Attachment Styles

Anxiously attached individuals have stronger cortisol reactivity when anticipating a conflict with a partner

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A recent longitudinal study of newlywed couples during their initial four years of marriage showed that anxiously attached individuals displayed significantly heightened cortisol levels when faced with the prospect of conflict with their partner. This rise in cortisol was especially noticeable in those who had partners with avoidant attachment styles. The study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Supportive intimate relationships, particularly marital relationships, are very important for maintaining emotional and physical health. However, there are many factors that shape the link between relationships, health and well-being. Emotional attachment patterns in a relationship are one such particularly important factor.

These patterns determine how people regulate distress when they are threatened, but also influence many key aspects of interactions between partners. People high in attachment anxiety tend to worry very much whether their partners will be responsive to their needs. When they feel threatened, these individuals seek excessive closeness and reassurance from partners. On the other hand, individuals high in attachment avoidance do not expect their partners to be responsive to their needs. When they are threatened, they prefer emotional distance and self-reliance.

Study author Lindsey A. Beck and her colleagues wanted to examine how emotional attachment patterns of individuals and their partners are associated with stress reactions in situations of relationship conflict. They assessed stress reactions through the level of the hormone cortisol in saliva. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands that plays a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes in the body, including metabolism, immune response, and the body’s stress response. Previous studies have shown that cortisol levels increase not only under stress, but also when a participant anticipates a stressful situation.

The researchers hypothesized that individuals with higher attachment anxiety would exhibit greater cortisol reactivity when anticipating conflict. They also believed that those with partners exhibiting high levels of either anxious or avoidant attachment might experience heightened cortisol reactivity, with potential interplay between the attachment styles of the partners.

The study encompassed 229 newlywed couples from Western Massachusetts, all under the age of 50, married for less than seven months, with no prior marriages, children, or known endocrine issues.

Couples participated in three laboratory sessions over the course of 3-4 years. The first session was at the start of the study, within 7 months of their marriage, the second was roughly 19 months later and the third was 37 months after the initial session.

During each session, partners discussed major disagreements that exist between them and provided 5 saliva samples for assessing cortisol levels before, during, and after their discussion. They provided one more saliva sample when they were at home, on a different day, but at the time of the day when the discussions took place. Participants also completed an assessment of attachment orientations (the Experiences in Close Relationship Questionnaire).

Results showed that participants with pronounced anxiety had much higher cortisol reactivity compared to participants with lower levels of anxiety. Attachment avoidance, on the other hand was not associated with cortisol reactivity. Neither anxiety nor avoidance were associated with cortisol recovery i.e., with how quickly cortisol levels return to their regular levels after a stressful situation.

Cortisol levels generally started rising well before the stressful discussion, when participants were still anticipating it. They reached a peak well before the stressful discussion began and started decreasing soon after. The decrease continued during the discussion and after it. Cortisol levels increased quicker and their peak levels were higher in participants with higher attachment anxiety. However, the rates of decrease were similar both in participants high and low in attachment anxiety.

Notably, women with highly anxious partners experienced a faster cortisol surge and reached higher peak levels in anticipation of conflict—a trend not observed in men. An intriguing interplay was discovered between an individual’s attachment style and that of his or her partner’s in predicting cortisol reactions. The most pronounced cortisol reactivity was seen in those with high attachment anxiety paired with partners exhibiting high attachment avoidance. Conversely, those with low attachment anxiety but with partners high in avoidance had the least cortisol reactivity. Furthermore, women high in attachment avoidance, with equally avoidant partners, also displayed low cortisol reactivity.

“Overall, these findings contribute to understanding attachment processes by identifying circumstances in which both partners’ attachment orientations—and their interactions—shape physiological responses to conflict, which may have implications for their physical and psychological health if these responses accumulate over the course of their relationship,” the study authors concluded.

This study offers a crucial insight into the intricate relationship between attachment styles and physiological reactions. However, it’s essential to note that its design precludes making definitive cause-and-effect assertions from the findings. Furthermore, the researchers highlighted that even the most pronounced levels of avoidance and anxiety among participants were relatively low. Therefore, results could differ if examining individuals with extreme attachment anxiety or avoidance levels.

The study, “Spouses’ attachment orientations shape physiological responses to relational stress over time”, was authored by Lindsey A. Beck, Paula R Pietromonaco, Fiona Ge, Nate C Carnes, Holly Laws, and Sally I Powers.

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