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AGING GRACEFULLY

The data show that how we connect with romantic partners changes as we age

Huang Fusheng, 83, and his wife Tang Lanfang, 80, pose with their wedding photo taken in 1958.
Reuters/Jason Lee
Huang Fusheng, 83, and his wife Tang Lanfang, 80, pose with their wedding photo taken in 1958.
  • Youyou Zhou
By Youyou Zhou

Things reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

If you’re in your 20s or 30s and feel insecure in your relationship, you’re not alone. The good news: it’s likely that things will get better, according to data gathered about people’s attachment styles in romantic relationships.

The adult attachment theory, developed in the 1980s by American ecologist Cindy Hazan and psychologist Phillip Shaver, sorts individuals into four categories by scoring them on just two traits: “avoidance” and “anxiety.” Avoidance refers to how willing you are to be vulnerable with your partner; anxiety refers to how much you worry about your partner paying attention to you.

The four categories:

  • Anxious-preoccupied: High scores on anxiety and low scores on avoidance. These people are likely worriers who need to be regularly reassured that they’re loved, and can be overly dependent on their partners.
  • Dismissing-avoidant: High scores on avoidance and low scores on anxiety. These people tend to hide their emotions and avoid intimacy.
  • Fearful-avoidant: High scores on both. These people want closeness, yet tend to keep their feelings to themselves.
  • Secure: Low scores on both. These people are perhaps the best-equipped to maintain a healthy balance between intimacy and independence. Recent research has shown that individuals who grade out as “secure” are most likely to be happy in their marriage.

Since it was introduced, attachment theory has been widely embraced. Therapists often use it to identify their clients’ relationship problems, and guide them through rough patches.

Although the theory seems to imply that if you aren’t “secure” you’re doomed for life, that may not be true. After analyzing data from the Open Source Psychometrics Project—which collected about 17,300 answers, from more than 100 countries, to an online survey between June 2012 and August 2013—Quartz found that this isn’t exactly the case. In fact, it seems that as we age, our relationship style tends to change, for the better.

Nothing like young love

In the original study, Hazan and Shaver sent out questionnaires to newspaper readers and college students to see how it would play out in classifying real people. They found that about 56% of the respondents were securely attached in romantic relationships.

In the Open Source Psychometrics Project, though, the numbers look much different:

There’s a reason the majority of these survey-takers scored so high on the anxiety axis and generally seem to be insecure about their relationships: They’re young.

About 75% of the survey-takers were under 30 years old. (For comparison, about 40% of the current US population falls into that age group.) And age seems to significantly impact the level of anxiety and avoidance people feel about relationships.

According to these data, as people grow older, they move towards the “secure” quadrant, on the bottom-left of the charts below. Only 17% of survey-takers between 10 and 17 years old were found to be securely-attached; that number rises to 41% of survey-takers between 36 and 69.

The effects of aging on attachment style happens on both dimensions:

The findings are consistent with other studies of attachment styles. In two studies, one on a US population and a second on a geographically diverse population, Michigan State University psychologist William J. Chopik found that attachment security positively correlates with age at the population level. In order to figure out whether the population trends applied to individuals, Chopik took data from longitudinal studies that followed study participants over time, and observed that, indeed, attachment anxiety and avoidance both declined as individuals aged.

Chopik argues that we can largely attribute these changes simply to people staying in serious relationships. As we age, we tend to more deeply invest in the roles of partnership—and that changes our interpersonal behaviors and personalities. The emotional bonds developed by maintaining a family make an individual feel more secure.

About 25% of Americans have been married at least once by the age of 25, according to data from American Community Survey in 2015. By the age of 35, nearly 75% of Americans have been married. (Marriage rates in other wealthy countries are similar.) So it makes sense that in the Open Source Psychometrics Project data, only 23% of those 25 and younger scored as “secure,” compared to 41% of those over 35.

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