Heart rate variability moderates the association between attachment avoidance and self-concept reorganization following marital separation

David A. Sbarra, Jessica L. Borelli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Despite substantial evidence indicating that relationships shape people's self-concept, relatively little is known about how people reorganize their sense of self when relationships end and whether this varies as a function of people's beliefs about relationships. In this report, we examine the prospective association between self-report adult attachment style and self-concept recovery among 89 adults following a recent marital separation. People high in attachment avoidance are characterized by the tendency to deactivate (i.e., suppress) painful attachment-related thoughts and feelings, and, following Fagundes, Diamond, and Allen (2012), we hypothesized that highly avoidant people would show better or worse self-concept outcomes depending on their ability to successfully regulate their emotional experience during a divorce-related mental recall task. We operationalized self-regulation using respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and found that highly avoidant people who showed RSA increases across our divorce-related mental activation task (DMAT) evidenced improvements in their self-concept over three months. In contrast, highly avoidant adults who showed RSA decreases during the DMAT showed no improvement (or a worsening) in their self-concept disruptions over the subsequent three months. These results suggest that RSA, an index of heart rate variability, may provide a window into self-regulation that has the potential to shed new light on why some people cope well or poorly following the loss of a relationship. Discussion centers on the potential mechanisms of action that explain why some people are able to successfully deactivate attachment-related thoughts and feelings whereas other people are not.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)253-260
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2013


  • Attachment
  • Avoidance
  • Divorce
  • Heart rate variability
  • Marital separation
  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA)
  • Self-concept

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)


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