Welcome to the first installment of a new series of articles on how to improve your relationship with someone you love.
How many times have you had a fight about something and thought “Why did we fight about that? Why was it such a big deal?” Often, we wonder why something makes our partner so upset. Sometimes, we wonder why something makes us so upset.
Many times, we aren’t really fighting about whatever the fight seemed to be about – doing the dishes, taking out the trash, being late, even being intimate. Underneath all of these fights, and others, is often a fear that we don’t matter to our partner, that we can’t count on them when we need them, that they don’t really love us. As humans, from infancy, we are wired to look for safety and security in an intimate relationship. When it feels like we are losing or have lost that sense of safety or security, an internal alarm starts to go off, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. Somewhere underneath whatever we think we are fighting about, we are usually really fighting about safety, security, and feeling loved.
Researchers believe that there are 4 basic coping strategies and styles, based on our experiences while growing up and in previous relationships. Each of us will tend to have one of the following experiences in close relationships. We are likely to:
- Feel secure and deal with concerns about the relationship relatively easily and directly
- Feel worried about the relationship and pursue or cling
- Feel threatened by too much closeness or probing and distance and avoid
- Feel threatened by possible rejection or abandonment and react in a potentially confusing or violent way
The bottom line is that only about half of us can easily weather these potential storms and just “talk it out.” The rest of us are likely to have fights that can be quite upsetting and may feel like we aren’t solving anything. We are often left wondering “Why can’t my partner understand?”
It’s important to realize that these patterns, although they can change, are so deeply wired in us that they can take over in a split second, before we even realize it. Within seconds, we are having the same fight we always have, and it doesn’t feel good.
Here are a few tips in dealing with these patterns:
- Try to notice your pattern. Does one of you avoid and distance? Does one of you pursue and pull for more closeness?
- Think about your own experiences growing up and in previous relationships. What has this “taught” you to expect from an intimate partner?
- If you can’t catch yourselves In the midst of your pattern (which can be quite difficult), see if you can analyze what happened after the fight is over and whether you can look at it in terms of the pattern you are each used to.
- Realize that when things heat up and our adrenaline is flowing, our brain becomes hijacked and productive discussions become impossible. Try to take a break and calm down, with a mutual promise to keep coming back to the issue until you make progress.
- For some of us, it may just be too difficult to avoid ingrained patterns without external help. If it feels like you keep getting stuck in the same patterns, a trained therapist can help you both to put on the brakes long enough to make quicker progress during what are often difficult discussions.
Whatever the pattern we have been used to in relationships, there is good news – It is possible to change our pattern. Sometimes we can do it by ourselves. Sometimes we need to find someone who can help us. In future articles I will explore specific skills and techniques we can use to improve our relationships.
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