There's No "I" in Love

New research links romantic attachment style to pronoun use.

Posted Jun 06, 2019

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Psychologists have long known that a person's attachment style is connected to how they relate to a romantic partner. But does it also correspond with the language that people use to express their romantic thoughts and feelings? 

New research suggests that it does. According to a recent study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, people who exhibit avoidant and anxious attachment styles are more likely to use the word "I" when speaking about romantic experiences, and less likely to use the word "we." The researchers speculate that too much "I-talk" can negatively impact relationship quality, especially among people who struggle to sustain healthy intimate relationships.

To arrive at this conclusion, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, examined over 1,400 recorded autobiographical narratives drawn from seven prior studies. All of the narratives described past romantic experiences. Importantly, for each narrative analyzed, the researchers also had information on the speaker's attachment style (as measured by a 36-item attachment style test called the ECR-R).

Attachment theory, for those not familiar, separates adult attachment style into two groups: secure and insecure. People with secure attachment styles have an easier time establishing and maintaining healthy, close relationships (most likely because they experienced healthy and stable interpersonal relationships growing up). People with insecure attachment styles, on the other hand, find it difficult to maintain healthy, close interpersonal connections. Insecure attachments come in two predominant forms: anxious and avoidant. Those with anxious attachment styles tend to have negative self-views and require high levels of contact and reassurance from an attachment figure. Individuals with avoidant attachment styles often maintain distance from people to avoid vulnerability and the potential for rejection. 

The researchers fed the narratives into a language-processing software that quantified all relevant "I-talk" and "we-talk" and tested for differences in pronoun use by attachment style. Interestingly, they found increased levels of "I-talk" and decreased levels of "we-talk" among anxious and avoidant personalities. The strongest association was between avoidant attachment style and less "we-talk."

The researchers write, "We predicted and found positive relations between anxious and avoidant attachment styles and I-talk (as manifested in participants’ autobiographical narratives) and a negative relation between these styles and we-talk. Furthermore, after accounting for numerous demographic and psychological covariates (e.g., age, traits), we observed a significant negative relation between avoidant attachment and we-talk, suggesting that there is something particularly robust about this relation."

Why might pronoun use differ by attachment style? Although further research is needed to fully understand the source of the effect, the researchers speculate that it might have to do with the way that avoidant and anxious personalities use language in general. Viewing language as a window into one's mental state, the researchers suggest that excessive "I-talk" is symptomatic of a person's tendency toward rumination and maladaptive self-focus (traits that are common in people with anxious attachment styles). Furthermore, a lack of "we-talk" could be indicative of hallmarks of avoidance, such as an aversion to closeness, interconnection, and intimacy.

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Dunlop, W. L., Karan, A., Wilkinson, D., & Harake, N. (2019). Love in the First Degree: Individual Differences in First-Person Pronoun Use and Adult Romantic Attachment Styles. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550619847455.