A couple who have been married over 25 years, came to see me due to ongoing quarrelling, followed by days of emotional distance. Their children were off at university and working now, and instead of enjoying the freedom of this stage of life, they were getting on each other’s nerves. They both missed their children and the focus they provided. They had little arguments about all kinds of different matters and it almost always went something like this: Kim would raise a concern such as why her husband Charlie works so late, or why he spends so much time watching sports on TV, or why he does not make more effort to talk with her more. Charlie does not understand what the big deal is. He loves her and tells her this, but when Kim is stirred up about something, Charlie anticipates a quarrel and wants to be anywhere else but there. He gets quiet, tries to change the subject, or leaves the room. He goes to do something he excels at, like work or escapes by watching sports on TV.*
Kim, who missed her children and felt alone, often asked questions to engage Charlie in conversation. But her questions often turned to complaints and criticisms. Charlie, not understanding her loneliness, got defensive. Feeling he could do nothing to please her, he shut down, got quiet or left the room. The more that Charlie stayed late at work, avoiding the conflict he anticipated when he walked in the front door, the more likely he was to find an angry Kim – either silent or critical.
Kim’s pursing when in distress and Charlie’s withdrawing has created a negative spiral they feel hopelessly stuck in. How you handle distress is what defines your relationship style. Knowing your relationship style and knowing your partner’s style is an essential step to getting unstuck from the negative patterns that keep issues from getting resolved.
Despite over 25 years of marriage, Kim and Charlie do not fully understand or appreciate how different each other’s relationship styles are. Charlie is not aware how his way of dealing with his distress is triggering Kim to feel uncared for and more distressed. Kim is not aware how her tone of voice and questions trigger Charlie’s anticipation and dread of another unresolvable fight.
What is Your Relationship Style?
Stan Tatkin in his book Wired For Love describes three styles of relating. These attachment styles or social wiring, is developed in childhood. Parents who put a high priority on the relationship, expression of feelings, are loving, flexible, sensitive and playful tend to produce children with well-developed right-brain, known as the insula. This makes them good at reading faces, voices, emotions, body sensations and getting the overall gist of things in relationships. This creates a secure style of relating which Tatkin calls “The Anchor”.
The Anchor: ‘Two Can Be Better Than One’
‘I am fine by myself, but prefer the give and take of a close relationship.’
‘I value my close relationship and will do what it takes to keep them in good condition.’
‘I get along with a wide variety of people.’
‘My close relationships are not fragile.’
‘I love people and people tend to love me.’
‘Lots of physical contact and affection is fine with me.’
‘I’m equally relaxed when I’m with my partner and when I’m alone.’
‘Interruptions by my loved ones do not bother me.’
Not everyone is raised in a family where we feel secure. Some grow up in families there is not one consistently dependent and available parent. Some are raised in families where parents value something else more than relationship, like status, money, appearances. Some parents promote self-reliance, independence and privacy over relationship. Sometimes a parent’s mental illness, unresolved trauma or loss, addiction to drugs or alcohol interferes with the development of security in the children. In any of these situations an insecure style of relating is created. Tatkin calls these two “The Island” and “The Wave”.
The Island: ‘I want you in the house, just not in my room…unless I ask you.’
‘I know how to take care of myself better than anyone else could.’
‘I’m a do-it-myself kind of person.’
‘I thrive when I can spend time in my own private sanctuary.’
‘If you upset me, I have to be by myself to calm down.’
‘I often feel my partner wants or needs something from me that I can’t give.’
I’m most relaxed when nobody is around.’
‘I’m low maintenance and I prefer a partner who also is low maintenance.’
The Wave: ‘If only you loved me like I love you.’
‘I take better care of others than I do myself.’
‘I often feel as though I’m giving and giving, and not getting anything back.’
‘I thrive on talking to and interacting with others’
‘If you upset me, I have to talk in order to calm down.’
‘My partner tends to be rather selfish and self-centred.’
‘I’m most relaxed when around my friends.’
‘Love relationships are ultimately disappointing and exhausting. You can never depend on anyone.’
The three relationship styles are descriptions of your tendencies – like your default position. It is how you tend to behave when in distress and the childhood coping method kicks in. No one is always like an Anchor, Island or Wave all the time in an intimate relationship
Relationship styles are not fixed and permanent, and even if you were wired in childhood to a certain style, the brain changes and adapts making it possible to learn to ways of relating and creating new neural pathways. We can all learn to become more Anchor-like, more secure with practice, and a loving partner.
Regulating our emotions can help us when our partner’s style is different from our own. Calming down and reflecting and becoming clear about what we are upset about is the first step. Then we can try to stand in our partner’s shoes, remembering they are also upset, but react differently.
In a previous article (How You Can Make Love and Avoid War in Your Relationship), I outlined Stan Tatkin’s description of The Primitives: the survival reflexes, fears that lead to fighting or fleeing and The Ambassadors: the ability to regulate emotion, gather more information and reflect on the big picture. By engaging our Ambassadors to calm our Primitives we can then have a constructive conversation and resolve a contentious matter regardless of your differing relationship styles.
Kim and Charlie love each other very much, but familiarity with their own and their partner’s relationship style would really help them. With the knowledge of how each other responds when emotionally upset, and how each perceives the other’s actions, they will get out of the negative spiral and resolve their differences far more quickly. When they really know how each other ticks, they will know how to influence, shift, motivate, soothe, and inspire each other.
*Kim and Charlie are a fictitious couple, based on a composite.