Security Questions Require Security Answers

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Many of you who know my work or take my training have heard me talk about the difference between security questions/security answers and reality questions/reality answers. However, I do not think I have written about this specifically so here we go….

Many people become confused when considering how to respond to matters of relationship insecurity, especially during periods emotionally dominated by fear, ambivalence, or doubt. Bids for affirmation or reassurance can therefore be met with either a secure (reassuring) response or a reality (dice roll) response. For some, the “reality” principle seems a more “secure” option. That may in fact hold some subjective truth, particularly for those who themselves feel fearful, ambivalent, or doubtful (“I can’t reassure you because I, too, feel insecure about us”). And I suppose there are good arguments against providing a secure response when a reality response would be the safer choice (“Our relationship is in danger and so let’s go to therapy”). However, for those who are generally on the fence about this, I’d like you to consider the cost of making a big mistake when that is not your intention.

Let me start by giving examples:

REALITY QUESTION: “What time is dinner?”
REALITY ANSWER: “Around 6pm, give or take 10 minutes.”

SECURITY QUESTION: “Daddy, am I going to die?”
SECURITY ANSWER: “No honey, not for a very, very long time.”

    REALITY ANSWER: “Well sweetheart, I can’t lie to you. There’s a nasty virus going around and it’s killing lots of little children your age. But let’s not think about that right now.”

SECURITY QUESTION: “Will you love me forever and ever?”
SECURITY ANSWER: “Yes. Forever and ever.”

    REALITY ANSWER: “Hmm, that’s a very long time. I don’t know if I can answer that truthfully. I can love you for right now. Let’s take that up again in a year.”

There is a time and place for reality answers and I’m not going to say that it is always appropriate to answer security questions with security answers. However, I will say that in primary attachment relationships, security concerns must be addressed swiftly, simply, and unequivocally if the relationship is to remain safe and secure. Replies that are complicated, contradictory, qualified, evasive, or lacking confidence or seriousness will be read as threatening by the receiving partner. A vote of non-confidence is also read immediately with non-verbal displays such as delayed responsiveness (milliseconds), deflected gaze, vocal changes, and facial controls.

So then, how to avoid shaking your partner’s (and your own) fragile sense of security? The answer is to be prepared! Consider ahead of time the cost/benefit of providing secure responses to insecure bids for reassurance. You will then be prepared to respond with more congruence. If you are among those who believe the best response is the one that is most truthful (realistic), then accept the cost that comes with that stance for there will be a cost in the currency of safety and security. If that is not your concern then go for it. If however you wish to create and maintain a secure relational ecosystem for yourself and your partner, you may want to go with the secure response.


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