People who try to downplay the importance of close relationships and suppress their emotions are more sensitive to nonverbal signals of love, according to new research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The findings suggest that nonverbal affection is particularly important for avoidantly attached individuals.
People can be secure or insecure in their relationship attachments, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant. Those with an “anxious” attachment style are fearful of rejection and abandonment, while people with an “avoidant” attachment style tend not to trust others and shun intimacy.
“I was interested in this topic because although everyone has a fundamental need to belong and feel loved and accepted, some people find achieving this more difficult than others,” explained study author Kristina Schrage, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.
“Namely, avoidantly attached individuals who fear intimacy and closeness often sabotage their opportunities to connect by remaining emotionally distant from their partners. I wanted to figure out if there were ways that someone could express affection to an avoidantly attached partner so they were able to lower defenses and feel the care.”
In the study, 280 couples completed assessments of their attachment style and relationship satisfaction. The researchers then recorded each couple as they took turns describing a time they “felt a lot of love for their partner and how they expressed it”. Afterward, the couples completed a questionnaire about their positive and negative emotions during the conversation.
The researchers found that nonverbal affection — such as eye contact, warm smiles, and touching — was associated with positive outcomes, especially for partners who were high in attachment avoidance.
Avoidantly attached individuals reported as much positive emotion and were as receptive as securely attached individuals when their partner displayed nonverbal affection during the conversation. But avoidantly attached individuals showed less receptiveness and reported significantly less positive emotion when their partner displayed little nonverbal affection.
“When discussing emotionally laden topics with our partners we can both be nonverbally affectionate, such as through facial and bodily expressiveness, or verbally affectionate, such as through using words to communicate feelings of love. Avoidantly attached individuals appear to benefit the most through use of these nonverbal channels of love,” Schrage told PsyPost.
Avoidantly attached individuals may be more sensitive to nonverbal affection because they require reliable signals of love to overcome their interpersonal skepticism and lack of trust, the researchers said.
The study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“Our study looks at a single conversation, but does not examine if expressing nonverbal affection to an avoidantly attached partner is useful over time. Furthermore, these nonverbally expressive messages occur spontaneously, but it is unclear what the impacts would be if someone was explicitly coached to use these techniques with their partner,” Schrage said.
The study, “Effects of Verbal and Nonverbal Communication of Affection on Avoidantly Attached Partners’ Emotions and Message Receptiveness“, was authored by Kristina M. Schrage, Jessica A. Maxwell, Emily A. Impett, Dacher Keltner, and Geoff MacDonald.