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Chapter Social Support

PSYCH 401 Chapter Social Support: Attachment and the Management of Empathic Accuracy in Relationship-Threatening Situations

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University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
Brian Porter

Simpson et al. (2011) Attachment and the Management of Empathic Accuracy in Relationship- • Threatening Situations • Attachment theory and working models • Individuals begin developing working models of the self and others based on interactions with significant others early in life • Across time, these models influence the way in which people think, feel, and behave in close relationships • Beliefs and expectations are central components of working models, which involve “if– then” propositions about what attachment figures are likely to do in certain contexts • Variations in working models give rise to individual differences in attachment orientations (styles) Two dimensions underlie individual differences in adult romantic attachment orientations • • Avoidance • Reflects the degree to which people are uncomfortable with closeness and emotional intimacy • Highly avoidant individuals tend to be less invested in their relationships, claim to value their relationships less, and strive to maintain psychological and emotional independence from their partners • Anxiety • Reflects the degree to which individuals worry and ruminate about being rejected or abandoned by their partners • Highly anxious individuals are chronically concerned that their partners might leave them, do not love them, or are unwilling to help them cope with distressing situations • One of the central functions served by attachment orientations is the regulation of negative affect • Secure individuals directly acknowledge distress when they experience it and turn toward attachment figured for comfort and support • Highly avoidant individuals divert attention away from the source of distress, do not acknowledge being upset, and use self-reliant tactics to control and mitigate negative affect • Highly anxious people direct their attention toward the source of distress and focus on it, particularly when they believe that attachment figures might be unresponsive to their needs As a result, highly anxious people have difficulty reducing and containing negative affect • • Given these tendencies, highly anxious and highly avoidant individuals cope with stressful events less effectively than do less avoidant and less anxious • Model that specifies the conditions under which the attachment system should be activated in adults who have different attachment orientations • Because highly anxious individuals want to avoid losing their partners and relationships, they use tactics associated with a hyperactivating strategy (e.g., ruminating about worst- case scenarios, exaggerating potentially threatening cues, remaining vigilant to signs that their partners might leave them), especially when a potential relationship threat is detected • One such tactic may be motivated empathic accuracy with respect to what the partner is thinking and feeling during relationship-threatening interactions • One manifestation of vigilance should be greater empathic accuracy in relationship- threatening situations relative to less threatening ones Highly anxious women are more empathically accurate than less anxious women when • each woman try to infer her romantic partner’s thoughts and feelings as he rates and discusses attractive women with her • When highly avoidant individuals detect potential threats to their independence in relationships, they should try to keep their attachment systems deactivated • Unlike anxious individuals, highly avoidant individuals work to inhibit and control their emotions using deactivating tactics such as ignoring, dismissing, or withdrawing from threats, and/or suppressing threat-related thoughts • One of the most efficient ways to limit, control, and curtail information that might activate the attachment system is to simply stay out of the partner’s head (i.e., to be less empathically accurate when partners might be harboring threatening/ distressing thoughts and feelings) • Thus, highly avoidant individuals should use “frontline” strategies designed to ward off activation of their attachment systems from the very outset • Empathic accuracy and attachment orientations • Although greater empathic accuracy forecasts greater relationship satisfaction and stability in situations that pose little or no threat to relationships, it forecasts less satisfaction and more instability in relationship-threatening situations • Revised empathic accuracy model • Nearly all relationships have “danger zone” areas, domains in which painful insights or revelations about a partner’s private thoughts or feelings might occur (e.g., a partner’s negative thoughts about oneself, his or her attraction to desirable alternative partners) The way in which these danger zone areas are navigated should depend on how • individuals have been treated in past relationships (i.e., their attachment history) and what has transpired in their current relationship • Danger zones are not necessarily threatening, but they can become threatening if partners delve into them too deeply • Highly anxious and highly avoidant people should respond to danger zones using the approach (anxiety) and avoidance tendencies described above • Highly anxious people desire greater closeness and felt security with their partners; therefore, they should remain cognitively engaged when they encounter danger zone areas with their partners • Once a danger zone is perceived as potentially threatening to the relationship, highly anxious individuals should be more empathically accurate than those who are less anxious • If a situation is perceived as less or nonthreatening to the relationship, they should be relatively less empathically accurate • Highly avoidant people, in contrast, should be less empathically accurate in situations where potential danger zone situations might be encountered, “staying out” of their partners’ heads entirely • In these situations, highly avoidant individuals should strive to maintain psychological and emotional distance from their partners to prevent their attachment systems from becoming activated • As a result, they should not focus on their partner’s thoughts or feelings from the outset, even if they do not feel threatened • Working models also contain rules distilled from experiences with past attachment figures that guide behavior with respect to current attachment figures • Study 1 Examined married couples who engaged in either a severe or a less severe discussion • that involved jealousy or intimacy relationship issues • Predicted that highly avoidant individuals would exhibit lower levels of empathic accuracy than less avoidant people regardless of the severity (major vs. minor) of the discussed topic • In contrast, highly anxious individuals should display more vigilance (greater empathic accuracy) than less anxious individuals when discussing a major relationship issue • Method • Participants • Design and procedure • Each couple was randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions (type of problem: jealous vs. intimacy, severity of problem: more vs. less) • Pre-interaction questionnaire included the Adult Attachment Questionnaire (AAQ), a well-validated 17-item measure that assesses thoughts and feeling about romantic partners in general on two dimensions: avoidance and anxiety • After survey, couples were led to a room where their problem discussion took place • Each spouse was asked to list (independently) up to four topic-relevant (jealousy or intimacy) major or minor problems, depending on the experimental condition to which each couple was assigned • After both spouses created their separate lists, each spouse examined his or her partner’s list and the couple jointly agreed on which specific issue to discuss • Immediately after the discussion, each participant rated how stressful the discussion was on three 7-point Likert-type scales (stressed, anxious, and upset) • Each spouse was then escorted to a separate room, where he or she privately completed the thought/feeling reporting task and the empathic inference task • Thought/feeling reporting and empathic accuracy assessment • Each spouse assumed two roles • Target partner • Each spouse provided a set of actual thought/feeling entires (i.e., the specific thoughts or feelings he or she recalled having at specific points during the videotaped interaction), which his or her partner subsequently tried to infer • Perceiving partner • Each spouse tried to infer the specific thoughts/feelings reported by his or her partner • Coding of empathic accuracy and behavioral measures • Empathic accuracy coding • Raters assessed each perceiving partner’s empathic accuracy by comparing the actual thoughts/feelings reported by each participant with the corresponding inferred thoughts/feelings reported by his or her spouse • Raters coded the empathic accuracy of the husband and wife in each relationsh
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