Understanding attachment anxiety and paradoxical reactions to conflict with romantic partners: The moderating role of attachment-related threat
Adult Attachment , Conflict
Prior research has shown that attachment anxiety is related to two contradictory conflict styles: submission and dominance. In a series of three studies, I clarified this research by introducing the role of attachment-related threat in moderating submissive versus dominant tendencies of highly anxious individuals in conflict with romantic partners. I propose that rejection-related threats activate the attachment system which motivates anxious individuals to engage in submission to restore psychological proximity to their partners. Alternatively, when threat levels are low, I propose that anxious individuals exhibit dominance towards their partners in attempt to seek validation. In Study One, I replicated and extended previous research by demonstrating the relationship between attachment anxiety and the submissive conflict style. The relationship between attachment anxiety and the dominant conflict style was moderated by gender such that this relationship was stronger for women than men. In Study Two, women read a vignette outlining a hypothetical scenario where their preferences and goals conflicted with those of their partner. This vignette contained a rejection component whereby their partner responded in either a rejecting or reassuring manner. Women high in anxiety reported being somewhat more likely to defer to the wishes of a rejecting versus non-rejecting romantic partner, relative to those low in attachment anxiety. Study Three was a daily diary study, examining the relationship between attachment anxiety and the nature of real life conflicts with romantic partners over 10 days. Individuals high in attachment anxiety reported lower quality interactions and more conflicts with their partners relative to low anxiety individuals. When engaged in conflict, anxious individuals expressed greater levels of hostility towards their partners, and left their conflicts less resolved relative to low anxiety individuals. Further, partner anger moderated the relationship between attachment anxiety and submissive versus dominant tendencies. Individuals high in attachment anxiety and low in avoidance were somewhat more likely to submit to their partners when their partners expressed high levels of partner anger. On the other hand, when their partners displayed low levels of anger, individuals high in attachment anxiety reported doing somewhat more of the arguing relative to low anxiety individuals. Future directions and clinical implications are discussed.