Have you ever wished you could see the emotional inner workings of someone’s head, like in Pixar’s “Inside Out”? Maybe you’d direct your newfound mind-reading abilities on a friend or a boss, but the mind it would be most useful to read is probably that of a romantic partner. Well, you’re in luck: A new study from researchers at the University of California, Riverside found that the pronouns your partner uses offer insights about their attachment style.
Anxiety + Avoidance = Attachment Style
Everyone has different preferences and habits when it comes to romance, and psychologists have classified those patterns into four “attachment styles.” These four styles come from various combinations of two elements: anxiety, or the fear that a person’s partner will reject or leave them, and avoidant behavior, such as not relying on or being open with a partner. A person can be high anxiety and low avoidance, low anxiety and high avoidance, or any other combination of the two.
There are generally two ways to assess someone’s attachment style. One method is the Adult Attachment Interview, in which a psychologist asks a stream of open-ended questions about the person’s parents and then determines their attachment style based on their responses. The other option is to have the person self-report by responding to a list of statements on a scale indicating how much they agree or disagree. The problem is that these two methods don’t usually match up, and scientists at the University of California, Riverside wanted to find a better way.
They hoped to find it in word choices. The way people use pronouns is thought to provide insight into their personalities and relationships with others. For example, research suggests that someone who says “I” and “me” a lot is likely to be excessively self-focused, whereas someone who says “us” and “we” more often tends to display more dependence on others. The team wanted to take this research a step further and figure out whether the way someone uses pronouns to describe themselves and their romantic partners has any connection to their romantic attachment style.
The Proof Is in the Pronouns
To find out, the team compiled more than 1,400 stories about people’s love lives from seven different studies, which also included data about the participants’ attachment styles. They plugged the stories into a computer program that categorized the language used into two large buckets of words that pertain to the subject the person was discussing and how they were talking about it, including what pronouns they chose.
The team zeroed in on the storytellers’ use of first-person pronouns like “I” and “we” and found that both attachment styles correlated positively with I-talk and negatively with we-talk. That is, the more a person used words like “I” and “me,” the more likely they were to have an anxious and avoidant attachment style, and the more they used words like “us” and “we,” the less likely they were to have these maladaptive approaches to attachment.
“The pronouns individuals use when narrating their previous experiences from within their romantic lives provide a clue as to their corresponding attachment styles,” lead author Will Dunlop said in a press release. “This is a relatively novel and indirect way of gauging avoidant attachment, as individuals are typically unaware of the pronouns they use.”
So pay close attention to your companion’s description of their past relationships next time you’re on a date — they may be dropping hints about what kind of a partner they are without even knowing it.