How Insecurity in Relationships Makes You Want More Things

New research on attachment insecurity shows what drives a desire for money.

by Susan Krauss Whitbourne   Psychology Today Dec 15, 2018

When your finances fall short of your needs, it’s normal to look for new resources to guarantee you security. If those new resources come in the form of a potential romantic relationship, it’s therefore tempting to consider getting involved, even though you’re not particularly attracted to the individual whose bank account seems solid. However, is the tradeoff in terms of love or money actually worth it? Will you regret having given into the temptation to listen to your wallet and not your heart? On the other hand, if you let love win out, will you regret letting financial security pass you by?

Conversely, when you’re feeling insecure about your relationships, how will you console yourself? Are you likely to keep looking for new love interests, or will you instead become more fixated on money and things to help you feel better? Will you just keep trying to get more and more in order to lessen the blow of a broken heart?

This sort of behavior, according to a study by Beijing Key Laboratory of Experimental Psychology’s Ying Sun and colleagues (2018), reflects a materialistic motive: “a value related to the importance of acquiring possessions in life or a goal to obtain external aims” (p. 1).

As nice as it may be to become wealthy and have everything you want, materialism has its drawbacks as a way of life in the form of poorer mental health, well-being, and relationship quality. People high in materialism are, as you can expect, less interested in the welfare of others, an attitude that may extend to the reduced tendency to care for the environment.

The psychology behind materialism suggests, the authors go on to note, that those high in the desire for money and things had, or have had, experiences in which their emotional security was threatened. Among all forms of security threat, furthermore, “interpersonal insecurity is one of the most important factors influencing materialism” (p. 1). If you’re rejected by someone you care about, according to previous research, your desire for money will increase, you’ll spend more, and your values will increasingly shift toward materialism. You may be able to relate to this view if you’ve ever gone on a shopping spree as a way of consoling yourself after a particularly rough breakup.

There may be these situational factors that drive you to seek relationships that will further your need for financial security, but people also seem to differ in their attitudes toward money and things based on their attachment styles. According to this framework, people with a secure attachment style do not fear being abandoned or neglected because, as young children, they were made to feel cared for by parents or other caregivers. Those with an insecure attachment style feel either anxious about being left or wish to avoid commitment to protect themselves from being hurt by loved ones because they, as children, experienced neglectful and cold parental figures.

As Sun and colleagues point out, if you have what’s called an attachment-anxious style, you attach yourself to objects, not people. Objects can’t abandon you in the way people can. If you have the second form of insecure attachment, which is attachment-avoidant, you won’t be likely to attach yourself to anything, including money and objects.

Regardless of your attachment style, though, the Chinese researchers suggest that you can be primed in ways that increase or decrease your materialistic values.  For example, if your self-esteem receives a boost, you’ll at least temporarily become less focused on money. Similarly, if you’re encouraged to remember times in your life when your relationships were going well, your desire for objects and resources will wane. This kind of “attachment security priming,” the authors suggest, will lead you to be not only less focused on money and things, but also more likely to experience prosocial feelings of trust and cooperation toward others.

To test the role of attachment security in prompting greater or lesser feelings of materialism, Sun et al. conducted two studies in which they first explored the role of attachment style in materialism, and secondly manipulated attachment security to determine its effects on either raising or lowering materialistic values through an experimental paradigm.

The 237 online participants in the first study completed an attachment security measure. The items on this scale assessing attachment anxiety included “I worry that partners won’t care about me as much as I care about them,” and those on attachment avoidance included “I am nervous when partners get too close to me.” The materialism values measure tapped the 3 dimensions of centrality (“I like a lot of luxury in my life”), happiness (“My life would be better if I owned certain things I don’t have”), and success (“I admire people who own expensive homes, cars, and clothes”).  Participants also reported their age, gender, monthly family income, and personal spending.

The authors tested a statistical model that evaluated the extent to which the demographic variables and attachment scale scores predicted materialistic values in their participants. As the authors predicted, attachment anxiety was a significant predictor of the tendency to hold materialistic values. Attachment avoidance, however, did not factor in as a significant predictor of materialism when the other variables were taken into account. People who feel that they cannot rely on significant others in their life, as the authors concluded, “are likely to assign priority to materials and possessions” (p. 4).  The question then became whether, by manipulating the sense of attachment security in participants, could their emphasis on materialism be reduced?

The next study experimentally manipulated of attachment security by priming participants to think of someone they turned to when they felt worried or sad, imagine that person’s appearance, and then describe a situation in which that person provided help and comfort. In the neutral priming condition, participants were told to recall an acquaintance, recall that person’s face, and then describe a past time in which they interacted. After that manipulation, instead of completing a materialism scale, participants completed an implicit measure of materialism in which they saw words representing materialism (e.g. “money”) and words with neutral value (e.g. “sky”).  Interspersed in the word list were meaningless collections of letters. The participants received instructions to decide whether the letters in front of them represented a word or not, but what the researchers actually measured was the difference in time between making decisions involving either materialistic or neutral words. Finally, to take into account whether the attachment styles of the participants would combine with the security priming, participants completed the original attachment style questionnaire.

Taken together, this second study’s findings revealed that, regardless of attachment style, participants in the security priming condition responded with longer reaction times to words high in materialism. However, the effects remained stronger for attachment anxiety rather than avoidance. The authors interpreted this component of the study as reflecting the notion of “possession attachment,” in which people become more attached to material objects “when they find that their relationships with attachment figures are not stable and reliable.. . to compensate for impaired satisfaction in an interpersonal relationship” (p. 7).

As a caution, even though the second study was experimental in design, it remains possible that financial insecurity makes people more insecure in general and they therefore worry more about their close relationships. Financial insecurity can certainly trigger a variety of negative emotional reactions, including worry about the stability of your relationship.

To sum up, the next time you find yourself eyeing with envy the possessions of other people or feeling that you have to go on a massive shopping spree, look inward to see if your desire for things is being triggered by your own fear of abandonment. Instead of seeking more things, try to seek more fulfillment by finding the people who will help set you on a path toward greater emotional fulfillment.


Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of The Search for Fulfillment.


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