Getting unstuck in unhappy relationships: Part 3

Parts 1 and 2 focused on understanding insecure attachment styles. In this final part, we focus on understanding the traits of secure attachment and the kinds of skills that promote secure relationships.

Even though our attachment style can be traced back to our earliest relationships, it isn’t set in stone and it isn’t the case that it cannot be changed. The extent to which we are able to become securely attached later in life is fortunately determined less by our early relationships and more by a combination of how aware we are of ourselves and strengthening the skills for healthy, secure attachments.

One way to get a feel for what secure relationships are like is to observe securely attached babies and their mothers. These babies will be visibly upset when their mother leaves the room and actively seek comfort from them when they return. After they feel comforted and settled again, they will happily explore other things going on in the room knowing that their mother (and source of security) is nearby and there for them in moments of need. To these babies, their mother represents someone with whom they can depend on and return to when they become distressed. However, they don’t allow their reliance to get in the way of exploring other interesting things in their environment. It is this balance of self-directed exploration of the external world and need for security from another human being that creates a healthy attachment in relationships.  

Secure adult romantic relationships follow very similar patterns. Some beliefs underlying secure attachments are:

It’s important to remember that no relationship is ever completely secure and even those who

are relatively secure in their attachment style will run into challenges in their relationships. Even a person who holds many of the above beliefs will experience moments of doubt and vulnerability that make them question whether they are lovable, whether their partner will leave them, or even make them expect that their partner ‘should’ know why they’re angry without being told why.

This brings us to some of the skills that can help to realign us back to engaging securely with our partner. Without these skills, it can be easy for us to fall back into our anxious or avoidant patterns of thinking and doing.

  1. Regulating your emotions

This is a skill that applies not only to relationships but across all aspects in life because inevitable, we will run into obstacles and unfair situations in life that bring up uncomfortable feelings within us. What is helpful to practice is the skills of regulating our uncomfortable emotions that arise during conflict or difficult moments. This includes understanding the function that emotions serve in our lives and making the connection between what is happening (the challenging situation) and why you are feeling a particular way without blaming yourself or others (including your partner) for it. It is also about becoming familiar have with what you need when emotions (most commonly anger, sadness, or fear) run high. Understanding what soothes you, how much time you need to de-escalate, and how you can allow emotions to pass without reacting to or acting out the emotion is all part of this skill.

2. Effective communication

Communicating effectively within the context of intimate relationships can serve us in two ways:

To make sure your needs are met in a relationship

In relationships, it isn’t enough to be able to regulate and meet your own emotional needs, it’s crucial to let your partner know what your needs are so they can respond to them.

To choose the right partner

By communicating your relationship needs in a way that allows your potential partner to understand and meet your needs, you set the stage for the kind of fulfilling relationship you desire. How the other person responds to effective communication can reveal to you whether they are sincere in wanting to develop a healthy, mutually dependent relationship or not.

Effective communication is a skill that needs to be practiced over time. It follows the principle of asserting your needs openly while respecting the other’s needs at the same time. Effective communicators:

·    Believe they have the right to express their opinions and emotions

·    Can express their opinions and emotions clearly and honestly during disagreements

·    In communicating with others, treat them with respect while also respecting themselves

·    Listen closely to what other people are saying and send signals that they are trying to understand their perspective

·    In disagreements, they aim to negotiate with the other person and reach a compromise rather than focusing only on getting their own needs met

This quiz to help you understand what kind of communicator you are which in turn, can help determine what you might need to change in order to be more effective at communicating.

2.     Fighting well

It isn’t that couples in secure relationships don’t fight or have disagreements. They do. But what they do is that they learn to argue well. Conflicts are a natural occurrence in any relationship that cannot be avoided. Arguing well means that you find ways of disagreeing without being attacking or hurtful to your partner or the relationship. These principles guide what it means to fight well in a relationship:

·   Use language that is respectful of the other person’s wellbeing. In moments of anger, it is easy to use degrading or insulting language to hurt those who you feel have hurt you. Be mindful of the kind of words you use.

·   Stay with the topic at hand. Remain focused on the specific problem happening instead of bringing up similar problems that have happened in the past. Bringing up the past generalizes the conflict and can escalate things out of proportion.

·   Be willing to engage. It can be easy to either withdraw (e.g. giving the silent treatment, stonewalling) or attack (e.g. name calling, attacking the other’s character, passive aggressive behaviours) in an attempt to protect yourself from conflict. Being able to practice staying and dealing with the issue will enable both sides to find a resolution and learn about what needs to be tweaked in the relationship for the future.

Staying stuck in unhappy relationship patterns is not something we are doomed for if we find ourselves repeating anxious or avoidant relationships styles and not being very familiar with secure attachment styles. Knowing how to be in healthy, fulfilling, and secure relationships is a skill that we are not necessarily born with. Instead, much of our ability to succeed in relationship comes down to learning about it and practicing it in real life- much like learning a sport or a language. We can become incredibly practiced at it if we are willing to put in our time and effort. It also isn’t necessarily something you need to do alone either. This process is what many people go to therapy for- to learn about the skills that enables them to enter into meaningful romantic relationships.

Further reading:

Ester Perel- a couples therapist provides excellent advice on fighting well as a couple on her blog.