The Ebb and Flow of Communication
In all relationships there is a push and pull of closeness and distance. Some people need more belonging while others need more autonomy or space. In the Psychological literature these ideas are discussed in terms of attachment. Attachment is the emotional bond built with our caregivers in the earliest days of life and those bonds show themselves throughout various stages of development even lasting into adulthood.
For children who have consistent and responsive care from parents they tend to have a higher level of trust in the relationships they engage in. This is what attachments researchers call a secure attachment. These adults assume the relationship will not be perfect but will be a safe place to be. For children who have inconsistent or absent caregivers their attachment looks different. Some children, who have intermittently caring parents, can learn to be hyper vigilant for when their caregiver will be available to them. These attachments are considered to be anxious. For children who have had distant or even neglectful parents they learn not to be vulnerable or expect too much from caregivers. Even more importantly they learn not to trust that others will take care of their needs. These attachments are considered to be avoidant.
Hayden, Woronzoff-Dashkoff and Murphy conducted a study in 2020 called Who’s the boss? How and when process power moderates partner regulation of attachment defenses. These authors were interested in how interpersonal power may moderate how emotionally regulated our partners are in the relationship. This is a relevant question because many spouses believe that their partner is very powerful and can push their buttons at any time. Other spouses believe that each person is mostly responsible for their emotions in a relationship. So, what does this research tell us?
There were many findings but one of the most interesting conclusions is that the anxious partner was most emotionally reactive (by measure of their increased heart rate) when their partner used negative engagement actions such as blame and criticism but did not try to manage the conflict in any way. This approach of attack and the absence of trying to resolve was extremely difficult for the partner with a need for belonging. In contrast, the avoidant partner was most positively impacted when their partner managed the conflict (by such behaviours such as asking questions and problem solving) by remaining calm and avoiding those negative strategies such as blame and criticism.
While these findings may not be surprising it is interesting to note that how much each partner contributes to trying to problem solve (using process power) conflict with a romantic partner. It is very impactful. If you feel your partner is trying to work things out with you there is a message that you are in a partnership. When the partner disengages physically or otherwise, partners often interpret that they don’t matter to their partner or that their partner doesn’t care. This is particularly difficult for a partner who has a more anxious attachment style.
“Couples both lose when these short term, aggressive strategies are used, as they have negative outcomes in the long term.”
While we know that repeated negative engagement with our partner is not positive, Dr. Haydon references other studies that note couples both lose when these short term, aggressive strategies are used, as they have negative outcomes in the long term.
As a marital therapist I see this research is helpful to guide people in relationships. Knowing if you are more inclined to need belonging or autonomy is the first step. Neither way of being is right or wrong. Rather, recognizing that you may need your partner to communicate respectfully and that allows you to stay engaged in problem solving is a strategy you can negotiate early in the relationship. The other partner may be negotiating for you to stay present physically and emotionally when you might otherwise wish to avoid discussions.
This push and pull is something that ebbs and flows over the length of the relationships. If you need assistance trying to manage communication, give me a call.
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