Hiding Feelings for Whose Sake? Attachment Avoidance, Relationship Connectedness, and Protective Buffering Intentions

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Abstract

Why do some people refrain from disclosing distress, even to those they feel closest to? Protective buffering, a coping strategy that involves hiding worries from one’s partner, may carry mental health costs for those enacting it and the target of their protection. Although the strategy is often assumed to be targeted at a partner to shield him or her from distress (i.e., used with partner-protective intentions), it can also be used for one’s own benefit (i.e., with self-protective intentions). Guided by attachment theory, the current research identified dispositional and relational factors that may explain and predict when people use the strategy to what end. In addition, this research tested whether self-protective and partner-protective intentions are associated with distinct outcomes for mental health. Study 1 showed that highly avoidant individuals deem it wrong to burden their partner with distress expressions and that such beliefs increase with greater dependence on the relationship. Accordingly, across 3 studies (Studies 2–4), highly avoidant individuals reported using protective buffering to spare their partner when feeling strongly connected to him or her. However, when feeling less connected, highly avoidant individuals used protective buffering to minimize their own distress. Moreover, individuals who intended to self-protect reported more depressive symptoms (Study 3), and at the dyadic level, individuals also reported more mental health symptoms when their partner had greater self-protective intentions (Study 4). By contrast, partner-protective intentions (individuals’ own or their partners’) were unrelated to mental health. Theoretical and applied implications and future directions are discussed.

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