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Emotion in Relationships

Some of life’s most intense emotions are experienced within close relationships. Berscheid and Reis (1998) have claimed that identifying the origins and the profile of emotions experienced within a relationship is essential if one wants to really understand its most important features. Given this reality, one might expect that a great deal would be known about the experience and express of emotions in close relationships, particularly how relationship experiences at critical stages of social development forecast the type and intensity of emotions that are experienced in adult attachment relationships. Surprisingly little, however, is known about these issues.

In this chapter, we use attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980) and attachment constructs as organizing frameworks to fill these crucial conceptual and empirical gaps in our knowledge emotions in close relationships. After reviewing relevant theory and research on this topic, we discuss the findings of a recent longitudinal study that has continuously tracked the same sample of individuals from birth into early adulthood.

Attachment theory (Bowlby 1969, 1973, 1980) provides a unique and comprehensive account of the normative (i.e., species-typical) and individual difference (i.e., individual-specific) processes that typically generate emotions in close relationships. According to Bowlby, the attachment system serves two primary functions: (1) to protect vulnerable individuals from potential threats, and (2) to regulate negative affect once threats are perceived. The normative component of attachment theory specifies the stimuli and contexts that habitually evoke and terminate certain kinds of emotions and the sequence of emotions usually experienced in response to certain relational events (such as the sequence of protest, despair, and detachment that typically transpires during prolonged separations from attachment figures; see Bowlby, 1969). The individual difference component of the theory articulates how an individual’s personal history of receiving care and support from attachment figures over the lifespan shapes the goals, working models, and coping strategies that s/he recruits when emotion-eliciting stimuli or events happen in relationships. Most of the research that has examined the impact of early attachment experiences on later relationships to date has focused on the distinction between secure and insecure attachment histories (e.g., Roisman, Collins, Sroufe, & Egeland, 2005; Thompson, 1999; Waters & Cummings, 2000).

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Emotion in Relationships