The past two weeks have seen a huge increase in the number of people who have contacted me and requested marital therapy or couples counselling. I imagine that there are many more individuals who are finding that the stress of lockdown has exacerbated the difficulties in their most significant relationship/s.
In this newsletter and the next few newsletters to follow, I will be drawing on the writings of well known US psychologist Hal Shorey to explain how most of us will unknowingly draw on our childhood relationship experiences in navigating our adult relationships ... often with fairly disastrous consequences.
Have you ever been in a serious frame of mind when those around you just wanted to joke around and interact socially? There is nothing wrong with this, and there is also nothing wrong with you, irrespective of whether you are feeling like a serious adult (or a playful child).
But the mismatch between how you are feeling, thinking and acting and the current social interaction may cause friction and/or conflict. What you need to do is learn to “Switch Set”, which is to learn how to change from one set of relationship behaviours to another, without remaining stuck in the original (set) way of doing things.
The same is true for one’s “default relationship mode”. This is your over-learned, automatic set of relationship processes, termed your attachment style.
An attachment style is a combination of certain relationship behaviours and personality traits that we each developed to help us cope with our specific family/parental environment in childhood. This is the most important set of automatic relationship processes because it can powerfully influence how you behave and respond within your adult relationships.
As children and adolescents, we get accustomed to working with ourselves and our family members in a certain way. When we are at school or when, as young adults, we move away from the family home the social situation changes and we then need to respond to the social world in a different way.
Your particular attachment style often doesn’t cause many problems until you start applying it, generally without any forethought or awareness, in your relationships with romantic partners, friends, and people at work.
In these other contexts, your attachment style may cause you to experience relationship problems. This is because your attachment style developed in the relationship/s that you had with your mother, father and/or other important caregiver/s so it cannot be expected to work well in relationships that are substantially different from these relationships in which it originally developed.
As an example, an adult who is largely task-oriented and less invested in close social interactions often has what is termed a dismissing/avoidant attachment style. If a dismissing person is talking to a spouse with a preoccupied/anxious attachment style and is trying to solve a problem he (or she) will go back and forth with a few sentences and think that the conversation is done.
But the preoccupied spouse keeps talking and does not disengage. The dismissing person then starts to feel aggravated and impatient at how much talking is occurring and wants to end the conversation. If the dismissing person does that, however, he may be accused of not caring and being a bad listener…so he stays and half-heartedly converses until an opportunity to escape presents itself.
This interaction is rife with opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict. Neither person is doing anything wrong; they just don’t understand each other’s contexts and/or the task that the other person is performing.
So, what is a person to do in these difficult interpersonal situations? Well, the first step is to determine what the immediate context is and what the task is, and be ready to switch set. In other words, see if you can pull yourself out of your default way of doing things (based on your attachment style) and switch to a way of thinking and behaving that will work better in that context.
You don’t have to completely change your attachment style in order to step out of it and walk in someone else’s shoes for a few minutes.
Ask the other person what their context or task is: “Are you just trying to get a quick answer and solve a problem or do you want to spend some time together talking about this and other things?”
If you have a more relationally-oriented preoccupied style you can challenge yourself to skip the relationship part and just be in problem-solving mode. If you have a more task-oriented dismissing style, you might be able to slow down and spend some time with your partner having a conversation and engaging in relationship building.
In order to be able to switch set when it comes to your attachment style:
1. Remember that you are not your attachment style. It is simply a set of over-learned ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that has become automatic over time.
2. In order to gain control over an automatic process, you have to become conscious of it. So, be sure to read my descriptions of the different attachment styles in future newsletters and learn how your attachment style works.
3. Be aware that your emotions in many situations are simply outcomes of your attachment style processing social information. Strong emotions will keep you stuck in your set. So, learning how to calm yourself efficiently will help you to switch set.
4. Let go of being right and focus on what is going to work for both of you. If you are rigid in your thinking you will not be able to switch set.
Learning to switch set is critical for anyone wanting to build and sustain a healthy relationship. And cognitive flexibility, tolerance of negative emotions, and viewing the world in shades of colour instead of absolutes, are all important relationship skills.
As has been my personal experience, taking a mindfulness course and engaging regularly in mindfulness practice will help you to begin to identify your habitual way of relating to others especially during difficult and/or stressful situations. This will allow you to slowly but surely change the way you perceive and respond to significant others both within the home environment and elsewhere.
Click below to check out the prize (my 8-week online mindfulness course):
With warm regards,
Alistair Mork-Chadwick (Psychologist)