Individuals high in anxious attachment are more likely to engage in emotional manipulation and other harmful behaviors intended to prevent a partner from leaving the relationship, which in turn is linked to reduced relationship satisfaction, according to new research published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. The new study offers evidence that relationship satisfaction mediates the association between attachment styles and mate-retention strategies.
“I have always been interested in understanding how the relationships individuals establish with their primary caregivers (i.e., attachment styles) influence their romantic relationships in adult life,” said study author Bruna Nascimento, a lecturer in psychology at Brunel University London.
“One way in which attachment styles can influence relationships is by influencing relationship maintenance strategies, also known as mate-retention strategies, which are behaviors individuals use to keep their partners and make their relationships last. However, it is not very clear how this happens, so in this study my collaborators and I were interested in investigating potential mechanisms that can explain this link. In this particular study, we tested whether this link could be explained by relationship satisfaction.”
Attachment theory describes how people bond to each other and how they maintain their relationship. People can be secure or insecure in their attachments, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant. People with an anxious attachment style are fearful of rejection and abandonment, while people with an avoidant attachment style tend to distrust others and shun intimacy.
In the new study, 420 individuals in long-term heterosexual relationships indicated how often they had performed a variety of mate retention behaviors within the past year. They also completed assessments of relationship satisfaction and attachment styles.
The researchers found that anxiously attached individuals tended to engage more often in both cost-inflicting mate retention strategies (such as snooping through a partners phone or talking to another person at a party to make a partner jealous) and benefit-provisioning strategies (such as complimenting their partner’s appearance or displaying greater affection towards them.)
“We found that insecurely and anxiously attached individuals, tend to engage more often in both harmful and positive relationship maintenance strategies. Basically, anxiously attached individuals will do whatever they can to keep their partners around and make the partner stay with them,” Nascimento told PsyPost.
The results are in line with previous research, which has found that attachment anxiety is positively associated with both kinds of mate-retention strategies while attachment avoidance is negatively associated with benefit-provisioning strategies.
The new study also found that anxious and avoidant attachment styles were associated with lower relationship satisfaction. Low levels of relationship satisfaction, meanwhile, were associated with a higher frequency of cost-inflicting strategies and a lower frequency of benefit-provisioning strategies.
“Our findings suggest that attachment styles influence how individuals perceive the quality of their relationship which, in turn, influences how they behave towards their partner,” Nascimento explained.
However, longitudinal studies are needed to better understand the causal links between relationship satisfaction, attachment styles, and mate-retention strategies.
“Because the study was cross-sectional and variables were measured only at one point in time, we do not know whether attachment styles lead to mate-retention strategies, whether relationship satisfaction influences mate-retention strategies or whether these associations are bi-directional. We need to run further studies with a longitudinal design (i.e., measure variables over time) to understand these associations,” Nascimento said.
“Relationship satisfaction is only one of the multiple factors that may help us understand the associations between attachment styles and mate-retention strategies. Other factors such as jealousy, perceived infidelity threat, relationship intimacy, and other factors may also play a role.”
The study, “Attachment styles and mate-retention: Exploring the mediating role of relationship satisfaction“, was authored by Bruna S. Nascimento, Anthony C. Little, Renan P. Monteiro, Paul H. P. Hanel, and Katia C. Vione.