On Relationships: The Basics – by J. Alan Graham, Ph.D.
I’ve been a psychologist for over 20 years. If there is one issue that has shown up frequently with clients, it’s “relationships.” Single people struggle with how to find and keep a relationship. Coupled people struggle with how to maintain the love in their relationship. Countless books have been written about this topic and this is not a book. This is a short, to-the-point article about my experience about what’s important, whether you’re single and wanting to make a relationship last or coupled and want to keep your relationship strong. The themes below show up in lots of different ways with lots of different couples but most of the time, these are the themes that matter.
It may be the, “if it were a snake it would bite you” kind of thing but relationships are all about the nature of the connection. When you fall in love, your neurology is overwhelmed by brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that make you feel love, joy and ecstasy. Each of you is feeling that you’ve met your soul mate and you can only see their beauty and wonderfully, you’re a pretty great person again too! When both of your brains are swimming in excessive neurotransmitters, the connection is ideal. In time, those brain chemicals return to normal but if you’ve made a solid connection, you begin the move from “falling in love” to “standing in love.” This phase is really all about the maintenance and sense of security of the connection. In psychological terms, we all have a connection style or more accurately, an “Attachment Style.” Research has documented four styles of connection or attachment: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant, and Fearful-Avoidant. These styles emerge from our relational experiences with primary caretakers in childhood and contribute significantly to the way we interact in romantic relationships as adults.
The first group is defined as Secure. That means that these people pretty much expect that their partners will be there for them and will be responsive and caring about their needs. They can ask for love and caring when they need it. They are also attentive and responsive to their partners in their times of need. They trust things will get worked through. They share their feelings easily and receive the feelings of their partners with curiosity and respect.
Anxious people tend to worry that the connection is insecure at best. They get psychologically and physiologically upset when there is a real or perceived threat to the connection (i.e., their partner didn’t call when they said they would, their partner was preoccupied with matters from work rather than attending to them). As Anxious individuals don’t expect to be noticed and responded to, they often maintain close proximity, constant contact and seek getting their needs met indirectly with care taking. When the insecurity about the connection grows, “protest behaviors” emerge that alienate partners, thus producing the insecurity they worry about. Sometimes, these behaviors inspire the partner to distance themselves, making their anxiety worse.
Avoidant people also feel insecure in relationships but manifest their insecurity differently. In response to their worry that the demands of a relationship are beyond their capacity, they withdraw and mentally turn down their sense of their need for the connection. These are the people who say they need “space.” And it’s true…they do need space but too often, in that “space,” they dial down their sense of love and enjoyment of the partner by focusing on their faults. In their withdrawal, they seem cool and unaffected by the suspension of a connection but physiological measurements indicate they are also in distress, similar to those in the Anxious category. They are the people who, after they break up with a partner, reminisce about how that person was actually a pretty good partner and may even regret ending the relationship. Once again they feel lonely and wish to be in a relationship. They can idealize a former lover, always finding current ones lacking. It’s easy to see the challenges an Anxious/Avoidant couple would face. One anxiously pursues, the other distances. This is a frequent dynamic that can lead to frustration if not understood and dealt with successfully.
The Fearful-Avoidant person is usually a survivor of some type of trauma. They tend to want relationships but are at the same time, are quite fearful of them because people in their pasts have been both nurturing and abusive. They are more reactive to disruptions to the connection, real or imagined, and can protest dramatically. They may alternate between withdrawal and anxious rumination.
Your Attachment Style
OK…we’ve very quickly reviewed complicated literature on Attachment Styles. Your attachment style and the attachment style of your partner will dramatically influence how you interact with each another. More importantly, your styles will inform you at an emotional level (regardless of what you say to yourself intellectually), of how secure or insecure you feel through the ups and downs of life and connection. Loving relationships breathe in and out. There are moments when the love and connection flows. There are moments when love and connection ebbs. There are also conflicts that emerge. Two secure people tolerate this ebb and flow and make their way through conflicts. They understand that love can endure, even in times of disappointment, disagreement or temporary separation (i.e., job or child rearing demands). Anxious, Avoidant and Fearful-Avoidant people have a harder time with the ebbs & flows and the conflicts and their interactions often become “protests” about their experience of the connection: too little, too much, too unpredictable.
Here’s the point: No matter what the struggle or argument, I have found that the bottom line is always about the sense of connection. The next section further articulates how this bottom line is often lost in the patterns that emerge. By the way, the dating pool is disproportionately weighted with Anxious and Avoidant folks. The Secure folks tend to meet and wade out of the dating pool together.
The Content Trap
It’s sometimes a challenging concept to differentiate between “content” and “process.” These sound like words therapists throw around that have little meaning but in fact, they mean a lot. “Content” is the thing, issue or topic. “Process” is the way, the manner, the means. The content would be something like which movie to go see…Batman or Les Misarables. The process would be how you interacted with your partner about which movie to see. (“Last time, YOU chose the movie!, Now it’s my turn.” or “Lets keep looking until we find one we both like.”). Often the process becomes a pattern that is both elusive to identify and challenging to change.
In my experience, couples frequently come in to therapy stuck in the content trap. They are arguing about who did what, who said what, basically battling it out over a content. They’re missing the point that the very process of battling is the problem and they are also missing the point that the bottom line, the connection, is usually the real issue. Even when people have differences, it’s possible to find connection but if you focus on the content (rather than the process and the connection), it’s easy to feel frustrated, angry and hopeless. And when you feel disconnected, especially over a long period of time, the love wanes and the relationship can be in serious trouble.
Getting to the Real Issue
Like an iceberg, the “content” is the tip and the “real issue” is the bigger part under the surface that can sink a ship. It’s important to know about what’s under the surface and deal with it directly and effectively. I worked with a couple where one person got very upset about their partner’s gregarious nature at parties. The content, delivered as a criticism, was that the partner was too flirtations causing others to be too interested in the partner. As I was talking to them, I had an image of the anxious person being “a pit bull,” vigilantly watching and periodically growling at the strangers that approached. I said to that person that maybe they didn’t need to be so ‘on guard’ (it was clear to me their partner was very loyal to them). I said to the other person that maybe they could check-in periodically to reassure their partner they were at the party with them, even as they were enjoying meeting new people at the party. The real issue here is a sense of insecurity in the relationship (something one of these people understandably suffered as a result of infidelity in a previous relationship). The other real issue here is the other partner’s need to be more attentive to their partner’s history, and to be understanding and responsive to their feelings (qualities of Secure attachment).
The other thing that happens when the real issue stays unrecognized and the couple is locked in the content trap is escalation. When people don’t feel heard, they repeat themselves and talk louder. It’s a given. When you’re focused on a content (“you always forget to take the trash out”), your partner is likely to be defensive which leads to not feeling heard. Then, raised voices or other examples (contents) arrive on the scene. For this example, a review of all the times the trash was taken out keeps the couple arguing. The more-real issue (i.e., I don’t feel I matter to you, which may be based on experiences other than how frequently the trash went out) isn’t being addressed and a “negative loop” can spiral out of control causing hurt and further disconnection. This is also one way to understand why a partner hasn’t “let go” of a past disappointment. Most likely, the real issue under the surface has not been adequately tended to.
Changing the Pattern
The work of couple’s therapy is to move beyond the “content” and change the “pattern.” Contents come and go but when the process or pattern is one that works, no matter what comes up, it can be dealt with successfully and a successful pattern pays attention to the connection. The first step is to see the content trap and the resulting negative loop as the enemy, rather than your partner. Your partner is not the enemy! The enemy is the content trap and the negative loop. This is so important.
The next step is learning new, effective ways to communicate. One of the members of a couple I worked with interacted as if sharing their feelings (a legitimate and important thing to do) was the same as sharing “theories” about their partner (i.e., “I feel you are really cheating on me!”). Clarifying that feelings and theories are different things was helpful to both. Saying “I feel insecure and need reassurance” is very different than saying, “I feel you’re lying to me, that you’re cheating on me”, etc.” Part of their pattern was accusation of negative intentions and behaviors, which elicited angry, defensive rebuttals leading to a negative loop that exacerbated the hurt, pain and disconnection. Until they got to the real issue (insecurity) and found ways to address that directly, talking in clear ways that strengthened their connection and understanding of each other, nothing worked. Now, this couple can more quickly talk about feelings without theories, hear and meet each other’s needs and reconnect. What did we say it is all about? That’s right–the connection. For a more detailed description about how these patterns shift, check out my article on Emotional Focused Therapy for couples.
The Importance of Compliments
John Gottman, Ph.D. writes extensively about issues in relationships and I highly recommend his books. One of the things he’s discovered in over 30 years of research into what makes relationships happy and enduring is about compliments. Additionally, he suggests that approximately 69% of problems couples face are unsolvable but if there is a 5:1 ratio of complimentary interactions to negative/challenging interactions, couples describe their relationships as happy and tend to stay together—no matter how much they fight.
This is an easy one! Just take a moment and think about how nice it feels, how connected you feel to your partner when you are the recipient or giver of a compliment. There are things you love about your partner and things they love about you. If you can purposely move your attention to those things and more importantly, compliment your partner about what you notice, you will create a happier relationship. Statements that start with, “I really appreciate…” or “Thank you for…” or “You are always so good at…” are great ways to add to the part of the ratio that needs to be at “5.” This is part of what contributes to a secure connection…a sense that even though there are problems and faults in our partner and us, the overall experience is good and is expected to be so into the future.