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Secrets of a Great Relationship: Avoider or Engager?

This lesson is a part of an audio course Secrets of a Great Relationship by Linda Rauch

Are you an avoider or an engager, the two most common styles? Let's have a look at these communication styles. Gottman's main message is that people who have a similar way of expressing their emotions – what he calls meta-emotional styles are more likely to have a happy, long-lasting relationship. When these styles clash, problems arise. My husband was not that great at dealing with conflict when we first got together. I was full-on like a bull in a china shop. But we were both very eager to learn about communicating styles and about ourselves and why we chose these approaches. We also understood the value of compassion, and when we were able, we were willing to take responsibility for our part in the conflicts. This is an area we have had to work on the most, and through understanding why we each had these styles, we have been able to respect each other's positions and work towards more harmonious communicating.

I have worked with many couples who regularly deal with different communicating styles. In this work, I've seen my share of passive-aggressive behaviour from those not able to deal directly with strong emotions and fireworks from those frustrated with not being able to be understood. When partners are able to come to some shared understanding of how to express their emotions and can call each other out when the agreed communicating styles slip, they do much better together. Good marriages with a lot of love have been saved this way.

If you are entering into a relationship, look at the ways you both communicate your emotions. While typically men and women can have opposing ways – hence the very popular book 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' written by John Gray, many women withdraw into their own caves of protection, and men can be just as needy and demanding. Some people just don't like talking, during sex, after, late at night, or even about anything in. If the styles are very different right from the start, then unless there is a really clear commitment to working on finding a middle way, something that works for both of you and the knowledge – you are likely to need help with that every now and again, particularly if children, nappies and school run come into the picture.

As I've said before, there will always be problems; it is how you deal with them that counts.

I recently worked with a couple, and the husband held in his emotions; he was an avoider and was fearful about expressing anything strongly. He had an upbringing with a strong and difficult father he learnt that expressing his emotions wasn't safe. The wife was an engager; she was the opposite style and wanted to sit and talk for hours about every feeling she had. She came from a big family and fought for attention, and she felt that she could strengthen the bond through intimate conversation whenever possible. Although this would ordinarily be a recipe for disaster in the marriage, they were both committed to each other, and with work, they found a way to unite the opposing styles.

One of the positive aspects of their relationship is the attention they paid each other. Even though they didn't share interests, each of the partners showed interest in each other's hobbies and work. They constantly gave time to each other. They paid attention. They were also very successful in that they understood that although negative feelings (or feelings of most kinds) were difficult for the husband, neither of them assumed that negative feelings were bad. They accepted that being angry or sad, etc. was part of being human. They just struggled to find ways for the husband to feel safe enough in that negativity to come out of his shell and for the wife to learn to feel safe enough not to take the withdrawing as personal and without having to share all her feelings. They had oodles of compassion, kindness, and love for each other, and somehow this had come across enough over the years.

And when they got it wrong, they knew how to apologise. A crucial feature of a successful relationship we are going to look at next.

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Written by

Linda Rauch

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