Dynamics and repercussions of unconditional support in interpersonal relationships


Imagine that you’ve had a heated argument with a co-worker, and you call up your husband or wife to talk about it.

Your partner can react in one of two ways.

They can assure you that you were right, your co-worker was wrong and that you have a right to be upset.

Or your partner can encourage you to look at the conflict objectively. They can point out reasons why your co-worker may not be so blameworthy after all.

Which of these responses would you prefer?

Do you want a partner who unconditionally has your back, or one who plays devil’s advocate?

Which is better for you in the long run?

In a recent study, we wanted to explore the contours and repercussions of this common relationship dynamic.

Do we want unconditional support?

If you’re like most people, you probably want a partner who has your back. We all tend to want empathetic partners who understand us, care for our needs and validate our views.

These qualities – which relationship researchers refer to as interpersonal responsiveness – are viewed as a key ingredient in strong relationships. Research has identified links between having a responsive partner and being happy and well adjusted.

But having an empathetic partner isn’t always a good thing – especially when it comes to your conflicts with others outside the relationship.

When we get into an argument with someone, we tend to minimize our own contribution to the dispute and overstate what our adversary did wrong. This can make the conflict worse.

After being involved in a dispute, we’ll often turn to our partners to vent and seek support.

In our study, we found that empathetic and caring partners were more likely to agree with their loved ones’ negative views of their adversary and blame the adversary for the conflict.

We also found that people whose relationship partners responded this way ended up being far more motivated to avoid their adversaries, tended to view them as bad and immoral, and were less interested in reconciliation.

In fact, a full 56% of those who had received this type of empathy reported avoiding their adversaries, which can harm conflict resolution and often involves cutting off the relationship.

On the other hand, among the participants who didn’t receive this sort of support from their partners, only 19% reported avoiding their adversaries.

Receiving empathy from partners also was related to conflict escalation: After their partners took their side, 20% of participants wanted to see their adversary “hurt and miserable,” compared to only 6% of those who did not receive this sort of support.

And 41% of those who received empathetic responses tried to live as if their adversary didn’t exist, compared to only 15% of those who didn’t receive unwavering support.

Long-term consequences

These dynamics became entrenched over time. They kept people from resolving their disputes, even as people found their partners’ responses to be emotionally gratifying. For this reason, they continued to vent, which created more opportunities to fan the flames of conflict. People seem to seek partners who end up making their conflicts worse over time.

Your partner’s intentions might be good, but the outcome often isn’t.

What’s the lesson here?

We often want partners who makes us feel understood, cared for and validated. And it’s natural to want our loved ones to feel supported.

But soothing and validating responses aren’t always in our best long-term interests. Just as prioritizing immediate emotional gratification over the pursuit of long-term goals can be costly, there are downsides when partners prioritize making us feel good in the moment over helping us properly wrestle with life’s difficult problems from a rational, unbiased perspective.

Those who want to better support their loved ones’ long-term welfare might want to consider first providing empathy and an opportunity to vent, but then moving on to the more difficult work of helping loved ones think objectively about their conflicts and acknowledge that, in most conflicts, both parties have some blame for the conflict, and just see the situation from very different perspectives.

The truth can hurt. But sometimes an objective, dispassionate confidant is what we need most.

Funding: Edward Lemay receives funding from National Science Foundation.

Michele Gelfand receives funding from the National Science Foundation, FBI and Department of Defense.


What Is a Behavioral System?

Bowlby (1982/1969) defined a behavioral system as a species-universal program that organizes an individual’s behavior in functional ways—i.e., in ways that increase the likelihood of survival in the face of particular environmental demands.

A behavioral system is an inborn, preset program of the central nervous system that was ‘‘designed’’ by evolution via natural selection. It governs the choice, activation, and termination of behavioral sequences that produce a predictable and generally functional change in the person–environment relationship.

(The term ‘‘behavioral system’’ therefore implies the involvement of actual behavior and behavior generation, although it points theoretically to the central neural program we are emphasizing.)

Each behavioral system (e.g., attachment, caregiving, explor- ation, affiliation) follows a particular predictable pattern of activation and termination in almost all members of a species, a pattern that does not depend on learning opportunities.

Conceptually, a behavioral system has six components or aspects:

  1. a specific biological function that increases the likelihood of an individual’s survival and reproductive success;
  2. a set of contextual activating triggers;
  3. a set of interchangeable, functionally equivalent behaviors that consti- tutes the primary strategy of the system for attaining a particular goal state;
  4. a specific set-goal—the change in the person–environment relationship that terminates the activation of the system; (5) the cognitive operations involved in the functioning of the system; and (6) specific excitatory or inhibitory neural links with other behavioral systems.

Biological Function of the Attachment System

According to Bowlby (1982/1969), the biological function of the attachment behavioral system is to protect a person (especially during infancy) from danger by ensuring that he or she maintains proximity to caring and supportive others (attachment figures).

In his view, natural selection favored maintenance of proximity to attachment figures [what Bowlby (1973) called ‘‘stronger and wiser’’ caregivers], because it increases the likelihood of survival and eventual reproduction on the part of members of a species born with immature capacities for defense from predators and other dangers.

Because infants require a long period of protection, they are born with a tendency to seek proximity to others who can provide care and support. Although the biological function of the attachment behavioral system is most critical during the early phases of life, Bowlby (1988) assumed the system is active over the entire life span and is manifested in thoughts and behaviors related to seeking proximity to attachment figures in times of need.

In his view, proximity seeking is a behavioral adaptation to evolutionary pressures that can contribute to adjustment and health throughout the lifespan. This function of the attachment system is most relevant during stressful periods or traumatic experiences, wherein the support and comfort given by attachment figures enhance coping and adjustment.

During infancy, primary caregivers (usually one or both parents) are the main attachment figures. In adulthood, however, a wide variety of relationship partners can act as attachment figures, including parents, friends, and romantic partners. Moreover, groups, institutions, and abstract or symbolic figures (e.g., God) can become targets of proximity seeking    in times of need.

There  are  also context-tailored attachment figures, who are sources of support only in specific milieus: teachers and supervisors      in academic settings; therapists in therapeutic settings; and managers in organizational settings. Attachment theory conceptualizes  attachment figures as forming  a  hierarchical  network,  with  the  primary  attach-  ment figures being those with whom the  individual maintains  long-term and strong affectional bonds (parents, close friends, spouses).

The Attachment System’s Activating Triggers

Originally, Bowlby (1982/1969) claimed that the attachment system is activated by environmental threats that endanger a person’s survival. Encounters with such threats create a need for protection from other people and automatically activate the attachment system.

When no threat is present, there is no need to seek care from others and no proximity-seeking tendency is activated, at least not for the purposes of protection.

(A person may seek proximity to others for the purpose of some other behavioral system such as affiliation or sexual mating.) In subsequent writings, Bowlby (1973) extended this reasoning and proposed that the attachment system is also activated by ‘‘natural clues of danger’’—stimuli that are not inherently dangerous but that increase the likelihood of danger (e.g., darkness, loud noises, isolation)—as well as by attachment-related threats such as impending or actual separation from, or loss of, attachment figures.

In his view, a combination of attachment-unrelated sources of threat and lack of access to an attachment figure compounds distress and triggers the highest level of attachment-system activation.

The Primary Attachment Strategy

According to Bowlby (1982/1969), proximity seeking is the natural and primary strategy of the attachment behavioral system when a person has a perceived need for protection or support. This strategy consists of a wide variety of behaviors that have a similar meaning (the seeking of proximity) and serve similar adaptive functions (protection from threats). Among these behaviors, one can find signals (interaction bids) that tell a relationship partner an individual is interested in restoring or maintaining proximity; overt displays of negative emotion (e.g., anger, anxiety, sadness) that drive the relationship partner to provide support and comfort; active approach behaviors that result in greater physical or psychological contact, including what Harlow (1959) called ‘‘contact comfort’’; and explicit requests for emotional or instrumental support.

According to Bowlby (1982/1969), not all of these behaviors are likely to be manifested in every threatening situation. Rather, they are part of a repertoire of behaviors from which an individual can ‘‘choose’’ (consciously or unconsciously) the most adequate means for attaining protection in a given situation.

In adulthood, the primary attachment strategy does not necessarily lead   to actual proximity-seeking behavior. In fact, this strategy can be manifested in the activation of mental representations of relationship partners who regularly provide care and protection.

These cognitions can create a sense of safety and security, which helps a person deal successfully with threats. That is, mental representations of attachment figures can become symbolic sources of protection, and their activation can establish what might be called symbolic proximity to supportive others. Of course there are times when these strategies are insufficient and even adults seek actual proximity to attachment figures.

Set-Goal of the Attachment System

Bowlby (1982/1969) viewed the attainment of actual or perceived protection and security as the set-goal of the attachment system, which normally terminates the system’s activation [see also Sroufe & Waters (1977), who introduced the term ‘‘felt security’’].

Bowlby also enumerated the provisions attachment figures should supply in order to facilitate the attainment of this set-goal (see also Hazan & Shaver, 1994). First, attachment figures should be responsive to the individual’s proximity- seeking attempts in times of need. Second, these figures should provide a physical and emotional safe haven—i.e., they should facilitate distress alleviation and be a source of support and comfort.

Third, attachment  figures should provide a secure base from which the individual can explore and learn about the world and develop his or her own capacities and personality while feeling confident that care and support will be available if needed. When these provisions are supplied, a person feels secure and safe, and proximity seeking for the purpose of protection and care is terminated.

Cognitive Substrate of the Attachment System

According to Bowlby (1982/1969), the attachment system operates in a complex goal-corrected manner; that is, the individual evaluates the

progress his or her behaviors are making toward achieving the set-goal and then corrects these behaviors to produce the most effective action sequence. In our view, this flexible, goal-directed and goal-corrected adjustment of attachment behavior requires at least three cognitive operations:

(1) processing of information about the person–environment relationship,  which involves the monitoring and appraisal of threatening events and one’s own inner state (e.g., distress, security);

(2) monitoring and appraisal of the attachment figure’s responses to one’s proximity-seeking attempts; and

(3) monitoring and appraisal of the viability of the chosen behaviors in a given context, so that an effective adjustment of these behaviors can be made, if necessary, in accordance with contextual constraints.

Bowlby (1973, 1982/1969) also stressed that the goal-corrected nature of attachment behavior requires the storage of relevant data in the form of mental representations of person–environment transactions.

He called these representations working models and seemed to intend the word ‘‘working’’ to carry two senses:

(1) the models allow for mental simulation and prediction of likely outcomes of various attachment behaviors (that is, they can provide dynamic, adjustable, context-sensitive representations of complex social situations); and

(2) the models are provisional (in the sense of ‘‘working’’ drafts—changeable plans). Bowlby (1982/1969) distinguished between two kinds or components of working models: ‘‘If an individual is to draw up a plan to achieve a set-goal not only does he have some sort of working model of his environment, but he must have also some working knowledge of his own behavioral skills and potentialities’’ (p. 112).

That is, the attachment system, once it has been used repeatedly in relational contexts, includes representations of attachment figures’ responses (working models of others) as well as representations of the self ’s efficacy and value (working models of self ). These working models organize a person’s memory about an attachment figure and him- or herself during attempts to gain protection in times of need (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985).

Interplay between the Attachment Behavioral System and Other Behavioral Systems

Encountering threats and experiencing disruptions in felt security activate the attachment behavioral system, which in turn inhibits the activation of other behavioral systems and prevents or hinders engagement in nonattach- ment activities (Bowlby, 1982/1969).

Under conditions of threat, people turn to others as providers of support and comfort rather than as partners for exploratory, affiliative, or sexual activities. Moreover, at such times they are likely to be so self-focused (so focused on their need for protection) that they

lack the mental resources necessary to attend empathically and altruistically to others’ needs and engage in caring behavior. Only when relief is attained and a sense of attachment security is restored can the individual deploy attention and energy to other behavioral systems and engage in nonattach- ment activities.

Because of this reciprocal relation between the attachment system and other behavioral systems, the attainment of attachment security fosters engagement in nonattachment activities such as exploration, sex, caregiving, and affiliation,  and  allows  the  individual  to  distance  from  an attachment figure with the belief that this figure will be available if needed.

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