EMOTIONAL HEALTH
August 15, 2017

Online and Off, Attachment Styles Guide Relationships

Close relationships tend to reflect the attachment styles of those in them. So do those on social media.

People's online personalities can differ radically from their offline ones, especially when they hide under the cover of anonymity. But when it comes to how they handle their online social networks, people tend to act and react pretty much the way they do in their relationships in daily life.

That's because a person's attachment style — the ways they form, maintain and manage their relationships — strongly affects the nature of their online social networks, on Facebook and other online gathering places, just as it does their relationships in the outside world, a study published recently in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows.

Those high in avoidance were less likely to initiate online relationships, less likely to maintain them over time and more likely to dissolve them.

Our attachment style affects how we think, feel and behave in our close relationships. Attachment styles are typically divided into secure or insecure, with an insecure style further divided into anxious or avoidant.

Trusting, Or In Need of Constant Reassurance?

People with an insecure attachment style often have difficulties with trust and closeness. Those classified as avoidant tend to avoid intimacy and not to trust others. Those with an anxious attachment style exhibit a strong fear of rejection, need constant reassurance from friends and lovers on and offline, and tend to be overwhelmed by their emotions.

The team found that a person's attachment style gave a good indication of what their online social network would be like. For example, people with an insecure attachment style had weaker ties to their online friends and, just as in the outside world, seemed to get less out of their relationships than people with a secure attachment style did. Those high in avoidance were less likely to initiate online relationships, less likely to maintain them over time and more likely to dissolve them.

Having more friends in your network reduced the strength of the ties a person had with those friends, regardless of attachment style.

“The findings show you can predict the structure of people's social networks and the way people manage their networks from their personality,” said the study's lead author, Omri Gillath.

People with an anxious style also tended to have their online ties dissolve more often than those of secure people. Gillath thinks this may not be their intent, but that their anxiety may end up driving others away, even online. Members of their networks may feel smothered and dissolve the ties themselves.

The higher people's attachment security was, the better they managed their online networks and the greater the benefit they derived from them. In that respect, the online world mirrors the offline one.

Having more friends in your network reduced the strength of the ties a person had with those friends, regardless of attachment style. So people have to choose between quality and quantity.

Gillath, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, offers some advice to people looking to get the most out of their online networks: “There are many things that can be bad about social networks, if you tend to search for hours on your exes and do Facebook lurking and are not involved in relational process — that can lead to jealousy and all kinds of negative emotions,” he said. “However, if you're using your social networks for fulfilling or serving your attachment needs — such as a secure base or safe haven — that's likely to result in positive outcomes.”

If you suspect you are one of those whose need for online feedback may drive friends away, set the bar a little lower. Avoid emotional posts and instead go for humor that's easy to “like” or spend time responding to the posts of your friends to show them what they mean to you.

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