Parental Influence on How We Manage Conflicts in Romantic Relationships
Published on 14th May, 2022
Charlie and Taylor have been together for eight months. At the start, it was a fairytale-like romance; late-night talks, fancy dinners and constant meet-ups. However, as with most relationships, they began having arguments. Even though Taylor wanted to immediately talk things through with Charlie, he was avoidant and ignored her attempts at reaching out. Taylor became increasingly frustrated, as it seemed that Charlie was unwilling to work out the issues in the relationship. Meanwhile, Charlie was upset as Taylor seemed too forceful to him. This led Charlie to withdraw even more from Taylor, causing a cycle of frustration and withdrawal between them.
Although Charlie and Taylor are fictitious characters, it is normal for couples to have disagreements and fights. There is no definition of having “too little” or “too many” fights. They could occur because of miscommunication, differences in opinions and expectations. Oftentimes, each partner has specific conflict behaviours and triggers (Rathgeber et al., 2018). Taylor noticed a pattern of them taking a few days to resolve a fight as they approached conflicts differently.
It is common for an individual’s communication patterns to mirror that of their parents. For Taylor, her parents may attempt to resolve their conflicts soon after it happened. Conversely, Charlie’s parents may avoid addressing their disagreements. Societal expectations may also play a part in causing Charlie to believe that males should not show emotions. Is Charlie’s aversion to conflict because of his parents? Do you find conflict patterns in your own relationship? This article aims to explore reasons for patterns in behaviours towards romantic partners and ways to manage them.
Parents’ interactions and behaviours can be modelled by their children, and thus replicated in their future romantic relationships. Children observe their parents’ behaviours and would model their patterns (Bandura, 1978). Moreover, if individuals are provided with incentives for their behaviours, it is highly likely that they will fall back on those same behaviours whenever they are in a similar situation (Cummings & Davies, 2002).
Throughout her childhood, Taylor saw how resolving conflicts on the same day contributed to the maintenance of her parents’ strong relationship. Therefore, she is insistent on immediately talking things through with Charlie when they have disagreements. On the other hand, Charlie grew up observing how his mother would give his father the cold shoulder whenever they had disagreements. This helped reduce the occurrences of quarrels at home. Therefore, Charlie avoids confrontations with Taylor, as he believes that they are not beneficial in a relationship.
Attachment refers to a deep and enduring emotional bond between two people. The earliest bonds formed between children and their caregivers have a long-term impact on children (Bowlby, 1969). These interactions provide an internal working model for later relationships, which are mental representations of self and others. These representations become automatic and guide individuals in their future behaviours (Bowlby, 1969).
When parents respond readily to their children’s needs, it develops a secure attachment style that is associated with the foundations of a healthy relationship (Bowlby, 1969). Taylor’s parents always heard and validated her thoughts and emotions. Taylor formed a representation of herself as acceptable and valuable. Hence, Taylor wants to listen to Charlie’s perspectives and validate him. In contrast, individuals like Charlie, developed an insecure attachment style (Levis & Davis, 1988). This might be due to a low level of response and validation from their parents, resulting in a mental representation of self as unacceptable and unworthy. Therefore, similar to Charlie, they would prefer to create an exit strategy for themselves when the situation becomes too overwhelming.
Non Parental Influence
Pressure from society could affect the relationship’s dynamics. Societal expectations are unsaid knowledge and understanding considered to be acceptable in a specific social group or culture (McLeod, 2008). For instance, in most societies, men are typically portrayed as masculine and are associated with the phrase “real men don’t cry”. Hence, men might have the belief that crying is a sign of weakness, bottling up their emotions and avoid talking about them (Vitelli, 2013). Due to societal expectations, Charlie learnt that sharing his emotions with others is a sign of weakness. Hence, he has been hiding his emotions from others. The lack of open and honest conversations causes Charlie and Taylor’s fights to span across a few days.
Managing Couple Conflicts
Hope is not lost for Charlie and Taylor. Here are some tips to manage and address couple conflicts.
Breaking Away from Parental Influence
Can Charlie form a secure attachment to Taylor even though he has insecure attachment? Yes, although it would take a lot of time and effort from the both of them. The caregiving behavioural system argues that people are more likely to feel comforted if their partners are emotionally available, supportive, and respond to their needs appropriately. This system has two aims for individuals: develop a “safe haven” and “secure base” with their partners (Collins & Ford, 2010). Providing a “safe haven” is when partners establish a sense of security with each other. Elements of a “safe haven” include partners encouraging communication between each other, validating the other’s concerns, feeling confident in their partner’s abilities to handle problems, reassuring each other that they are valued, physical closeness, assisting each other, and expressing their continued availability for the other (Collins et al., 2010). Essentially, a “safe haven” is where partners are supportive and reassuring of each other.
Meanwhile, having a “secure base” supports individual autonomy and exploration, allowing each other to make independent choices (Collins & Ford, 2010). It includes being confident in their partner’s abilities to manage challenges (similar to “safe haven”), encouraging their partner to try new experiences, showing interest in their partner’s goals, being able to strike a balance between their partner’s need for growth while being available, and not intruding in their partner’s autonomy (Feeney & Collins, 2004). A secure attachment is formed when both partners are attuned to the other’s needs and are able to be autonomous as individuals (Collins & Ford, 2010). Charlie and Taylor want to develop a “safe haven” and “secure base”, but it will understandably take time for the them to do so. More examples of “safe haven” and “secure base” will be highlighted further down this article.
Awareness and Acknowledgement
The first step to change is to be aware and acknowledge undesirable behavioural patterns. Reflect on past conflicts and identify the common factors. What are your biases? Unsaid expectations you have of your partner? Asking your partner for their opinions of how fights stem from also allows you to comprehend how they view you and the relationship (safe haven). Charlie begins realising that avoidance doesn’t help his relationship with Taylor. Additionally, he told Taylor that he finds her aggressive in the way she asks him to open up. Taylor acknowledges this and tries to give Charlie space when he asks for it (safe haven and secure base).
It is common for couples to realise that some of their communication styles are similar to that of their parents. These individuals might want to “swing the opposite way” from their parents, and do the exact opposite of what their parents have done. It is important to note that that usually leads to another set of troubles. Rather than using your parents as a benchmark for your relationship, set out clear and balanced expectations for yourself and your partner (safe haven and secure base). Acknowledge the hurt caused in the relationship, and reflect on how you would prefer your relationship to be like.
Couples Counselling and Communication
Couples counselling was explored by Taylor and Charlie. Couple counselling focuses on the dynamics of the relationship, and interaction patterns between partners (Burgess et al., 2016). Couples learn about their partner’s needs and new ways to engage with each other. Couples who have attended couples counselling together had increased relationship satisfaction (Rathgeber et al., 2018) and feelings of security, and decreased relationship anxiety and avoidance (Burgess et al., 2016). Therefore, couples are more likely to feel secure in their relationship through couples counselling.
Couples counselling provided Charlie and Taylor with a space to express their vulnerabilities, enabling them to develop greater appreciation of the relationship. They realised that Charlie’s avoidance towards their conflicts and his own emotional avoidance led the couple to feel a lack of emotional intimacy (Benson et al., 2012). This worsened their relationship difficulties, as there were no resolutions to their problems. Consequently, Taylor increased her demands towards Charlie.
Interventions involved understanding each other more deeply and learning healthy communication practices. In the counselling room, Charlie slowly trusted Taylor and opened up about his fears and feelings. Next, the couple’s counsellor emphasised for the couple to communicate, communicate and communicate! Charlie and Taylor discussed what positive communication looked like to them. They realised that even though the other party has good intentions, they might not necessarily convey it as such. Thus, the counsellor coached Taylor on ways to make Charlie feel heard rather than dismissed (Benson et al., 2012). She learnt to respond positively to Charlie’s vulnerabilities, by acknowledging them and trying to understand him (safe haven and secure base). On the other hand, Charlie learnt to explicitly express his needs and wants (safe haven). They practised these learnings outside the counselling room to maintain them (Rathgeber et al., 2018). Couples counselling allows couples to define and acknowledge their challenges, brainstorm for plausible resolutions and experiment with them.
Charlie and Taylor realised the impact their childhood experiences had on them. Taylor was more comfortable with expressing her needs and innermost thoughts to Charlie, because she has a secure attachment style. Furthermore, she mirrored her parents' interaction style with her to her communication patterns with Charlie. On the other hand, Charlie is avoidant because of his insecure attachment style and the influence society had on him regarding masculinity. However, by being aware of his own biases and couples counselling, Charlie began to develop an internal working model where he can be emotionally close to others and does not need to avoid conflict. Taylor learnt to be more encouraging and supportive of Charlie’s efforts.
Maintaining a meaningful relationship can be challenging. Every individual has their own set of beliefs, ideas, and communication styles, so when two people of different ideologies come together, it is normal for disagreements to ensue. Nonetheless, it is important to also take note that perhaps your partner did not know how to state their needs, or respond with affirmation; maybe they are a result of their environment and upbringing. A relationship takes two hands to clap. When one partner falls short in one area, it is for the other party to respond with that unconditional care and love. Afterall, a healthy relationship is about providing a safe haven and a secure base.
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Article written by Janna Lim, former counsellor with ImPossible Psychological Services, with Olivia Ong. Olivia is a final year psychology undergraduate with the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). She aspires to be a clinical psychologist and completed an internship with the practice.