Study shows people who learn they were a “surprise” struggle with insecurity, attachment issues in relationships
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Thinking about telling your child how he or she was actually a surprise for you and your spouse? Maybe you’re better off keeping that tiny detail to yourself. A new study finds that people who learn they were the result of an unplanned pregnancy have more difficulty than others in close relationships.
Researchers from the University of Kansas say that knowledge about your conception and birth can lead to greater insecurity with others and attachment issues when it comes to relationships with others.
“We often tend to assume that whatever happened in the past isn’t going to be as important at present and time heals everything — people will simply go on with their lives,” explains lead author Omri Gillath, a professor of psychology, in a university release. “For this specific type of event, we found this isn’t the case. This is something that lingers even as people grow up and become adults and is affecting current relationships in a negative way.”
Psychologists describe the way people think, act, and feel while involved in close relationships as their “attachment style.” In their initial study, the researchers gave about 350 participants a battery of tests to determine their attachment style, along with a list of questions about the circumstances surrounding their conception and birth.
Fifty-six participants responded that they were unwanted babies, 174 said they were unplanned, and the rest said they were neither. After analyzing the responses to their questions, the researchers concluded that “being unwanted, and, to a lesser extent, unplanned, was associated with attachment insecurity,” culminating in anxiety and avoidance of close relationships altogether.
“People can be either anxiously attached — concerned about being abandoned and rejected — or they can be avoidantly attached — they try to downplay the importance of close relationship and suppress their emotions. Alternatively, they can be securely attached — when they feel comfortable or at ease in close relationships and are not worried about trust, dependence or getting too close or not close enough to others,” says Gillath. “Attachment style plays a role in romantic relationships but also in people’s relationships with siblings, friends and others in one’s social orbit.”
In another experiment, the authors asked participants to imagine they’d just discovered they were an unplanned or unwanted birth. Researchers asked each individual to describe how he or she felt and measured for levels of attachment. They found even imagining the scenario of something that occurred decades ago still raised levels of insecurity.
“Having this mental image is hanging like a cloud over their heads and may result with higher sensitivity to rejection. This may doom every new relationship to fail,” warns Gillath.
The authors liken the feeling of a person learning they were unwanted to feeling unloved by a partner. They urge parents to put extra care in the way they share this kind of information with their children. Similarly, others who are aware of the situation should also be warned not to break the news to a child until a plan to offer support is in place.
“You could have learned about your birth status from your parents or sibling, you could have heard it from someone else, or maybe you did the math and figured out your older sister was born just 10 months before you,” says Gillath. “If you tell your child, even as an adult, it may have consequences — and you should try and figure out ways to provide support so that any negative effects of the information would be buffered.”
The study was published July 18, 2018 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships