Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

Three Ways to Make Your Dysfunctional Relationships Healthy

I say it all the time. Relationships are the worst and best things in our lives. Your happiest and worst memories alike probably involve a relationship of some sort. Maybe your relationship with your family members makes you cherish the holidays, or you avoid going home for them. Perhaps you’re on every dating site imaginable, or maybe you turn down anyone that asks you out. Relationships cause us to behave in certain ways. And, whether you are aware of it or not, there are specific reasons why you choose to act the way you do with others.

People matter. And our relationships with the people in our lives affect us deeply.

Be honest: have you ever sabotaged a relationship or friendship that was going well because you were afraid of getting hurt? Have you desperately wanted to be connected to someone so badly that you clung on for dear life and essentially drove the person away and got your number blocked? It’s okay if you have. In middle school that was just the norm; you just need to update your methods if this is still your norm as an adult.

The truth is that one of the most consistent findings in the research on happiness tells us that those who achieve the most happiness have close interpersonal relationships (Grohol, 2010). We cannot get away from it. It’s in the research.

This may be bad news to some who feel like their relationship game is lacking. Others might already know how important interpersonal connection is and desire and seek close relationships. Or maybe intimacy just seems too complicated to figure out and most of your relationships end up in flames. When it comes to happiness in our relationships, we are all somewhere on the spectrum between satisfied and dissatisfied. Luckily, how we connect to others has been studied for years and we have quite a bit data to help us achieve more satisfaction in this area. If you want a comprehensive look at why we desire to attach to others, look here. For the purpose of this post, however, I want to look at how we attach as adults and how we can fix the dysfunctions of our current ways of relating. Let’s first begin by looking at the three primary ways people connect:

The Clinger (Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment).
The name says it all. This person is incredibly clingy. You stress out when a new friend or date does not return your text immediately.  You experience perpetual fear about your existing loved ones leaving you. This might manifest itself in some stalkerish behavior. Or maybe you are savvy enough to keep your behaviors in check, but internally you’re a ball of anxiety and fear. Underlying beliefs for those who experience relationships in this way include:

·      I am unworthy of love.
·      I cannot get the love I want or need.
·      I’m not good enough or interesting enough to keep others around.
·      Others will most likely abandon me when they get tired of me.

Those who have this relationship style have a paramount fear of rejection. This prevents them from being honest with their loved ones for fear of hurting them and causing them to leave. As a result, this person desperately attempts to please people and depends heavily on others instead of himself or herself (Sibcy & Clinton, 2006).

The Hardened Heart (Avoidant Attachment).
Just think Ebenezer Scrooge. He is the quintessential example of this attachment style. Beliefs that fuel this person include:

·      I am worthy of love based on my successes and accomplishments.
·      People will eventually hurt me, so I must keep them at arms length.
·      Others are unwilling and incapable of loving me.
·      I must rely on myself alone.

This person might relate to this classic White Snake song:

These folks are difficult to get close to. They often want to be pursued relentlessly and need to feel they have the upper hand in their relationships. Often they leave the person they are in a relationship with feeling unimportant and unloved (Sibcy & Clinton, 2006).

The Secure Person (Secure Attachment).
This is the person we all want to be. She is confident. She knows what she has to offer and what her limitations are. This is the guy who is not afraid of emotions—his or anyone else’s. He knows when to reach out for help and isn’t riddled with fear about others getting mad and leaving him. Overall, this person believes relationships can be safe and understands that forgiveness and reconciliation can follow disappointment and conflict. Usually these people have lots of friends and are those you want to be friends with. They seem to be surrounded by love and connection (Sibcy & Clinton, 2006).

Here is the good news: you can become this person. Truly. Research has proven it (Roisman, Padron, Sroufe, & Egeland, 2002). No matter how much disappointment others have caused you, you can learn a new way of relating.  Here are three things to implement now to practice moving toward secure attachment if you find your relationships plagued by dysfunction and disappointment:

Identify what causes you the most shame. People typically move away from others because they don’t want to be hurt or embarrassed. Rejection bruises our egos. What is it that causes you to feel shameful about yourself? Is it a fear of others finding out you don’t understand or know something? Are you afraid of someone learning something about you that you don’t want to be known? One man described his personal fear like this during one of our sessions:

I spent my entire adolescence trying to hide the fact that I was attracted to other men. I desperately didn’t want anyone to know I was gay. So I wouldn’t let other people get too close so I could attempt to control how they perceived me. Now I’m realizing I haven’t let anyone in and have no close relationships because I still feel shame about my sexuality and who I am. And I worry, is it too late to figure out how to fix this?

As in the case of this man, maybe there is something that you believe is fundamentally flawed about yourself. Maybe you have spent so much energy and effort trying to hide something about yourself because you believe it’s shameful or wrong. Let me tell you, friend, you can get relief. Vulnerability makes people more beautiful! To improve your relationships, you must identify what you are most embarrassed or ashamed about so you can discern how to move forward in acceptance and stronger connections.

Avoid games. People are excellent game-players. Especially when it comes to relationships. Here’s the deal: you have to learn to stop. We are all too old and tired for that shit. Eliminate behaviors like the cold shoulder, minimizing your feelings, getting defensive, avoiding others who have hurt you, or intentionally not returning a call because you want to appear “cool.”

These behaviors just make you look like an ass and drive people away. Learn how to interact like a mature adult.

If someone’s behavior bothers you, kindly talk about it with him or her. Be emotionally honest about how their actions affected you. You must be honest about your feelings in order to truly connect with another person.

Watch what others do. Maybe you feel completely lost as to how to interact with others. That’s when you need to watch what the people in your life do. Discern those who are securely attached and model your behaviors after them. We all need people to practice with and learn from. Who in your life seems to have the strongest relationships? Watch how they interact with their significant others and friends. Maybe, if you’re really brave, you can take them out to coffee and ask specific questions. I know that’s a vulnerable thing, but wouldn’t it be worth it if it helped you become happier and have stronger relationships?

Changing your attachment style is difficult because there are valid reasons why you do the things you do. People have hurt us and we want to self-protect. We want to feel valuable and loved so we seek out the affections of others. Learning how to relate is difficult, so it’s easier to rely on the old games we learned in middle school. These are all valid and sensible reasons. But just because they are valid does not mean they are sustainable.

Finally, let’s learn to be patient with each other as we all figure it out. Relationships are one of the trickiest things we must navigate, and we will screw them up from time to time. Each person has good reasons why they relate the way they do. Everyone has a different attachment style. That style is set by personality, temperament, life experiences, and trauma. Remember to extend empathy and understanding to those with a different attachment style than you. Or, in the words of Plato: "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle."

And to answer the question my client posed above: is it too late to fix this?

No. It is absolutely not too late.

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Clinton, T. & Sibcy, G. (2006). Why you do the things you do: The secret to healthy relationships. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Grohol, J. (2010). Five reliable findings from happiness research. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/04/10/5-reliable-findings-from-happiness-research.

Roisman, G. L., Padron, E., Sroufe, L. A., & Egeland, B. (2002). Earned-secure attachment status in retrospect and prospect. Child Development(73) 4. 1204-19.