Why we struggle to find - and keep - the right partner
The majority of us tell ourselves a story about why we struggle to find relationships that persist, are rewarding in ways we want, and grow and develop in ways that satisfy us.
Maybe we’ve been single for years, and tell ourselves that no-one wants to be with us. Maybe the story is that there are no decent other single people out there. Maybe we’ve been in a succession of initially exciting but rapidly boring relationships, and don’t know why. Maybe we’re in a relationship with someone we care deeply about, but we struggle to get out of that familiar pattern of arguing and we have started to blame them for that, or we don’t find them sexually exciting anymore.
Chances are, though, that those stories are wrong. There is a science to successful relationships, but it’s not what we’ve been told.
Half a century of couples therapy focused on improving communication skills between partners, without focusing on what the evidence shows is more important: understanding our attachment style and what we need to feel emotionally safe, and managing inevitable conflict within relationships rather than avoiding it. There’s nothing wrong with improving communication skills, but focusing on skills alone is like repairing the sails of a ship whose hull is battered.
For example, empirical research into the science of attachment shows that our earliest relationships shape what we expect from our partners. If we ignore these fundamental expectations, we’re likely to sleepwalk into unsuccessful relationships, or avoid them altogether. No amount of skills training will help us then. Most of us will fall broadly into one of four core attachment styles. Recognising, and responding to, our attachment style will help us make better choices in selecting the right partner.
Secure individuals will be able to balance the need to be close to, and intimate with, other people with the need to take risks and explore the world. They get upset when hurt, but they are able to express that to their partner. They are likely to be able to choose a partner who matches them well, without the need to be saved within a relationship or to avoid relationships altogether.
But many of us will fall into one of three insecure styles, where finding and keeping the right partner will be harder.
Avoidant individuals will have learnt that their need for intimacy is a threat or a problem for others, and needs to be kept under wraps. They will avoid relationships where they can, and emphasise action and career achievement over romantic satisfaction. Or romantic “satisfaction” lies in finding someone who looks good on their arm. Within relationships, they’re likely to be a “withdrawer” when conflict arises, either with a passive move into silence, or a more actively blaming and grumpy move into self-righteousness.
Anxious individuals are hypervigilant to being let down by others, looking for possible rejection and abandonment everywhere. They find it hard to tell their partners how they feel - other than that they are stressed and anxious - because they are so focused on pleasing them. They’re likely to be “pursuers” within a relationship, especially when partnered with an avoidant “withdrawer”. Those with an anxious attachment style are far more likely to plunge head first into a romantic relationship because of the rawness of their attachment need, without considering effectively and more dispassionately if their new partner is right for them.
Finally, disorganised individuals experience their partners as a source of safety and fear at the same time. This paradox is most commonly learned in response to terrifying and abusive caregivers in their earliest years. This approach leads to confusing and contradictory behaviour in relationships - sometimes unresponsiveness; at other times, explosive rage and hostility. These individuals may cling to their partner if they need to feel safe, but then feel stifled and claustrophobic in intimate moments.
Attachment science challenges the idea that we seek out those we think will make us happy; instead, it suggests we seek those who feel familiar. We might seek out the exciting but destructive or irresponsible partner - or, a distant, seemingly self-sufficient partner - because of what they remind us of about our earliest relationships, rather than because they are genuinely right for us.
An anxiously attached individual may feel that, in order to feel safe, they need to be with their partner all the time, and pick a quiet, emotionally avoidant partner. Initially, this seems like a nice fit for both parties. Until there is conflict, and competing emotional needs and attachment styles threaten to rip the relationship apart; revealing them as fundamentally incompatible.
Understanding our attachment style - and that of our partners - helps us anticipate what we need to feel safe with one another, and how we will likely hurt one another, and respond accordingly.
Regardless of our attachment styles, what are other fundamental principles of successful relationships we can glean from the empirical research? John and Julie Gottman have spent decades researching the foundations of successful relationships. They discovered predictable patterns that were different in happily married from unhappily married couples. They found that there were three main elements of a relationship crucial to its longevity: friendship, conflict management, and shared meaning. Some of their claims went too far, and have been subject to subsequent challenge on the basis of sample sizes, but nevertheless, their work offers a strong empirical basis for successful relationships and therapeutic interventions.
The most important element for relationship success is friendship - understanding each other’s emotional worlds.
In other words, can you describe your partner’s psychological world, their history, their hopes and anxieties? Only then can you begin focusing on expressing greater appreciation for your partner as a real imperfect person in their own right, as well as being responsive to their needs.
The second element is that successful couples expect and prepare for conflict, rather than avoiding it. The key here is to ensure the conflict is about working through inevitable personality differences, rather than the day-to-day niggles being the focus of the arguments. These personality differences might be things like: different importances placed on being on time, what it means to have a “clean” house, different sex drives and preferences. The research suggests about 70% of arguments are about perpetual problems - in other words, personality differences that weren’t going away any time soon - rather than immediately resolvable ones such as whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher. Or, if you do find yourself arguing about the dishwasher, it’s more likely you’re not talking about the real issue: not feeling safe, not feeling seen, not feeling appreciated.
The Gottmans describe four signs of a relationship in trouble: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and zoning out (disengagement during conflict, as if signalling the relationship doesn’t matter to you). Instead, a successful couple will: discuss differences, preferences and opinions without criticising the other; will tackle conflict instead of letting it fester and spill over in contempt; will acknowledge and even learn to laugh at their idiosyncrasies; and will signal repeatedly to their partner that they care about the future of the relationship, even in times of conflict.
The work of the Gottmans supports what we know from the science of attachment on the importance of “rupture and repair” in relationships. Researchers in Emotionally Focused Therapy have shown how improvements in relationship satisfaction are largely due to increased levels of attachment security in the relationship.
Good relationships ultimately aren’t about clear communication and the lack of arguing - they’re about the small moments of attachment and intimacy; those moments of laughter, play, silliness, exploration, and lust. When you reach out to each other, how willing and able are you both to focus on what you need from each other in those moments?
So, in summary, to seek out and maintain successful relationships, it helps to:
- Know our own attachment style and its strengths and downsides.
- Get to know the attachment style of our partners, as well as their hopes, dreams and anxieties.
- Anticipate conflict, and accept it, but ensure where possible it’s a respectful disagreement about inevitable personality differences.
- Find a way back to each other when conflict inevitably arises.
- Enjoy and cultivate the important moments of attachment and connection on a day-to-day basis - the play, the lust, the laughter, the silly rituals we share with a trusted partner.
This scratches the surface of what we now know from the research about successful relationships. To find out more, join us for our online training module in the science of attachment.