In my last post, I wrote about how to give your relationship a checkup and why our relationships often become strained over time. In thinking about committed male-female relationships, I’m often struck by how differently men and women communicate. During couples therapy sessions in the Bethesda area and NW Washington DC, I notice that men and women often have the same goals for their relationship, but they have competing or contradictory methods for achieving closeness. In short, 1) men and women often long for the same things–understanding, connection, respect, admiration, 2) men and women often operate very differently–women say one thing; men hear something else, and vice versa; and 3) men and women both erode their relationships in different, but equal manners. Pat Love reports in her book–How to Improve Your Relationship Without Talking About It–two concepts that I often witness when treating couples. She suggests that the worst thing that a man can do to a woman is to leave her feeling alone while she remains committed in that relationship; AND that the worst thing that a woman can do to a man is leave him feeling criticized while in that committed relationship.
Yet, I see couple after couple who are locked in this relationship dynamic, and I know that they are not alone as they try to untangle that pattern. Recently, I read a story that detailed the experiences of a husband and wife who desired greatly to maintain a connection while they watched that connection fade away year by year. I found myself wondering, why is it often easier to let those negative patterns fall into place rather than strive for our true longings with each other?–which is to live more fully connected to our partners and within our families. As a partner in a coupled relationship, it feels unexplainable to me, until I consider what attachment theory has to offer us for a better understanding.
John Bowlby and many others have conceptualized, researched and validated an intricate theory of connection–in short, they suggest that every human is wired for connection, and that we all cry out in distress when we feel disconnected. According to attachment theory, we show our distress in unique ways according to our personality, our experiences, and our abilities. I call these our default tendencies, or we could also see them as our coping skills We either, flee or avoid when distressed or overwhelmed emotionally. We attack our partner, or fight for that relationship in some manner. We also might dually retreat and pursue due to feeling ambivalent or uncertain about our true wishes and wants. Lastly, we might feel so confused or distressed that we can’t contain or control ourselves and become disorganized, or in short, lose it.
How does this theory of early attachment relate to our adult intimate relationships? Without an exceptional amount of awareness, we tend to repeat this pattern during our breakups or fights as adults! What is the silver lining in this very bad news? We have the chance to do it differently–we can try to wake up, notice our own default pattern, talk with our partner about their default pattern, and try not to repeat this pattern over and over again. We can try to turn our attention toward our partner when we are tempted to criticize or ignore. Here is one very concrete strategy: As soon as you notice a negative statement about to come out of your mouth, stop and rephrase it into a request or comment that is both positive and authentic. It can be done! I promise! I did it this morning! After spending hours rearranging our family’s babysitting schedule only to feel unappreciated and irritated, I started to sign off on an email with sarcasm, and I signed off with love and humor. And I felt so much better!
We can also try to wake ourselves up from our own preprogrammed defaults. In an effort to have a better experience today with our partner, we can put our complaints down on paper and analyze what we are really longing for and how can we meet each wish positively. For example, if you want to have more fun in your relationship and you are longing to enjoy your partner without the hassle of daily family logistics, schedule a date night! And it could be that date night is with your partner or it might be with a low-maintenance friend or family member. Try to keep it simple without striving for perfection in your relationship. It’s not always easy, yet small, concrete efforts do work! I witness the proof in my own relationship, and I notice these small daily efforts transforming the relationships of the couples whom I work with as well.