Author: Angellynn Lily Tam
The words relationships and love are words heard throughout one’s lifetime. Often, the image that pops into our heads are scenes from movies, tv shows, and other media. The media’s portrayal of relationships has become our standard of what relationships and love are supposed to look and be like. We assume we find the one and live happily ever after. In actuality, relationships take work, but prior to working on the relationship as a couple, we first have to shift our focus and attention to acknowledge the two individuals that are in the relationship. We often forget that before getting into a relationship, we were once individual people who have decided to come together.
In Dr. Keith Sutton's workshop for clinicians on Integrative Emotionally-Focused Couples Training, he teaches that we can honor the two individuals that choose to come together into a relationship by examining each person as their own part of the relationship. Each individual brings something unique to the table, and in order for a couple to work, we have to first understand each person and how each person shows and receives love.
The first real connections we have are with our caregivers. As children, we are like sponges that soak up information all around us, even if we aren’t fully aware. The household in which we grow up plays a huge part in how one might show love to their significant other. The attachment styles one has are based on what we experience as children, primarily from our caregivers. If a child grew up around a parent who is abusive, that child may learn that it is normal behavior. This pattern of learnt behavior may continue into romantic relationships if it is not addressed. Identifying the characteristics of what is a healthy relationship versus unhealthy relationship are not taught, but learnt through observations and experiences.
There are four different types of attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant-dismissive, and avoidant-fearful. Individuals with a secure attachment style are attuned with their emotions and are able to foster a safe, honest environment with their partners to speak out about upsetting topics. Individuals with anxious attachment style tend to struggle with their sense of self and romanticize about love with a positive view of their partner. Individuals with avoidant-dismissive attachment are emotionally distant from their partner and tend to suppress their feelings. Lastly, individuals with avoidant-fearful attachment style experience inner fluctuation of fear in being too close or too distant from their partners, which can lead to the relationship being volatile. It is important to note an individual’s attachment style when discussing behaviors within a relationship.
Concurrent with attachment styles, it is also helpful to know individuals’ love languages. The different types of love languages are quality time, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Our love languages are how we tend to give, and wish to receive love. Knowing your partner's love language can help in understanding how to your partner shows love, and how to show love to your partner, and communicate how your partner can show love to you.
So what does a healthy relationship look like compared to an unhealthy relationship? A healthy relationship is built around honesty, trust, mutual respect, and good communication. Self-esteem and self-confidence play a huge role in creating a safe space for both partners to be able to express their thoughts without judgement. There are many characteristics of an unhealthy relationship, but the main identifier of an unhealthy relationship is when one partner has more power over the other. This can lead to a potentially abusive relationship.
With Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), the focus is to develop the skills to be able to develop a secure attachment with their partner. This happens through understanding the cycle that gets in the way of each being able to communicate their love and care, and to be able to be responsive to each other. Often each partner loves their partner, and wants to connect, but the way that each tries to reach the other one, they end up missing each other. Relationships are not like in the movies, where they're all romance all the time and easy, but instead, it takes work to create a relationship that is fulfilling to each of the individuals, and make it the best relationship it can be. Through working on understanding our partners needs, our needs, and learning how to catch the cycle, we can strengthen our attachment bond, and have a relationship with a secure attachment, which is the foundation of true love.