This is Part 1 of a multi-part series on the psychology of relationships.
Part 2: The Masters and Disasters of Love.
Over the years I’ve seen relationships amongst my friends come and go, and I’ve been in my fair share of successful and failed relationships as well. And I’ve realised that part of what it boils down to is this: are you secure in your relationship?
Let’s imagine a scenario: you and your boyfriend or girlfriend have just had an awful quarrel. It doesn’t really matter what it’s about. It could be the fact that you’re both busy lawyers and you hardly ever see each other. It could be about the fact that her parents don’t like it when she stays over at your house. It could be about the fact that he’s not ready to commit although you’ve already been together for four years. Or it could be about the trivial things: all the beer he drinks, all the shoes she buys, or the friends that you don’t like him or her to hang out with.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Now, imagine that your boy or girl comes up to you and tries to hold out an olive branch. Maybe he doesn’t say anything, but he wakes up early in the morning and goes and buys you tiao and porridge for breakfast because he knows you like it. Maybe she comes over and takes your hand and says “I’m sorry for yelling.”
What do you do?
(a) You immediately think, “Aiyah, it was a stupid quarrel and it was partially my fault anyway.” Then you kiss and make up and the incident is forgiven and forgotten on both sides – or tabled for discussion at a future time when you’re both calmer and in a better frame of mind.
(b) You’ll be happy that the other person is trying to make it up to you, but you won’t be really okay with it until you hear it from him or her: “Look, bae, I’m so sorry. I was wrong and you were right, and I shouldn’t have said what I said last night. I love you, okay?” Otherwise you’ll keep sulking for a while, and you’ll worry that he or she doesn’t love you after all.
(c) You’ll sit down and eat breakfast and pretend the quarrel never happened. If your partner attempts to bring it up again, you’ll say, “Look, does it even matter? I’ve got a lot to think about at work and I can’t really be bothered to talk about this right now.”
(d) You don’t know how you’ll respond. Some mornings you’ll be touched and happy, and more than willing to make things up, but some mornings you’ll think to yourself, “Oh, she’s / he’s just trying to get me to let my guard down!”
These four answers correspond to four different attachment styles, which describe what you’re like in a relationship and how you emotionally relate to your partners.
1) If you answered (a), congratulations, you’re a secure person in relationships!
If you’re secure, you’re confident that your partner will be around and able to meet your emotional needs. You’re happy to have your own space and to give your partner his or her space, but at the same time, when you’re unhappy, your partner is the person whom you look to for soothing and comfort. And of course, on the flip side of things, you’re happy to be that person for your partner as well.
2) If you answered (b), you’re likely to be anxious-preoccupied.
The anxious person is the clingy boyfriend or girlfriend who’s over-invested in a relationship. They’re dependent on reassurance and their emotional needs are significant. Without acceptance and love, their own self-confidence suffers.
If you are an anxious-preoccupied, here’s one top tip for you:
Try to fight this by looking for fulfillment outside of your relationship. Focus on work, try and find a new hobby, or go out and make new friends. It’s not healthy to depend solely on your partner for your emotional support, and it’s not healthy for your relationship in the long term either. Set yourself easy targets: “Oh, by the end of this month I’ll be able to do this new pose in yoga class,” or, “I’ll make it past that overhang on the rock wall.” These may be small targets, but you may be surprised at the boost that they give your self-esteem!
3) If you answered (c), then you are a dismissive-avoidant.
The dismissive-avoidant person thinks of himself or herself as an extremely independent person, with the tendency to try to distance themselves from people. Often, they are action-oriented people (you may find yourself saying, “Well, okay, but what do you want me to do? Just tell me and I’ll do it.”) and have little patience for emotional discussions. They may shut down quarrels by saying, “You know what? This is a waste of time”, or, if threatened with a break-up, they may again close themselves up and say, “Yeah, go ahead – I don’t really care.”
If you are a dismissive-avoidant, here’s one top tip for you:
Try to counteract this tendency by biting your tongue any time you want to say “I don’t care.” Instead, set some time limits on the discussion by telling your partner, “Okay, let’s talk about this for the next fifteen minutes. After that, though, I really need to get to work. Is that okay?” This helps you deal with your dislike of emotional engagement (hey it’s only fifteen minutes!) while still letting your partner know that you’re willing to deal with this.
4) And lastly, if you answered (d), you have a case of the hedgehog’s dilemma, or a fearful-avoidant attachment style.
I myself am a hedgehog-type. The concept was first established by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, himself a notoriously prickly person who unfortunately remained a bachelor for life. If you are a fearful-avoidant, you have two conflicting desires: firstly, to get closer to your significant other but secondly, to avoid hurting him or her and being hurt in turn. As a result, your relationship may be rocky, with periods of intense closeness and then a sudden retreat into distance again.
If you are a fearful-avoidant, here’s one top tip for you:
Try to take off the prickles! If you find yourself swinging into the avoidant stage of things, note it down somewhere in a diary and try, the very next day, to get closer to your partner. This could be simple physical closeness – have a cuddle on the couch! – but it could also be emotional closeness. Tell your partner something about yourself that you’ve never told someone before. Tell him or her about your hopes or fears. Train yourself to overcome the hedgehog’s dilemma!
Ultimately, we all aim to be secure individuals, and while we may sometimes slip into different patterns in times of stress, I think we can all agree that being intimately involved in the emotional life of your partner while still giving him or her the right amount of space is a good thing! To find out more about your own personality type, you can take this quiz here. Good luck!
Next time, we’ll talk about the masters and disasters of love: how psychologist John Gottman learned to predict, simply by observing behaviour, whether or not a couple would stay together or break up.
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