Relationship Problems – How We Make Sense of Them
“There is one problem in love and sex—how lovers manage closeness and distance.” – Dr. Laurie Watson, Director
Relationship problems are distressing! Both partners want to feel love and be close but often in different proportions. They each also want to be respected for their separate purposes, interests and strengths. In a relationship, however, one partner seems to be all on one side of this continuum of needs.
The first partner may smother the other with their needs for connection, closeness, and talking. In fact the harder they try, the worse things get; they get angry because they are trying to get through to their partner.
Pursuers feel very anxious about the state of the relationship, vigilant to see if their partner has somehow become angry or upset with them. They frequently check in with their partners just to see “if everything is alright.”
In relationship distress, they are afraid of being told they are “too much.” They worry a lot about abandonment.
The other partner is often backing up, focusing energy on work, and thinking that things are okay if their partner would just get happy. Their withdrawal makes sense – to them – because they want to keep peace and they’ve learned that talking about things only makes it worse.
Withdrawers seem to not notice or care about the problems in a relationship (secret: they do ;)). They feel things are okay if their pursuing partner isn’t complaining. They are often baffled by the upsetting effect that their distancing behavior has on their pursing partner. They hold their feelings close to the vest.
In relationship distress, withdrawers get the message they are failing. They are afraid of being controlled and not having enough autonomy. They are also afraid of rejection.
Each partner does the thing that makes their partner react. They wind up trying to survive by using a protective strategy like: attack, freeze or flee – only to trigger their partner further. To further complicate things they may reverse the stance in their sexual relationship. Disengagement triggers criticism and criticism triggers disengagement.
How We Solve Relational Problems
At Awakenings, we use the scientifically-researched attachment theory as our clinical orientation to help solve this relationship problems. All our clinicians are trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy – a relational therapy based in attachment theory. We teach pursuers how to feel less anxious and make direct requests. We coach withdrawers on initiating and nurturing and representing themselves more clearly. We help couples escape what we call the negative cycle – a pattern of one person pushing and criticizing and the other withdrawing and not talking.
Attachment theory demonstrates that our central drive in life is to be connected to another. We emerge from childhood usually with one of three attachment styles: secure, anxious (pursuers) or avoidant (withdrawers).
What Secure Attachment Looks Like in Relationships
If we are secure, then we do not fear being engulfed by our partner and we are not anxious when our partner is pursuing their own endeavors. Intimacy feels good; sex is playful and erotic; we share our hearts with confidence.