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Turning Fights Into Gold (Part I): Conflict and Attachment in Couples

(3 minute read)

See if either of these fight scenarios sound like you and your partner:

Scenario #1

Your partner does something that upsets you. You tell her you’re upset, and rather than apologize or promise not to do it again, she responds with an “I did that because you did X”, excusing her behavior on the grounds that you started it, or that you’ve done something worse in the past and therefore have no right to complain. You tell her that’s irrelevant, or perhaps that you did X because she did Y in the first place. And pretty soon you’re dredging through history to find out who was the first person who did something wrong that eventually ended up in this quarrel.

Scenario #2

Your partner does something that upsets you. You tell him you’re upset, and he tells you that you’re emotional and it’s not such a big deal. This gets you angry, but the angrier you get, the more cool and rational he becomes. If things go far enough, he walks away from you and leaves you simmering with rage on your own, while he tells other people that you’re just out of control.

Famed couples therapist Sue Johnson calls the first kind of fight “Find The Bad Guy” and the second the “Protest Polka”. If you’re caught in one of these, you probably have the same fight over and over again — the subject of each fight might be different, but the form of every fight is the same. And unless these patterns change, the end result is unlikely to be pretty.

Johnson says that what underlies both “Find The Bad Guy” and “Protest Polka” is a frantic search for attachment to our partners. She says “Distressed partners may use different words, but they are always asking the same basic questions, ‘Are you there for me? Do I matter to you? Will you come when I need you, when I call?’” And what causes anger or withdrawal or panic is the fear that the answer to those questions is “No”.

We all know that from infancy through childhood we need to be attached to our caregivers. Babies who are not held, whose caregivers do not respond to them, experience something called ‘failure to thrive’ and can go so far as to die. And children who are not attended to grow up with significant emotional problems.

But this need to be attached to others doesn’t end with childhood. Adults, too, need to be connected to others, to matter to someone else, to know that that someone else will be there for us when needed. We need love, and as Johnson says, “Love is not the icing on the cake of life. It is a basic primary need, like oxygen or water.” Usually, we connect to a romantic partner, but failing that, we reach out to friends, parents, siblings or children. And in my practice, I sometimes see people who have not been able to form any love attachments — these are people who truly struggle with life. I also see people whose attachments are tenuous, and whose behavior descends into self or other-directed harm when those attachments are stretched to breaking point.

When our partner does something that makes us doubt whether they really are there for us, whether we truly matter to them, we become terrified. But terror is an awful feeling and so we unconsciously protect ourselves, either with anger and attack, or withdrawal and disengagement. Perhaps we bitterly criticize our partner for their misdeed, or lose our tempers and scream, or become cold, rational and distant. But regardless of our chosen method of defense, our behavior is indeed a defense, a way of protecting ourselves against the fear that we are utterly alone in this world.

Unfortunately, the defenses that we use to protect ourselves — the anger, criticism, coldness and distance — are the very things that generate attachment terror in our partners. Perhaps it was our partner’s misdeed that caused us to feel detached from them, but our defensive response causes them to feel detached from us. Being on the receiving end of criticism, coldness or anger is unlikely to make them feel warm and well loved. And so they, in their turn, become filled with terror, and to defend against those feelings they also become angry, or critical, or cold and distant.

And so we find ourselves caught in the scenarios similar to those at the beginning of this article. Our fear of losing attachment to our partner causes us to behave in ways which drive them away — and their fear of losing us causes them to behave in ways that drive us away.

If this sounds like the kind of thing that happens to you and your partner, don’t despair. The good news is that changing the way you communicate can turn the forces driving you apart into forces bringing you together. My next post will show how.


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