All relationships have their moments when things don’t go well. Usually we can chalk this up to a difference of opinion or a simple misunderstanding. But have those differences of opinion or simple misunderstandings ever mushroomed out of control leaving you and your partner confused as to what the heck just happened? Does this happen a lot?
What do you do when this happens? That’s a key question.
When an upset like this occurs, we need to calm ourselves down. There are several ways to do this, especially if the argument surprised you. Some ways are healthier than others and what you do to recover says a lot about what you learned about yourself and others growing up.
If you generally feel that you have a valid position AND are willing to consider your partner’s position. That’s a good sign. Maybe the conflict just flared up and after everyone settles down the two of you can talk calmly about it.
But, if that’s not what typically happens after a fight, you may have a bigger problem and it may have to do with your childhood experiences. For example, if you insist that the two of you resolve the conflict now and you’re not willing to take a break, that’s one kind of problem. Similarly, if you shut down and refuse to talk about it now or in the future, that’s another kind of problem. Finally, if part of your recovery involves “expressing” your anger and blaming your partner for the argument, that’s a huge, potentially relationship-ending problem.
What experiences would create these problem patterns and how can you recover?
Often when these problem patterns are present, there is some form of emotional, physical, or sexual trauma in the person’s childhood. Sometimes, the trauma is obvious, but other times it is much less obvious. It’s possible to have had traumatic experiences as a child and not realize you were traumatized. So, as I start explaining how trauma causes these problems, you might think what I have to say doesn’t apply to you because you didn’t experience trauma.
If this is the case for you, bear with me. I’ll define trauma and explain the patterns that develop as a result of trauma. If you realize you experienced trauma-inducing events or relationships, just know that having trauma in your past isn’t something that will doom you to relationship failure. It means that you have some relationship patterns that are not serving you or your relationships. These patterns are fixable, so don’t worry.
Trauma is a reaction to any distressing experience that overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope with it. As you can imagine, trauma can affect anyone and children would be especially vulnerable to trauma, since their coping skills have not yet been fully developed. In a 2016 survey of exposure to traumatic events in 24 different countries, researchers found that 70% of people had experienced at least one traumatic event and 30.5% had experienced four or more events.
This definition of trauma leaves the possibility that not everyone would be traumatized by the same experience. So if you and a sibling had similar experiences, it is quite possible one of you is more traumatized than the other, just because of the differences in how the experiences were perceived.
Whether you think you have had a traumatic experience or upbringing or not, it’s good to understand present day patterns and how they may be hurting your relationship. Let’s take a look at the idea of attachment and the role it plays in relationships.
Attachment Theory is a description of relationship patterns that predicts how people will behave in the face of adversity. Various patterns of behavior will result in different problems in relationships and different ways of coping with or recovering from these problems.
There are 2 basic attachment patterns: secure and insecure.
A person with a secure attachment style generally thinks well of themself and well of others. They believe they are lovable and they generally trust others. This doesn’t mean they are gullible, though. Because they love themselves, they are good at setting boundaries and understand when their boundaries are being violated. They are also generally good at communicating their needs and setting limits with others.
If you struggle with feeling lovable, trusting others, setting boundaries, knowing when your boundaries are being violated, and standing up for yourself, you likely have some type of insecure attachment style.
Insecure attachment styles are present when the person either doesn’t think well of themselves, others, or both. We can divide insecure attachment styles into 3 types:
The anxious person generally believes that they aren’t good enough or don’t deserve love. This person tends to be perceived as “clingy.” However, even if they aren’t clingy, they can be overly sensitive to actions from others that indicate they aren’t lovable or wanted. If they get the message they aren’t lovable or wanted, no matter how subtle, it will spark an intense emotional reaction.
The dismissive avoidant person generally believes they are just fine, but others have problems. They often don’t believe they need love and they tend to experience others as being “clingy.” If an argument arises, they will most likely not engage or put the other person down for having a reaction in an attempt to get the conflict to stop. They don’t usually believe that they have a problem and it can be difficult to engage with them around behavior change.
With the fearful avoidant attachment style, the person doesn’t think highly of themselves or others. This leaves them in a bit of a bind because they don’t believe they are lovable and they don’t believe others are capable of loving them. However, since they desire loving relationships as much as everyone else, they often look like they can’t make up their minds about whether they want the relationship. They will let others get close-ish, but not too close. They deeply desire a close relationship, but don't feel others are trustworthy enough to give it to them.
If you’re interested in your attachment style, you can take an assessment at www.yourpersonality.net. The interesting thing about this site is it measures your attachment to various types of people in your life (parents, siblings, friends, co-workers) and across time. It turns out that your attachment style isn’t static–it changes over time and is different in different relationships.
This brings us to the part about how your childhood experiences are affecting your relationships. To the extent that you have an insecure attachment style, you are likely struggling with dysfunctional patterns in your relationships. Patterns that result in not trusting your partner, frequent unresolved conflicts, poor boundary setting, boundary violations, not knowing what you need or how to ask for it, and blame.
If you have an insecure attachment style, you may also have experiences that created emotional trauma. This is important because if you treat the trauma and start to heal it, the insecure attachment patterns will start to fade and you can slide closer to secure attachment patterns. Even if you don’t identify trauma in your past, the insecure attachment patterns are changeable into more secure attachment patterns.
There are several ways to approach getting help with dysfunctional, insecure attachment patterns and healing trauma. I suggest four ways to work on these issues and recommend you do all four for best results.
If you are in a dysfunctional relationship characterized by frequent and consistent blaming, stonewalling, gaslighting, contempt, and verbal or physical abuse, trying to fix the relationship won’t happen without a lot of professional help and a willingness on the part of your partner to do the work, too. Even then most professionals don’t fully appreciate the types and levels of dysfunction in a toxic or abusive relationship. So, if you do seek help for a relationship like this, find a therapist who has experience with abusive relationships.
You might be in a toxic, or abusive relationship if one of these books describes your situation:
I often talk with my clients about the patterns of conflict and stress in their relationship. How they argue with their partners and recover from those arguments says a lot about the health of the relationship. Childhood traumas can have a big impact on how people argue and what they expect in relationships. If there is dysfunction, then identifying whether trauma is present and the related attachment patterns can be quite helpful. Healing the trauma and creating more secure attachment patterns will make conflict less hurtful, surprising, and dysfunctional.
I’ve mentioned several books and websites in the course of this article. You might also check out my Masterclass on The 5 Steps to End People-Pleasing and Over-Giving. The Masterclass bundle also includes an interview I did with Melissa Wolak on Setting Boundaries and my Effective Communication Guide.