I just finished re-reading what I consider to be some of the best information about couples and relationships out there, Dr. Susan Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight: Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” (2008). Dr. Johnson is the founder of Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy and her book explores the attachment principles behind human connection, specifically within intimate partnerships. For many people, this book serves as a complete reframe of conflict within couples. We often try and tackle relationship conflict with tools and skill building. While these things are important, they often miss the mark.
In the book, Dr. Johnson beautifully illustrates how the basis of all human interaction is rooted in emotional connection and attachment. Our sense of safety as adults is often a reflection of the level of safety we experienced as infants with our caregivers. If we had a safe, secure attachment to these foundational caregiver figures, research suggests that we are apt to give and seek love more readily. This has a direct impact on our ability to foster healthy relationships as well as respond to adversity with resilience. As it pertains to our intimate relationships, Dr. Johnson argues that securely attached couples “roll with the hurts better.” These couples also tend to have healthier balance of “separateness” and “togetherness,” and can report more positive views of themselves.\
Dr. Johnson goes further to discuss how connection and conflict are both important components of intimate relationships. When we fight with our partner, we are essentially protesting the fact that we feel emotionally disconnected from him or her. Tools and skillbuilding in this situation, while well-intentioned, might not adequately resolve the problem in a sustainable way. Skills might help temporarily, but they only address the symptoms of the relationship problem rather than resolving the core issue. In other words, relying solely on skills to resolve marital conflict is like taking pain relievers for chronic headaches that are ultimately being caused by the deeper problem of needing to wear eyeglasses. Learning more skills won’t hurt, but it also certainly won’t resolve the root of problem.
Dr. Johnson describes interactions between couples (especially conflict) as a dance of sorts. She describes the dance using the following example: “The more one partner does ________________ the more the other partner will ___________________, which causes the first partner to continue to ______________” and the cycle continues over and over again. These cycles could lead to positive outcomes depending on what each partner is doing in their part of the interaction/dance, but on the other hand can lead to chronic, repetitive, and unproductive interaction patterns as well. When the dance goes wrong over and over again, couples can feel like they just have the same argument without any progress. One week the conflict might be about the dishes. Another time the conflict might be about parenting responsibilities. Regardless of the content of the conflict, it can become the same exhausting fight and the same hurt feelings without any measurable improvement. Over time, the emotional wounds sustained during these conflicts can erode the integrity, trust, attachment, and emotional safety in the relationship. Dr. Johnson proposes that the only way to solve the core conflict is for both partners to more deeply understand the cyclical dance they are trapped in and look for new roles, interaction styles, and interpretations that disrupt the negative pattern.
Although these concepts could be a paradigm shift for most of us, I believe the shift is a hopeful one. If we can master our understanding of the cycles we are caught in, then we have the opportunity to change them. Even more exciting is the fact that once the unproductive patterns are altered, the emotional intensity and stuckness associated with repetitive conflict is greatly diminished. Couples who once felt so weary and hopeless can feel a sense of renewal and healing. Obviously it takes work to change habits, patterns, and cycles. However, consider how hard you might be working already when you constantly deal with the same chronic and unproductive conflict. There can be meaningful change when we are more aware of our sense of attachment to our partners, the behaviors and interactions we manifest, and the real benefits of shifting into healthier patterns.