What’s Your Relationship Style?

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Has your partner ever done something that you just don’t understand at all? In my case, the first major fight that my partner and I had was very interesting for us. We realized after the conflict that we had very different ways of approaching a fight. All I wanted to do was talk and talk until we had reached some kind of solution. Even though the conversation was going in circles, I wanted to sit there and not leave each other’s side until were all better.

My partner on the other hand immediately wanted to leave the situation to think about what just happened and achieve some kind of clarity on his own. Of course, my way drove him crazy and his way made no sense to me. We attempted to resolve our conflict his way and he took a walk while I pace the floor waiting for him to return. We tried it my way and we sat and talk in circles for hours getting nowhere. We both realized that we have different styles and in the end we compromised and worked it out so that both of our needs got met. Why are we so different? How is it that we relate to each other?

Science says that we form bonds to people important to us in different ways. In other words, we all have a different “style” of how we respond to those around us. Throughout our lives we unconsciously assess how supported we feel by those around us. The availability of support that can be offered in times of need dictates how we feel about the people in our lives. This begins in early childhood and it is based on the relationship between us and our caregivers. Whether we like it or not, our feelings about people around us add up to create the way we relate to and interact with people in our lives. This style of relating to people around us is developed with meaningful people in our lives, such as our romantic partners.

There are two parts to the style of how we relate to others, our level of anxiousness and our level of avoidance. Our anxiousness is how worried we are that our partner will not be there to support us in times of need; and our avoidance, is how much we distrust our partner’s good intentions or actions. There are four different combinations that these two parts make: low anxiety with low avoidance, low anxiety with high avoidance, high anxiety with low avoidance, and high anxiety with high avoidance. There are many different degrees on which we can fall within the four categories, but these are the four major ones. You can decide how much of each category applies to you.

1.)    Low Anxiety, Low Avoidance Style

People with this style don’t feel a lot of anxiety about becoming emotionally close to their partners. These individuals find it easy to become close to people in general. They feel comfortable depending on others as well as allowing others to depend on them. These people tend to have the most durable and stable relationships.

Some scientists believe that this style is the healthiest and most optimal way of relating to people. Having a style other than this one does not mean that you don’t or can’t have a durable, stable, and healthy relationship with other people. It’s ok to have one of the other styles; it just means that you may need to try harder to communicate with people around you about your needs. It may be harder for others to understand so some extra communication may be necessary.

2.)    Low Anxiety, High Avoidance Style

People with low anxiety and high avoidance don’t feel a lot of anxiety in their relationship but they do find it difficult to become emotionally close to their partners. These individuals do not feel comfortable with close emotional relationships. They feel that it is very important to be self-sufficient and not to depend on others or have others depend on them. They have a tendency to push others away but they don’t feel there is anything wrong with this. In my example above about the way my partner and I handle conflict, my partner demonstrated this type of style. He wanted to avoid the conflict in order to think about it on his own. He did not want to be around me because he felt perfectly capable working it out on his own and he did not see anything wrong with that.

3.)    High Anxiety, High Avoidance Style

These individuals do not feel comfortable getting close to others, but also feel high anxiety because they want to have close relationships. These individuals feel that if they get too close to another person, that person will hurt them. The fear of getting hurt by others makes these individuals avoid close relationships, despite their desire to have them. They have a tendency to push others away and they feel there is something wrong with the pushing.

4.)    High Anxiety, Low Avoidance Style

These individuals feel the need to have close relationships with others and they feel sad or depressed when rejected by others. They are hyper-sensitive to negative social cues and frequently feel as though others dislike them, or are rejecting them. They feel uncomfortable if they are not in a close relationship and feel anxious that they will be rejected or abandoned. In the example that I gave about my partner and me, this is the style of conflict that I showed toward my partner. I was very anxious about our conflict and I did not want him to leave or “abandon” me.

Now, why is this important to understand how we bond in our romantic relationships?  Researchers have determined that romantic relationships are attachments. Our style stays fairly consistent throughout our lives, but it can change depending on the context of our relationships. Our relationship styles and behaviors are determined by the pattern of support that we receive from our partners. At the beginning of the relationship, each partner discovers how their partner reacts in times of need, how dependable they are, and if they can provide for the other. Based on the information, the relationship and bonding style is formed. The bond to a partner determines the actions and reactions of the other partner, thus creating a dynamic in the relationship that is based on each partner’s relation style.

So to sum it up for you, each person has a style of relating to and bonding with others that is determined by the patterns in the relationship. Our first bonding style is formed when we are born, with our caregiver. That being said, our style can change depending on the person we are in the relationship with. For example, we can have a parent who teaches us how to be anxious and need others’ approval so when we get into a partnership we will replay those patterns with our partner and form a preoccupied attachment with that partner. This doesn’t have to be the case though; we are not doomed to fail just because of our style with our parents. If we recognize this pattern, we can purposely create a different style to relate to our partner. Knowing our style is the first step. Once we understand that we can communicate our needs with our partners.

If our needs are not being met, we can negotiate with our partner on how to compromise in such a way that the needs of both parties are being met. If we feel that our partner is meeting our needs and we are doing the same for our partner, that’s awesome, keep it up. Ultimately it’s all about communication. Talk to your partner about how you relate to each other. Try to have an open conversation about your relationship.

Here are a few sample questions that may be helpful to start the conversation:

Do you both relate to each other in the same way? Different ways?

Where did you learn these ways of relating to each other?

Are you both satisfied with the ways that you bond and/or interact with each other? Why or why not?

Do you want to change the way you relate to people around you? What does your ideal look like?

If you don’t want to change, what do you like about the way you relate to others now?

If not, what would each of you like to see instead?

What are your needs from your partner in your relationship? What does your partner need from you?