Rachel Pinto, LPC-S
I have been a therapist now for eight years, and it wasn’t long before I started noticing trends in how couples talk to each other. There are some personality types – and for the purposes of this article we will refer to them as the Approacher – who want to tackle the conversation head-on. They will express themselves in a very direct manner, and often with lots of energy and expression. There are other personality types – whom we will refer to as the Distancer – who prefer to deal with conflict (or sometimes even perceived conflict) in a roundabout way. They may make hints or suggestions, or they may just clam up completely if they get very upset.
Now I don’t know exactly why this happens, but often, an Approacher and a Distancer will end up falling in love. And they may proceed to find a not-so-enjoyable rut in their communication styles around hard topics.
Approacher: “Hey, we need to talk about something.”
Distancer: *sigh* “Oh no…”
Approacher: “See? Why do you do that? Aren’t we supposed to be able to talk about stuff?”
Distancer: “Why do I do what? I mean, I thought everything was fine, but now you’re all upset!”
…and around and around we go.
If this loop feels familiar, I would like to go ahead right off the bat and recommend that you and your partner consider finding a therapist who practices Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT), which I and my colleague Susan Warren here at Cardinal Counseling practice. EFT has been helping couples for decades with unraveling these stubborn feedback loops, and finding new ways to relate to each other.
But I can also give some practical tips on how to approach conflicts with your partner with self-confidence, so that you are more able to resist the pull of the Pursuer-Distancer dance.
To the Pursue/Approacher folks, I can say: what your Distancer partner needs is reassurance. Even if they aren’t as expressive or verbose as you are, they are almost always just as affected by conflicts as you are. Read this article to learn more about how partners physiologically experience arguments. Consider approaching your partner with a request and a reassurance. Something like, “Hey, I need for us to talk about something, and I really feel like we can solve this together.”
To the Distancer people, I want to say: your Approacher partner may be acting upset, annoyed, maybe even very angry. And certainly, if they are being insulting or abusive, you should not entertain any type of conversation with them until you are both calm again. But what I have learned about Approachers since I have been a therapist is that, often, the emotion they use is not the primary emotion they feel. In fact, they may decide to use an emotion that makes them feel “strong” or in control (like annoyance or sarcasm), even if they are also feeling “weak” emotions like fear or unworthiness. (And by the way, no emotions are “weak” or “strong.” These are cultural judgments and they aren’t worth phooey.)
Approachers need to feel met by their partners. Seen. Connected. Consider going against your knee-jerk reaction to back away, and say instead, “Okay, I hear what you’re saying. I’m here with you, and if it’s a problem for you, then it’s a problem for both of us.”
Here’s to better communication, better connection, and more love in the new year! Let us know if we can help you and your loved ones in any way.