My last round of blog posts centered on the idea that you can intentionally change your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around relationships by understanding your attachment style and the styles of the people you are in relationship with. Each attachment style differentially impacts how you perceive (or ignore) interpersonal threats and challenges, the quality and intensity of your emotional reactions, and the behaviors you enact to defend yourself and regulate your emotions. By focusing on each of these areas of functioning, you can get more of what you want, and get less of what you don’t want, in your relationships with others.
In this post and those to follow, I am going to focus, not on eliminating conflict in relationships, but on helping to manage it and have it be productive. In order to do this, we need to learn how to break those “stuck points” that keep us time and time again getting mired in hurtful interactions.
Time and time again in working with my clients, the issue of being right rises as perhaps the most salient factor that escalates and maintains interpersonal conflict. This is most evident in couples therapy, but the same issues apply in friendships as well as relationships at work.
In the early phases of working with a couple or family, my focus is usually on identifying the core themes that underlie the conflict. By themes, I am not talking about what each person is saying to the other, I am talking about the deep meaning underlying what they are saying. At first the themes seem complex. But, once understood, they are usually straight forward and simple. Once the simpler core themes are uncovered, changing the interaction pattern for the better becomes less daunting for everyone.
For example, one member of a couple might say, “He always does what he wants… has his way…He doesn’t care what I think.” The other person, feeling misunderstood and falsely accused, might respond, “That is so not true. Just last week I asked you where you wanted to go to dinner and we went there.” Our first person then continues, “Yeah, but that’s just because I gave you such a hard time.” The second person, now feeling flushed in the face, escalates: “That’s a bunch of BS…..” And a few minutes later, voices are raised, and the pair is making accusations and counterpoints about some other event that happened two years ago. Before you know it, both parties are feeling hurt, angry, and wounded, and the argument often ends when someone shuts down or exits the room in a furor.
The point here is that neither member of the couple is actually hearing what the other person is saying. And this is where knowing the other person’s attachment style again becomes important. If we knew that the person had a preoccupied attachment style, we might realize that what they were saying was “I’m angry and worry that he doesn’t care much about me anymore.” We can infer this because preoccupied people are interpersonally focused, worry about security in relationships, and register any act that could be construed as uncaring as a threat.
Based on our hypothetical couple’s discussion, we might also infer that the second person has a dismissing attachment style. He responds to whether the objective facts are correct. He is most concerned with whether his partner is misrepresenting the facts or falsely accusing him. But, he knows he is right, so he cannot allow this transgression and assault on his rationality to stand. This reminds me of an old joke that goes: “I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken.”
Our embattled dismissing partner may come back time and time to the evidence… facts of the interactions and recounted events. His partner may come back time and time again to saying that he just doesn’t care about her or what she thinks. Before you know it, after dredging up multiple examples from years past, he is accusing her of being neurotic and crazy and she is accusing him of being self-centered, callous, and out of touch.
So, what happened here? Her message is, “I am feeling distance between us and want to know that you still cherish me.” His message is, “You are telling me that I am wrong about events that I am recounting accurately. You are trying to alter the facts to make me out to be the bad guy. You are saying that I am no good and stupid.”
We all know these people. They could be your favorite neighbors. They could be you or me. And, the only fact we can know for sure is that they are both right. In my own interactions with my wife, she has at times told me:
“Don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean.”
Even though I am an attachment theory expert, I have to confess that it took me a couple of years to get her meaning here. In my example, if our dismissing friend could hear what his partner meant (“I’m sad and worry that you might not care as much about me anymore”), he may have been able to be on the same wavelength with her and respond accordingly. He could have replied, “I really care about you and I’m sorry that the way I interact with you sometimes doesn’t leave you feeling that way.”
Instead, his focus on the facts shows her that “he just doesn’t get it.”
He could also ask himself this question:
"What would happen if I let my partner be right?"
In other words, would he lose anything if he didn’t fight back? What would happen if he thought, “Okay. I’m going to let her get this one over on me.”
Instead, he attempts to prove to her that she is wrong about the facts… as if this would make her retract her statement… as if her knowing her error would lead her to cancel out her sad feelings or thoughts that he doesn’t care. Knowledge of human nature, however, tells us that emotions are never wrong (you are feeling what you are feeling, no matter what anyone else says). His continuing to argue the case of his “rightness” just further invalidates (i.e., you don’t have a right to feel what you are feeling) her and confirms her suspicion that he is out of touch and doesn’t care about her feelings. Now, dismissing people are pretty logical. They like rational thought processes and should be able to see that it just isn’t rational to argue to win here unless the goal is to create more distance and strife in the relationship.