Buffering attachment-related avoidance: softening emotional and behavioral defenses during conflict discussions

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 May;104(5):854-71. doi: 10.1037/a0031798.


This study examined whether partners can soften the defenses associated with attachment-related avoidance. Heterosexual couples (N = 180) were video-recorded having 2 discussions in which 1 partner (the agent of influence) wanted the other partner (the target of influence) to change in some way. After rating how successful the discussion was in producing change, agents and targets reviewed their discussions. At the end of every 30 s of the interaction, they reported how angry they were during that portion of the discussion. For each 30-s interval, objective coders rated the extent to which targets of influence exhibited withdrawal and agents of influence (partners) softened their influence by being sensitive to targets' autonomy needs and by conveying that targets were valued. As predicted, avoidant targets showed greater anger and withdrawal when they were the target of their partner's influence, and these defensive reactions were associated with less successful discussions. However, analyzing within-person changes in emotions and behavior across the discussion revealed that avoidant targets' anger and withdrawal were attenuated at points during the discussion when their partners exhibited higher levels of softening communication. Between-person analyses comparing average levels of anger and partner softening across dyads also revealed that avoidant targets whose partners engaged in more softening experienced less anger and, in turn, couples' discussions were more successful. These results highlight the importance of dyadic processes in understanding the impact of attachment insecurity on relationships, and indicate that partners can buffer avoidant defenses by down-regulating anger and circumventing withdrawal during conflict discussions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anger
  • Communication
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Defense Mechanisms*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Marriage / psychology
  • Middle Aged
  • Object Attachment
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Young Adult