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What's the most important skill to have in a relationship?


Many of us have the idea that the ideal relationship is one without conflict.

When we think about the level of conflict in our own relationship, we see our arguing as evidence that something is wrong. Usually it’s our partner who is doing something wrong and if they could just see the error of their ways, it'd all be fine.

If things get so bad that eventually we seek professional help, what usually happens is that we then attempt to enlist the therapist in our efforts to make our partner see where they are going wrong. "Now the professional' can tell you what I've been saying for years!"

Rifts in a relationship are normal and healthy (yes.. healthy!). The most important thing is to not to not have arguments but to know how to repair the relationship when disagreements and arise.

Relationship fighting styles: Which one are you?

When conflict arises in a relationship, there's a range of options when it comes to a winning strategy. Let's see if you can recognise yourself?

The Peace-Keepers. We avoid arguments at all costs and say 'yes' when we really want to say 'no' and smile when we really want to yell. We are good at this most days. Unfortunately, sooner or later there is one straw too many for this little camel's back and then we can't keep quiet any longer. We then burst forth, not only with the latest issue of where our partners have failed but with issues from last week, last month, last year, and possibly last decade. We can also get very teary about this and secretly hope that when you see the tears that you might somehow see the error of your ways and give in. A few of us may have even learnt to cry on cue.

The Deer in the Headlights. We've never been good at conflict and can never think quickly enough to respond. We know whatever we say will only draw more gunfire. We know that what you're asking is not really what you are asking and that there is some hidden agenda and no right answer? E.g., Does my bum look big in this? Sometimes we struggle to match that which is coming at us, but it's no good. We capitulate and give in (which for some reason seems to make our partners even angrier at us).

The 'Take No Prisoners'. There are those amongst us who have known all our lives that we are right. Not only today but yesterday and tomorrow. We are always right and we believe in pursuing things until others surrender to our righteousness. We wear our loved ones down till they dare not eschew a different take on the issue. We are the Captain of this Ship and there can't be two drivers on the wheel. Got it! (We are also prepared to get loud and scary should you pursue your insubordination). We can even declare war!

The Runners! Conflict is just too scary and so we run - only returning later when we think it's safe. We might also have a drink or two just to calm things down. When we do return, we say absolutely nothing and pretend as if nothing happened.

While these descriptions are (hopefully humourous) attempts to help you recognise some or more of your conflict strategies, what they all share is a tendency to add to the disruption in the relationship rather than address it.

How do you 'mend' relationships?

Enter the baby-researchers! It appears from quite a lot of research that our way of connecting to another has been learnt early in life. And I mean very early! While artists and poets refer to this skill as 'love', researchers call it 'attachment' and it reflects how we have learnt to connect with another.

In short, when studying little babies, the researchers identified those kids who seemed more at peace with themselves and the world. These babies learnt to grow up and explore their worlds and when they had a disagreement with mum about food, or a toy or sleeping, they continued to feel loved by mum, but were also provided with firm but gentle boundaries ('no!'). As these babies grew into people, they continued to explore the world and learnt how to negotiate relationships with people who disagreed with them without the threat of removing love as a means to control their behaviour. These babies were well bonded with (usually) mum and had learn that it was okay to disagree with people as the relationship was still secure.

Researchers in this area tell us that, this single skill, to be able to connect with someone, experience some discord in the relationship but ‘re-attune’ to each other may be the most important lifeskill we will ever learn. It turns out that we tend to continue the same connection skills that we learnt as babies into adulthood. This skill (or lack of it) permeates our everyday lives from how we might interact with the call-person on the phone to our neighbour to our employer to our partner and our children. Interesting!

Secure, Preoccupied, Avoidant and Disorganised Attachment

In total these researchers identified four main attachment strategies babies made with their carer. As mentioned above, one of these is termed 'secure' attachment.

A second attachment type is the Ambivalent or Preoccupied attachment. This style of connecting to people occurred if the child was unsure if Mum was going to be there or not. Sometimes she was there and was able to acknowledge and meet the requirements of the child. More often though Mum withdrew love and affection as a means of controlling behaviour. In short, Mum’s needs got top billing and even from this very early age, the babe learnt that in order to have Mum at least present, then the best strategy was to maintain the distress. This ensured, even if Mum didn’t like the behaviour, she was more likely to stick around and at least be there if you kept up the crying. Know anyone who always seems to be in the middle of some high-drama? Anyone you know who is constantly monitoring the state of the relationship? Chances are they were a child with ambivalent attachment and now they continue this same pattern with the adults in their life.

The third attachment style identified was termed the Avoidant type. These were the kids who didn’t really care if Mum was there or not. They had learnt that whatever was going on, Mum was busy somewhere else, and so it was best to put on a brave face and go off and explore the world regardless. Interestingly though, although these babies looked as if they we totally cool with making it on their own in the world, their cortisol levels told a different story. They were equally as stressed as the ambivalent lot. Know anyone who refuses, or (more likely) is unable to discuss emotional aspects of a relationship and just wants to get on with it?

The third attachment style was labelled 'Disorganised'. This is when the poor babe was found to be frightened of Mum. What a bind! The person who you are supposed to turn to for safety turns out to the person who also scares the hell out of you! Turns out many of these mothers had experienced trauma and their own unresolved sense of safety then effected their ability to offer this to their children. The babies of these mothers, it would seem turned into adults who weren’t quiet sure what to do when it came to relating to others, only not to trust and know that the situation could change at any time. As a result as they matured, such children often took on the role of parent, organising and ordering those around them. I guess that’s one way to connect with people!

So what’s the point?

The big question is what style of connecting to people did you learn? If it's only the Secure who learnt that differences in a relationship were allowed and normal and did not expose you to rejection, then what about the rest of us who maybe didn't have this secure attachment?

For some of us, the idea that a healthy relationship is where disruptions are addressed, repaired and the bond ‘re-attuned’ is completely foreign to us. The good news is that Secure ways of bonding can be learnt but it requires an awareness of the old attachment style and a willingness for us to change. For the Ambivalent, this means giving up the drama and the false safety of being the centre of attention. For the Avoidant, this means developing a language of your own internal emotional state and a willingness to let a loved one see it. For the Disorganised, it means, maybe for the first time learning that in connection with others there can be safety rather than danger yet to take this risk, feels like the ultimate craziness.

What do you do when your relationship with your spouse is disrupted? Drama until you wear them down? Act as if nothing has happened? Or simply come to a complete and utter stop?

If you didn’t learn that it was safe to connect with someone as a child for who you were, and you want to experience this thing called love then you will need to learn that it is okay to disagree, it is okay to have needs that are different to your partners and that you do not have to control them, or their behaviour or threaten to leave them to get what you want. What you really want is the opportunity to be loved for who you really are and for that to happen, you are going to have to learn how to argue, to ‘mis-attune’ and then ‘re-attune’.

So where do I learn to affect change in my relationship?

Therapy with a psychologist is one place to start the process. Here are some tips on how I work with couples:

  • I use an 'attachment' focus, meaning that over time, couples identify their own particular attachment style, how it effects their partner and if it provides them with the outcomes they would like to see in their relationship.

  • I also believe in helping couples identify the kind of relationship they would like to have as opposed to tolerating the one that they've got. We have goals for every other thing in our life, why not our relationship?

  • I champion sometimes working with partners individually. Couples therapy doesn’t need both partners. If you take the time to reflect on how you connect and if this is or isn't working for you and develop other ways of behaving , then this new information and skill can be used back in your relationship.

  • Identify the blame game. Typically clients attend a session with a long list of issues around where their partner is failing. While this may be true, in most instances, continued criticism destroys love. It's the rare individual who can continue to face day after day monologues on how they are failing. Often a more empowering question is "where do I need to lift my game?"

It sounds so simple, but learning to risk conflict in order to find greater intimacy in your relationship is very scary for many.

For more information, why not book a consultation with me, and we can have a chat?

Further reading:

Below is a link to a survey on the 'attachment' style. Do the survey and find out how you connect. Then, get your partner to complete it as well and see if you match!

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