TL;DR: When it comes to attachment theory and its effects on relationships, few people better understand the subject than Dr. Jeffry Simpson, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who’s been in the field for more than 28 years.
Having taken a liking to the topic at an early stage in his career, studying the ins and outs of how romantic relationships function is Dr. Jeffry Simpson’s true passion.
“It became pretty clear to me that what happens in your close relationships is one of most important things in the lives of most people,” he said.
And his latest endeavor that has him diving deeper into the rabbit hole is no different.
Having already been circulated around numerous media outlets, including The Huffington Post, his new research comes at attachment theory from a new angle in the form of partner buffering.
What exactly is partner buffering?
As Simpson describes it, partner buffering is a set of behaviors one partner engages in that eases the concerns or worries of the other partner, who is vulnerable given their history.
Partner buffering shows if you have an insecure attachment history, you can be very well-adjusted in your adult life with the right kind of partner.
Thanks to certain data from The Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation, which focuses on how the way people are treated as children affects the way they behave as adults in relationships, Simpson has been able to examine this dynamic more closely.
“We’ve been trying to understand the legacy of early experience and what role that plays in setting people up to either have a happier romantic life later on, depending on who the partner is, or a more difficult one,” he said.
For example, in part of his research, Simpson and his colleagues knew going into it one person in a relationship either had a secure or insecure attachment history as a child, so they were able to use that information to compare it to what that person’s partner does to respond to him or her when dealing with conflicts in a relationship as an adult.
Simpson said there was one finding that was continually reinforced throughout the research – how important our partners are in making us feel insecure or secure.
“I think the most surprising thing was the power of the partner – the power of partners to really be able to buffer insecurely attached people and sometimes the power of the partner to take a person who’s secure and make them look really insecure,” he said. “It looks as if who you’re with can make a really important difference above and beyond your early experiences with other attachment figures.”
Clearing attachment’s bad name
Whether it’s studying partner buffering, idealization in relationships or more, Simpson is dedicated to helping people better understand what attachment theory really is, where it started from and why it’s important, which is often different from what the popular media says.
“To be securely attached means basically you trust that your partner is going to be there for you and will treat you in a fair and benevolent way,” he said. “To be insecurely attached means you’re not sure about that. You’ve been burned in the past. You haven’t been treated well. You’ve been rejected, and maybe you’ve been neglected and you don’t know where you stand necessarily with your partners.”
According to Simpson, making this distinction gives people more insight into who they are and what they need, which can affect the course of their relationships.
“If you know what your attachment orientation is, then you can know what are your strengths and weaknesses as a relationship partner, what are your motives, when do you act on your motives and what kind of person do you need to be with to make you the best possible person you can be,” he said.
Simpson’s upcoming research, which looks to be just as interesting as his work on partner buffering, will focus on emotion regulation within conflicts and life transitions, such as starting a new job.
“We’re looking at how people with different kinds of attachment histories regulate their emotions when they’re upset,” he said. “We’re trying to understand what’s going on in terms of emotion regulation in the lives of people who are secure and insecure.”