and compensate for any detrimental effects on relational  dynamics. However, such buffering  may occur when stress is low, but  will be more difficult when individuals are depleted by high stress. Moreover, not only will  highly anxious partners’ unrealistic  needs  and destructive behaviours  go unabated when individuals are  stressed, individuals’ own need for  support and help to manage the family environment will clash with  anxious partners’ self-focused needs, producing more problematic rather than cohesive  interactions.

The research studies also indicate that partners’ attachment  avoidance may hinder functioning during the pandemic and quarantines: greater partners’  avoidance predicted lower  problem solving efficacy and  family cohesion. Highly avoidant partners withdraw when  encountering problems, which may be particularly demanding for individuals during the challenges of quarantine. The need for families  to ‘get  through’ quarantine may  also mean that avoidant distancing  bypasses a focus on problems that  cannot be solved or controlled  given the situation at hand. These  possible benefits might have counteracted any increases in  problem severity and dissatisfaction resulting in no residual increases from pre-quarantine. Yet, continued disengagement and lower cohesion  may risk growing problem severity,  home chaos and poor relationship quality as the stress of the pandemic and need for couples to  support one another grows.

Some scholars have warned that  most social psychological models  are untested in the real world of  acute, stressful events and may be  unsuitable to understand or  guide  decisions regarding mitigating the  impact of COVID-19. On the  theoretical integration of two key  models in relationship science identifying attachment insecurity  as an important vulnerability that  should hinder couples’ capacity to adapt to the relational strains of  mandatory quarantines. The results  demonstrate the combined utility  of  the Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation (VSA) and diathesis-stress attachment models in predicting the risk of poor relationship functioning in the  unprecedented, untested context  of a global pandemic. Applying  these models to a unique quarantine context provides valuable theoretical insights. First, the vulnerabilities that matter most  depend on key features of the context. VSA-inspired investigations have examined external stress relevant to  quarantines (economic hardship, work stress, poorer social  networks), but have not considered the role of attachment insecurity. By contrast, attachment research  has examined lab-induced stress or  specific relational stressors (e.g.,  transition to parenthood). The  uncontrollable, acute and shared  nature of quarantines make  attachment insecurity a particularly  relevant vulnerability in this context. With no choice  and little  warning, people ere thrust into a  threatening attachment-relevant  context involving couples forced to  depend on each other to navigate  the daily challenges of family  isolation.

Second, the results  emphasize the  need to  understand  the  relationship risks  of  stressful events  from  a dyadic perspective.  Despite the  interdependence of  human  life,  most  research focuses  on individuals’  characteristics  as  vulnerabilities  to  poorer  relationship  functioning. Indeed, a  recent large-scale project  concluded  partner  characteristics  play  a  minor  role  in shaping  relationship quality.  One  likely  reason  some  prior  studies  have failed  to  identify  partner  effects  is  they  have  not  examined  couples  within interdependent strain-test  contexts  in which  partners’  characteristics  really  matter.  The current  results  indicate  that  partners’  vulnerabilities  may  pose  greater  risk  to relationships when  partners  are  a  central  feature of  emergent  stressful  contexts such as  when people are confined with partners  to  face  the challenges  of  family  life  during  a  global  pandemic.

Third, the  results  emphasize  that  dyadic  longitudinal designs  are critical  for understanding  the  effects  of  the pandemic  (and other stressors).  Amid the  understandable proliferation  of  research  investigating  the  impact of  the  pandemic  on  health  and  well-being, the  strongest  evidence  emerges  from  longitudinal  designs, like  ours,  that  examine residual changes  in functioning.  However, prior  investigations  have  primarily  examined  individuals, which  fails  to  acknowledge  the social  reality  of  people’s  lives, and have  not  examined how both individuals  and partners’ vulnerabilities  assessed  pre-pandemic  shape  relationship functioning.  In  the current  study,  partners’  attachment insecurity and not  individuals’ attachment insecurity had longitudinal effects.  This  pattern  does  not  mean  that  individual characteristics  do  not  matter.  Individuals’  anxiety  and  avoidance were  cross-sectionally associated with poorer  functioning  at  both  assessments,  suggesting  these negative effects  may  simply  persist  into  the  context  of  the  pandemic  and  quarantines.  By contrast, the  effects  of  partners  may  become  more  apparent  during  quarantines  when partners’  reactions  are  particularly  salient  and  impactful.

Despite  the  strengths  of  the  dyadic  longitudinal  design, the  necessarily  correlational nature  of  the  data  limits  causal  conclusions,  leaves  open the  possibility  of  third variables, and does  not  offer  a ‘control’  condition to compare  changes  in relationship functioning  in the absence of  the COVID-19 pandemic.  Dyadic  longitudinal  designs  also  restrict sample  sizes, which may  limit  power  to  detect  small but meaningful  effects, especially  if  individuals’ vulnerabilities  already  have  damaging effects  prior  to  the  pandemic. The  risk  of  poorer  outcomes  associated  with  attachment  insecurity  is  likely greater  for  couples  facing  more  substantial stress,  economic strain  and  difficult living conditions.  For  example,  individuals’  and partners’  attachment insecurity  may  have  weaker  effects  in contexts  when  people  are able  to  regulate distance (e.g., working,  going  for  a  walk, spending  time  in another  room), but  have  more  detrimental effects  when people  have  little  room  or  resources  to  escape the  pressures  of  quarantine.

Similarly,  although  the  mandatory  lockdown placed  all families  in  a  confined quarantine  that could  disrupt  relationship functioning, this  swift  and strong  response  to the pandemic was  accompanied  by  increases  in  trust  in the  government, police  and science. Support  of  the  lockdown  also  may  have  allowed  families  to  capitalize  on the  opportunity  to spend  more  time  as  a  family  and support  one  another,  counteracting  some  of  the  difficulties  couples faced  during the  initial stages  of  the  pandemic. The  risks  to  relationships  are  likely  to  grow  as couples  encounter  ongoing  challenges,  especially  in  contexts  where  prolonged uncertainty, stress,  isolation and economic  disadvantage  place  couples  under  increasing  strain.

The  current  investigation  illustrates  the  utility  of  key  models  in  relationship  science  in identifying  which  couples  are  at  most  risk of  relationship problems  when experiencing  the stressful,  unprecedented  context  of  a  mandated quarantine.  It is  emphasize  that  the impact of  the COVID-19  pandemic  will  be shaped  by  the  characteristics  of  partners  with whom  people are  confined  with  during  the  pandemic.  Greater  partner  attachment anxiety predicted  greater  relationship problems, lower  relationship quality,  and  a less  stable and cohesive  family  environment  when people  were  experiencing  more  stress. Greater  partner attachment  avoidance  predicted lower  problem  solving  efficacy  and family  cohesion.  Such vulnerability  to poor  relationship functioning  is  critical  given the  downstream  consequences of  these  outcomes, including  poorer  health and well-being  of  both adults  and their  children.  The current  findings  illustrate  that understanding  and promoting  how  best  to  navigate  the  risks  of  the  pandemic  and quarantines requires  attending  to  the  dyadic context  of  people’s  lives.

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