Discover your relationship style
One of our basic human needs is our yearning for connection. Although we are surrounded by others no matter how close we get to them, we are all born alone and will die alone. This article will explore how each of us respond to this existential dilemma and the importance of identifying our relationship styles in helping us to form healthy, sustainable relationships.
An example of our longing for connection is given in Stephen Grocsz’ book ‘The Unexamined Life’ he writes about a client who was paranoid that when she opened her flat door a bomb would explode. As he explored this with her, it contrasted with her recurring childhood memory of her mother and grandmother sitting at the kitchen table welcoming her home. The paranoid fantasy that somebody hated her enough to plot to kill her was better than the lonely reality that the people were indifferent and hardly thought of her at all. As Elie Wieselsays ‘The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.’ Here we can see how devastating isolation is and how we guard against it with every fibre of our beings by trying to connect.
Our relationship blueprints
Research supports this desire for connection showing that from our first breaths our early relationships shape our brain, influence the development of our self and create a blueprint for our later relationships. Research by Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, showed that the bond between a child and their primary caregiver was essential in aiding a child’s survival both physically and emotionally. Ainsworth's later work conducted experiments to identify children's attachment style by how they responded when left alone with a stranger. She found that relationship with primary caregiver and our early experiences of intimacy or isolation had a lasting impact on the child's later relationships.
To merge or isolate ourselves?
We can see that people have different approaches to relationships by observing how they interact with their partner, family and friends showing that the level of intimacy people can tolerate varies widely from person to person. We are all faced with the same dilemma: how can I be ‘me’ when I’m in a ‘we’? Two common choices people make in response to this dilemma, often influenced by their earliest experiences, are of merging or isolating themselves.
Merger or preoccupied attachment style is when to connect we sacrifice our individuality becoming dependent on another. You may have learnt early on that your caregivers were inconsistent and could not always be relied upon.
Isolating or dismissive attachment style is when we protect ourselves against the potential pain of connection by choosing loneliness and emotional separation. As a child you may have been taught not to make too many demands of your caregivers because your needs would not be met.
A small number of people have a disorganised attachment style often linked to abusive early relationships.
There is, of course, another option called the secure attachment. The vast majority of people have a secure relationship style: they have a strong sense of self and want to be connect with others but are secure with being alone.
Homework – what is your relationship style?
Reading through the descriptions above you may identify patterns in how you act in relationships with romantic partners, family and friends. Finding out our relationship style can reveal where we have had problems in the past and how to do things differently.
To find out your relationship style read the lists below and pick which list has the most statements you agree with.
I often worry that my partner will stop loving me.
I fear that once someone gets to know the real me, they won't like me.
When I'm not involved in a relationship I feel somewhat anxious and incomplete.
If someone I've been dating begins to act cold and distant I'll worry that I've done something wrong.
I have been called too needy in the past.
It makes me nervous when my partner gets too close.
I find it difficult to emotionally support my partner when they are feeling down.
I hate feeling that other people depend on me.
I find it easy to move on after a breakup. It's weird how I can just put someone out of my mind.
I have been called too distant.
An argument with my partner doesn't usually cause me to question our entire relationship.
I don't feel the need to act out much in my romantic relationships.
I am able to be open at expressing my needs and wants to my partner.
If someone I've been dating begins to act cold and distant I may wonder what's happened but I'll know it's probably not about me.
I like being with people but I am comfortable at being alone.
If you answered mostly Option A then you may have a merging or preoccupied attachment style.
If you answered mostly Option B then you may have an isolating or dismissive attachment style.
If you answered mostly Option C then you may have a secure attachment style.
How can I modify my relationship style?
The good news is that nothing is set in stone, you can work on modifying your relationship style to increase intimacy or practice independence. Counselling can be a safe space to try to do things differently and experiment with a different type of relationship that what you are used to.
If you isolate, you can experiment with different levels of intimacy. Can you try safely sharing your thoughts and feelings with another person? Try and notice how you feel? Was it easier than expected? Or did you feel uncomfortable, invaded and want to run away?
If you merge, you can try setting boundaries and moving away from the other person in a way that is safe to do so. One way to experiment is by developing the capacity to be alone. Try to do something alone this week and notice how you feel. Was it easy to get in touch with what you wanted? Or did you feel scared, confused or a bit lost?
Even if those feelings were uncomfortable, you will find that the more we can learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings the easier it becomes to handle them. Try to go easy on yourself as you experiment with acting in a new way. Remember, this relationship style has been in place for many years and if you wish to make changes they will not happen overnight.
By identify our chosen relationship pattern then we can choose to try to do things differently. Try doing something differently, no matter how small, this week and let me know how you get on in the comments.
Related articles from our experts
- Why relationships need empathy
Susan Hooper MBACP12th July, 2018
- Who do you think you are? 'Connecting the dots' through therapeutic genograms
Cinzia Altobelli (MSc RGN UKCP reg Psychotherapist/Counsellor & Supervisor)12th July, 2018
- Unlocking anxieties through relationship therapy
Couples counselling specialist Christopher MacGovern12th July, 2018
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