When You Talk About Relationships, Do You Say 'I' or 'We'? Your Choice Is Revealing, Psychology Study Suggests

Your so-called "attachment style" when it comes to relationships could actually affect the language that you use to describe your significant other, according to a study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science.

Attachment style is a term used in psychology which essentially describes the different ways in which humans relate to each other in interpersonal relationships.

"As psychologists, we are often interested in identifying new and novel 'clues' that may provide an indication of one's underlying personality and character," Will Dunlop, an author of the study from the University of California, Riverside, told Newsweek.

"Previous work has provided indication that the pronouns people use when describing a number of things tells us something about their levels of neuroticism—another important component of personality," he said. "Here, we wanted to determine whether and the degree to which pronoun use may offer indication of the tendencies, or styles, people exhibit in their romantic relationships."

For their research, the Riverside scientists assessed more than 1,400 observations from seven previous studies in order to examine the relationship between adult romantic attachment styles and the use of specific pronouns, such as "I" and "we," Psychology Today reported.

In these previous studies, participants provided researchers with information about their past romantic relationships in the form of a narrative and also took tests to assess which kind of attachment style best described themselves.

The Riverside scientists then analyzed the language used in the narratives using a psychological analysis program called the "Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count."

They found that those participants who displayed what they called "anxious and avoidant" attachment styles—people who like to steer clear of emotional closeness in relationships—tended to use the pronoun "I" more often when talking about romantic experiences in comparison to the word "we."

"We found that those who had higher levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance —i.e., an insecure attachment style—tended to use a greater proportion of I-words (e.g., I, me, mine) and a lower proportion of we-words (e.g., Us, ours) when describing experiences from their romantic lives, as compared to individuals with a more secure attachment style," Dunlop said. "Among these relations, the negative association between avoidant attachment and we-words was particularly robust."

"Focusing on this latter relation, our findings suggest that refraining from using we-words when providing an overview of previous romantic experiences may indicate that one is largely uncomfortable getting close to others and/or depending upon them—i.e. that they have a high degree of avoidant attachment."

These results could have several implications for our understanding of interpersonal relationships, according to the researchers.

"These results are meaningful for a few reasons," Dunlop said. "First, they are some of the first to provide evidence that the words people use when outlining previous romantic experiences offer 'clues' as to the ways these individuals may think, feel, and behave in romantic contexts—i.e. their attachment tendencies."

"Second, unlike the self-report measures used to assess attachment styles, people are often unaware of the pronouns they use when outlining autobiographical experiences, so this linguistic 'clue' may be less impacted by self-presentation biases," he said.

At present it is not clear exactly why the pronouns that people use may differ depending on their attachment style. However, the researchers suggest that the explanation may lie with the tendency of people with avoidant and anxious attachment styles to ruminate and focus on themselves in a negative way.

It would also not be surprising if these types of people avoided more inclusive "we-talk" because these attachment styles are often associated with a distaste for intimacy and closeness.

The researchers caution, however, that more research needs to be conducted regarding this issue.

"There are many limitations regarding this work," Dunlop said. "To begin, although we had observations from over 1,400 participants, this is some of the first work to explore associations between word use and attachment styles. As such, the results reported here need to be replicated using different narratives and by additional research groups."

relationships, psychology
Stock photo: The language you use when talking about your relationships could be very revealing. Getty