Attachment style can predict a person's physical stress response to conflict with a romantic partner, but the specific vulnerable attachment styles are different in men and in women, according to an April study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 90, No. 4).
The study-part of a larger National Institute of Mental Health-funded investigation-involved 124 couples between the ages of 18 and 21 who had been together for at least two months. Powers and her team assessed participants' self-reported avoidance of intimacy and dependence on their romantic partner, and anxiety about rejection and abandonment. "Secure" types had low levels of anxiety and avoidance, "anxious-ambivalent" had high levels of anxiety and low levels of avoidance, "fearful-avoidant" had high levels of both anxiety and avoidance and "dismissing-avoidant" had low anxiety and high avoidance.
After filling out the questionnaires, couples spent 15 minutes discussing an issue that caused heated and unresolved discussions in the past month. The researchers collected seven cortisol samples assessing physiological stress in anticipation of the conflict, throughout the conflict and during a 40-minute recovery period.
The researchers found that although both men and women have a physiological response to relationship conflict, the response is much more pronounced in men than in women and involves different attachment factors. Anxiety was a strong predictor for response in men, but in women, only highly avoidant types showed significant cortisol changes.
"Men and women may face different demands in the conflict-negotiation task," Powers explains. In a relationship, women are often expected to initiate and guide conflict discussions, says Powers. For avoidant women, who prefer to distance themselves in conflict situations, the study's task may be particularly difficult, she believes. Indeed, avoidant women in the study showed high reactivity before and during the conflict, but recovered rapidly after leaving the discussion. For these women, avoiding sustained conflict appears to be physiologically rewarding.
Men, on the other hand, are often expected to be more passive participants, so Powers surmises that although they may want to resolve issues, anxious men feel particularly uncomfortable actively confronting relationship conflicts.
However, men in the study who had secure female partners showed the lowest levels of cortisol reactivity, indicating that their partners were helping to regulate their physiological stress levels. The converse was true for women-their partners' attachment style did not have a regulating effect on their stress levels.