People who fear abandonment and have an excessive need for approval become more likely over time to use manipulative tactics to keep their romantic partner in a relationship. But men and women who engage in such tactics end up becoming more anxious about their relationship. Those are the findings from new research published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
“Although mate retention had been researched for decades in the field of evolutionary psychology, it had yet to be connected to the large research area of attachment theory, which to me seemed like an obvious intersection,” said study author Nicole Barbaro, an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University and research scientist at WGU Labs.
Attachment theory describes how people bond to others and maintain their relationships. People can be secure or insecure in their attachments, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant. People with an anxious attachment style are fearful of rejection and abandonment, while people with an avoidant attachment style tend to distrust others and shun intimacy.
“Theoretical frameworks of mate retention were also historically male-centric, for example sperm competition theory, and I wanted to explore frameworks that could explain both male and female mate retention behavior in any type of relationship,” Barbaro said.
Previous research has indicated that anxiously attached individuals tend to engage more frequently in cost-inflicting mate retention strategies (such as snooping through a partner’s phone or talking to another person at a party to make a partner jealous.) Barbaro and her colleagues replicated those findings with a study of 104 young adults who were currently in a sexually active relationship that had lasted at least three months.
But one area that has been left unclear is whether cost-inflicting mate retention strategies lead to anxious attachment or whether anxious attachment leads to cost-inflicting mate retention strategies. To better understand this, the researchers examined two waves of data from 489 heterosexual couples who had participated in the Processes in Romantic Relationships and Their Impact on Relationship and Personal Outcomes (CouPers) study, longitudinal research conducted at the University of Basel.
Barbaro and her colleagues found that cost-inflicting strategies predicted higher attachment anxiety 18 months later. But the reverse was also true: higher attachment anxiety predicted more frequent use of cost-inflicting strategies. In other words, those who engaged in more frequent cost-inflicting mate retention behaviors tended to become more anxiously attached and those who were anxiously attached tended to become more likely to use cost-inflicting behaviors.
The findings indicate that “high anxious attachment is a strong risk factor for negative and manipulative partner-directed behavior for both men and women,” Barbaro told PsyPost. “This relationship appears to be reciprocal, meaning that high attachment anxiety can lead to negative behaviors, which in turn appear to also predict later attachment anxiety.”
The study provides new insights into how mate retention behaviors and attachment orientations interact over time in romantic relationships. But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“This line of work is still, overall, in early stages,” Barbaro said. “Research in this area still needs to evaluate these behaviors using more than self-report survey measures. We still want to know the mechanisms underlying these associations between attachment and mate retention behavior, for example, what triggers are activating the attachment system and motivating specific types of behaviors? We still want to know how these processes impact other aspects of relationship functioning. For example, other research shows the impact of negative mate retention on relationship satisfaction – how does this connect with attachment orientations?”
“This is a line of research that I developed as a graduate student in an effort to develop a single evolutionary framework that explained both men’s and women’s mate retention behavior and it’s great to see that a broader interest in this area has taken off in recent years, and I’m excited about the new insight researchers will uncover.”
The study, “The (bidirectional) associations between romantic attachment orientations and mate retention behavior in male-female romantic couples“, was authored by Nicole Barbaro, Rebekka Weidmann, Robert P. Burriss, Jenna Wünsche, Janina L. Bühler, Todd K. Shackelford, and Alexander Grob.