Conflicts — 12 January 2009
What couples conflicts are really about may surprise you

Most people believe that fights in love relationship stem from varying needs, miscommunication patterns, early family programming, or undesirable personal traits. Though all these factors may exacerbate couples’ conflicts, the core of the problem is a much deeper personal and relational issue.

Psychological attachment theory, substantiated by research findings, posits that human beings’ quest for security and safety propels them to seek an attachment to a mate who will provide nurturing, soothing and protection, akin to the that received in infancy.

Sue Johnson, author of “Hold Me Tight” suggests that with loss of connection, “We experience a primal feeling of panic. It sets off an alarm in the brain’s amygdala, our fear center, where we are highly attuned to threats of all kinds.” The response to fear is often reactive – not restorative. She terms the fights that follow “demon dialogues”, that “induce a terrible sense of emotional aloneness.” She supports the attachment theorists’ understanding that the source of couple’s fights is not conflict or control, but emotional distance.

Joanne Davilla’s article in “Attachment Processes in Couple and Family Therapy” amplifies: “As such, specific attachment themes typically relate to fears of being unloved or rejected by the partner, a desire for greater closeness or intimacy, and fears that the partner is not trustworthy or available to provide support when needed.”

Researchers Brennan, Clark, Shaver & Hazan, identified four emotional styles regarding avoidance of intimacy and anxiety about abandonment.

Secure People have low levels of both avoidance of intimacy and anxiety about abandonment. In relationships, they are open, self disclosing, can ask for help, provide support, are positive about self and partner, feel worthy of love and are good communicators and problem solvers.

Preoccupied people have low levels of avoidance of intimacy and high levels of anxiety about abandonment. They are needy and dependent, worried about being rejected, desire very close emotional and physical contact, are sensitive and expressive, seek reassurance about their lovability and self-worth. They care for and idolize their partners yet never feel that their needs are fully met. They are very communicative and their emotions tend to interfere with their problem solving skills.

Dismissing people have high levels of avoidance of intimacy and low levels of anxiety about abandonment. These individuals are self-sufficient and have low need for relationships. They disclose little information, desire little emotional and physical affection. They do support and care about their partners in practical ways. They communicate poorly, are emotionally distant and can be judgmental and critical.

Fearful people exhibit high levels of both avoidance of intimacy and anxiety about abandonment. They question their worthiness of love, worry often about rejection, desire intimacy – yet avoid it. They have difficulty being emotionally or physically close, and withhold self-disclosure and emotional expression. They are sensitive, vulnerable and sacrifice their own needs, which interferes with becoming good communicators and problem solvers.

Despite these attributes, safe connection is still possible because our attachment styles are modifiable. We may need professional assistance, but can remember to:

• Accept that your relationship conflicts stem from unmet closeness needs not from any issue or your “blemished” mate.
• Stop fighting and voice your real need: “I want to be closer to you – not fight with you. ” or “I feel fear when we are not being affectionate.”
• Be open about your need, as hard as it may be. It stops the conflict and focuses on the real issue of creating a safe mutual attachment to each other.
• Teach each other how to be a better support seeker and provider. Be specific, “When I feel worried about money, I need you to say you understand and not provide platitudes.”
• Bolster your partner’s personal and relationship safety and security. “I know we will always be together because I love you and we chose each other well.”

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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