In this lesson, we are going to delve into why relationships are intensely complex and sometimes quite challenging but also potentially healing. Interestingly we need to go all the way into our DNA, and our experiences from birth as this is really where the complexity all starts.
Psychiatrist John Bowlby in the late 1950s developed a model of developmental psychology called Attachment theory. He observed that the emotional bonds between parent and baby, the strength or weakness of the attachment determined how we relate to others throughout our lives, particularly in personal, close relationships. He found that if babies were not able to attach or bond, their attachments in the future would also be problematic.
The responses to poor bonding created specific patterns. In very general terms, to avoid the emotional pain of poor bonding, a child and then the adult would either avoid the situation that caused the pain, a love relationship, attempt to cling on, or be hyper-aware behaviour looking continually for potential danger. Oftentimes we cannot look back and see how our initial bonds with our parents were, although we can have an idea. This is apparent through our development and the attachment styles we later have adopted.
U.C. Berkeley psychophysiologist and behavioural neuroscientist Robert Levenson did some fascinating work exploring the role of your DNA and a particular gene that regulates serotonin in the brain and how this affects your relationships. Some people with this gene have the ability to not only experience negative emotions more easily but also to experience more emotions, with more depth and more intensity.
This lets us know even more that not only the childhood imprinting but the brain chemistry of a person may not be the same as yours. Therefore an acceptance of your partner having different ways of emotional being is so important. Blaming and finger pointing really doesn't play a part; we are who we are; we are how we were made. This is a natural state that may be adapted but may not. And this is a factor to consider when you choose relationships or choose to focus on working on your existing one; your partner may not emotionally be the same as you.
In my work with couples, I've seen these attachment patterns in various forms so often; a husband that doesn't trust a wife and thinks they are having affairs or going to leave them when they are not. A partner who is distant and avoids 'true intimacy.' A person who jumps in and falls in love easily, but when the true possibility of a close connection appears, they run.
Not every challenging reaction is necessarily a result of infant bonding inadequacies, people get hurt along the way, and some of these kinds of patterns can occur anyway, but it does help to consider the possibility that the patterns you or your partner have are nothing to do with how much you or they want to be in a deep loving relationship.
I have only touched upon these theories, and this field of study would take up many courses. But the main message is that communication and education of why we function the way we do in one to one relationships is key.
According to Bowlby, approx 50% of the population has a secure Attachment Style, and these people can form healthy adult bonds with healthy interdependence and empathy in their connection. My guess is that however well-bonded you are, there is always work to be done to keep the connection strong, reliable, and engaging. Exploring childhood communication and bonding can provide valuable insights and throw light on subconscious motivations and blocks that can get in the way.
So, do you communicate or alienate? Are you hungry for attachment or shy of it, is it ok sometimes but scary when it gets too intense. Do you too often look for clues that you are unlovable or about to be abandoned? Perhaps your partner needs more space than you, it isn't necessarily personal if their attachment style is different. Do you push your partner away by being needy or reactive, or withdrawing? Can you sometimes manage uncomfortable behaviour that may trigger your attachment wounds, and other times if you are feeling more vulnerable, having had a bad day or tired, etc., find it harder.
This is where communication is essential. Discuss these ideas. Work out ways you can let your partner know when you are being triggered, discuss things you can do to make your partner feel safer. Avoid criticism, avoid blaming, avoid name-calling, stonewalling, and judgements. This is not healthy communication, it's just letting off steam it's another form of anger. Find new ways to express old feelings.
John Gottman uses the concept of "love maps," which through answering questions about each other lives and inner worlds partners can more easily navigate the territory of their loved one's processes. These love maps encourage communication as the average couple, especially those with children, spend very limited time actually speaking to each other about anything unrelated to the comings and goings of the household. Learn to speak to each other more, make that important time possible.
The fun and excitement of early love easily get lost when the pressures of work, money, children, extended family, etc., take their toll. Being spontaneous, romantic, having date nights, and putting time aside just for 'couple time' itself is essential and a strong indicator of a long-lasting relationship. And also, we know that relationships are continually changing, and this can be challenging too.
Flexibility dealing with conflict helps to accommodate your partner's feelings. Being affectionate and co-operative is the most likely way to have smooth communication, even with the more stickier subjects. We have all heard this before how asking nicely or speaking politely is more likely to get you what you want, and yet when couples are triggered, the frustration and anger take over, and the reactions become fuelled with resentment. Communicate kindly and communicate softly. Take times outs as much as you need them. Come back to your partner with love. That is what will help you most in the end.
And don't forget to celebrate and communicate about the good times too, to focus on the positive, take your partner out somewhere special for every anniversary – make a point of celebrating the years together. Reflect on the lovely times you've had together and reminisce. Celebrate each other's accomplishments and be pleased for each other. In relationship research, this has been found to be another important factor, another secret to success.
In the next lesson, we will review the communication styles. Are you an avoider or an engager?