During times of high stress, you may feel that taking time for your relationship is the last thing on your to-do list. As a result, that relationship can become less and less of a resource to bolster your emotional well-being. Perhaps you’re engulfed right now with the demands of your job, your children, other relatives, and the strains of trying to survive economically. As much as you'd like to rebuild old bonds with your partner, you just don't know when you'll be able to make the time.
Stress can be particularly detrimental when one or both partners in a couple are what relationship scientists call “insecurely attached.” As the term implies, people who fit this definition feel anxious about the future of their relationship, believing that their partner cannot be completely trusted to care for them. The insecurely attached may also try to fight off feelings of intimacy due to fear of being abandoned. In either case, as much as you try to balance your life’s many demands, that fear of something going wrong in your relationship can only compound your overall sense of worry and anxiety.
According to the University of Quebec at Montreal’s Alexandre Lejeune and colleagues (2020), “beneficial romantic relational outcomes” come from “the sense of felt security derived from the support of an attachment figure” (p. 2). Securely attached individuals can comfort themselves during times of stress with mental representations of those comforting figures. When things aren’t going well, they can time travel back to situations in which they felt that everything would be okay. It’s these memories that can bolster their confidence that they’ll make it through whatever tough times they’re experiencing now.
Think now for a few moments about a time when you did feel comforted by a romantic figure, whether your current partner or a relationship partner from the past. Do you find yourself reflecting back on those times in your daydreams, allowing you to push out of consciousness your own current troubles? For people who are insecurely attached, drawing on these comforting memories could be particularly important in helping them achieve greater satisfaction in their current relationships, the Canadian authors propose.
In addition to whatever effects simple recall of a comforting memory could have, Lejeune et al. predicted that people could gain even more emotional sustenance if that memory invoked a time in which one of their significant needs became met. For example, you might remember the first time you met your significant other and how attracted the two of you felt. In the process, though, can you also recall how your partner made you feel about yourself? As your relationship developed beyond that initial attraction, were there times you felt particularly connected?
To test the role of attachment security and need satisfaction in couple-enhancing memory recollections, Lejeune and his fellow researchers developed a theoretical model in which the association between attachment security and need satisfaction was evaluated in contributing to couple adjustment. Their samples were drawn from young adult, primarily female, samples associated with a university. This is important to keep in mind, as the participants were not, by definition, involved in longstanding relationships.
The memory task itself consisted of two parts, in the first, participants were asked to describe in detail their recall of an event in their current romantic relationship, an event that revealed “how they perceive themselves” in this relationship and that often comes to mind. In the case of one participant described in the Lejeune et al. paper, this memory was of a first kiss. The participant went on to recall that “It was the first time I had the impression to be that important for someone.”
For the second component of the task, participants were asked to describe other memories related to this event that came to mind spontaneously. In the case of this particular participant, one of these memories involved a situation in which she was at her boyfriend’s place and became ill while in the bathroom. She recalled that “I was very ashamed of myself, but at the same time I was very touched that he was taking care of me like that.” The authors interpreted this memory as suggesting the extent to which the participant felt her boyfriend could be caring and non-judgmental.
The needs evaluated by the Canadian research team fell in the categories of those suggested by a well-known theory of motivation, self-determination theory, which proposes that the ideal state of need satisfaction occurs when you feel that you control your own actions, are competent, and have the opportunity to be close to other people.
As predicted, the authors reported that insecurely-attached individuals were less well-adjusted in their current relationship. However, the ability to retrieve those need-satisfying “networked” or associated memories mitigated against this otherwise detrimental impact on their ability to feel satisfied with their partner. In the words of Lejeune et al. “Instead of exclusively relying on insecure relational schemas in their interactions with their partner, they might also recruit a sense of security from their memories in which they felt high satisfaction for their basic psychological needs” (p. 17).
Returning now to the question of how you can overcome your own daily stresses to improve your relationship, the findings seem to have clear practical applications. Indeed, although the study was conducted on individual participants and not couples, the potential to bring this method “home” to your relationship with your partner now seems even clearer.
Begin by recreating the exact situation posed to the university students in Lejeune et al.’s study. Sit down for a few minutes with your partner while each of you conjures up a “defining” moment in your relationship. Was it the first time you met, or was it some other experience later down the road, such as the time your first child was born? Perhaps it wasn’t even as significant as these life-changing experiences but instead involved more of your day-to-day events, such as lighting the candles before a particularly enjoyable dinner at home.
Now move on to the associations that this memory stimulates. Do you recall any of those three basic needs that you felt were met? How do these link back to the original couple-defining moment?
What the Canadian researchers could not do, but you can, is to compare notes with your partner. If you’ve written down those memories it’s even easier, but just by the retelling, you can still gain access to the key themes in your partner’s feelings about your relationship. You’ve probably already decided some time ago whether your partner is securely or insecurely attached, but perhaps you weren’t aware of just how much you have contributed to helping your partner gain a greater sense of comfort.
To sum up, fulfillment in long-term close relationships can come from many sources. The everyday stresses can sometimes make that fulfillment difficult to experience. However, a brief glimpse into the memories you and your partner have of yourselves and your times together can help you regain your faith in your relationship and your partner.