After my husband and I had a recent fight about nothing, I sent a check-mark emoji to the group chat. “We had our first corona fight,” I wrote. “It was about a frying pan. Unsolicited feedback re: my oil usage (not enough). I sobbed.” The pressure of close quarters and complete uncertainty have made these sorts of spousal exchanges a running theme with most people I know, including the friends who texted their apologies and LOLs and heart emojis in kind. But my rage-crying quickly turned to laughter as I took in the absurdity of the situation: While I’d been marinating in alarming Twitter threads since mid-January, what put me over the edge was a minor criticism while trying to make my family pancakes.
This mood reminded me of being six months pregnant with my second son, when panic about reentering the newborn phase also meant I got into dumb fights with my husband. A simple question like “What should we have for dinner?” became an argument that was definitely about more than dinner. He’d make a resentful remark when I couldn’t decide, and I’d snap at him defensively, probably something profanity-laced. He would insist he only wanted to make me happy; I would yell that he was bad at it. He would shut down; I would run into the bedroom and cry because I was trying to build a life with someone who I couldn’t even pick out a restaurant with. Clearly, we were doomed!
If we were doomed, though, I knew we weren’t alone. A lot of my friends are also in partnerships and raising young kids, and I spent — I spend, to be honest — a not-insignificant chunk of my leisure time dissecting these relationships, mine and theirs. I was beginning to develop a cynical theory that we had all partnered with people basically designed to make us lose our shit.
Why else had my friend who coped with stress by spending money marry someone who considered paying for a cab a moral failure? By the same token, why did a friend with deep money anxiety marry a guy who regularly failed to file his taxes? Why were social butterflies with the socially anxious, why were affection-needers with claustrophobes, and why did I, a person who bottles up her feelings until they explode in a rage, marry someone who both didn’t understand my inability to speak up sooner and who completely shut down in the face of me shouting at him? Why did we end up with people whose strengths and weaknesses at one point seemed to complement ours, but now, deeper in, felt like they were programmed specifically to destroy us?
If you are me, or someone like me, you might think the answer is that what once seemed like a good idea was actually doomed from the start. You might consider yourself too sophisticated to believe in Finding the One, but a part of you probably fears its opposite: Inevitably Choosing the Wrong One.
It took no less than researching the psychology of relationships and consulting multiple professionally accredited psychotherapists to rid me of this fear. But now that it’s gone (mostly), my new view on relationships feels like a windfall, one where the currency is a palpable emotional relief. Thank God, too, because especially now, I would be screwed without it.
Time for Some Attachment Theory
To get real insight into why we feel and act the way we do in relationships, we could do many intensive hours of therapy and engage in rigorous communication and self-reflection — or we could use a mid-20th-century theory about infant development to diagnose ourselves and our loved ones with various attachment issues. Attachment theory isn’t that simple, of course, but then again, what about human relationships is?
In 1958 the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby presented the first of three related papers to the British Psychoanalytic Society in London, asserting that how we are in relationships is first established, if not predetermined, by the attachments we make as infants to our primary caregiver. In other words, our parents’ responsiveness to us (or lack thereof) teaches us how to trust people (or not), and we tend to seek out relationship dynamics that mirror the one we had with our primary caregiver. For better or worse, it’s what we know.
While Bowlby came up with attachment theory, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, a colleague and former collaborator of his, put it into action. In the late 1960s, Ainsworth developed an observational experiment to test Bowlby’s theory empirically and take it even further. Known as the “Strange Situation,” Ainsworth’s experiment involved observing an infant and their primary caregiver in a room with a stranger and some toys, classifying the infant based on how they reacted when their caregiver sat with them in the room, when they left the room and came back, and then left and came back a second time.
“Securely-attached” infants tended to play with the toys and engage with the stranger as long as their caregiver — called the “secure base” — was present, reassuring them they were safe to explore but could return to them in times of need. When the caregiver left, Ainsworth found, secure infants cried but recovered quickly, and were happy to see them when they came back. “Avoidantly attached” infants, on the other hand, didn’t explore the room much, and showed little emotion when their caregiver left or returned. The “anxiously-attached” or “anxious-ambivalent” infant was very wary of the stranger, and highly distressed when their caregiver left the room. (For more on the many subtypes, and greater complexity and history, I recommend Becoming Attached by Robert Kare.) Ainsworth argues this is a kind of desperation in response to unpredictable parenting. Here I want to respond that the babies are just trying to “play it cool,” but I might be projecting.
Triggering Each Other’s Bullshit
So yes. Ideally you have two securely-attached infants who grow up into people who form a securely-attached relationship — but what about the rest of us? Are we screwed?
Not necessarily, says Lily Sloane, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. Over Skype, as I explained my relationship dynamic, I was hoping she would tell me that yelling was not necessarily bad. That it was productive, even! And maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty, because isn’t it worse to shut down? Instead, Sloane gently clarified that while people commonly come to couples therapy hoping a third-party will validate their perspective, the goals of therapy are not so much about right and wrong. “It’s more about empathy building,” she told me. If we understand where our partners are coming from, it’s easier to muster compassion for them in moments of conflict, rather than feeling defensive or adversarial.
She went on to reference a classic relationship dynamic that sounded very familiar to me: the pairing of an anxiously-attached person (ahem) and an avoidantly-attached one. The key for “someone” in this situation is to have compassion for your partner’s tendency to withdraw, rather than feeling personally attacked, or like you’re just the unhinged one with all the out-of-control emotions. Shutting down, Sloane told me, is not usually an indicator of having no feelings — but an indicator of having so many feelings that you can’t deal with them. “You’re just dealing with conflict in an opposite way,” she said, “which then just triggers the shit out of each other.”
Triggers the shit out of each other. Are you also laughing in recognition and relief? According to Sloane, this dynamic is not at all uncommon in couples. “Oh,” she said, “it’s so common I wouldn’t even call it mismatched. I’d call it perfectly-matched.”
“People are constantly like: why do I keep doing this?” she continued. “Why do I keep being attracted to these people? Why, why, why, why, why, why? And it’s like, well, maybe there is a reason and, unless there is abuse going on, maybe you don’t have to fight against yourself so much to try to change it and instead kind of turn toward that question of, What am I getting from this? And what is my work here?”
I have to say: I love thinking of a relationship this way — as a partnership between two broken people whose individual fears and insecurities and ways of coping with conflict and stress do trigger the shit out of each other, but in a way that can spur meaningful change. Rather than “finally” awakening to the unsuitability of our partners, we might actually choose people who will eventually force us to reexamine everything we accept as static.
Granted an element of the unknown comes with this mindset, and once I finished my call with Sloane, that was exactly what my doom-obsessed brain decided to focus on. What if my partner “grows” into a person who no longer tolerates my bullshit? And what if my “work” means finding out uncomfortable truths about myself, and I’m actually a piece of shit? But that is what I would think, right, being an anxious person, prone to doomed thinking? Sloane did make a point of saying that unless there was abuse going on, she would never tell someone they should or shouldn’t be with somebody — there was no objective truth that would be revealed; no right answer, for better or worse. When it comes to taking a deep look at our relationships, doom-susceptible people like me shouldn’t be afraid of finding out too much.
Why Are We Even Doing This?
Whether due to hubris or snobbery, I had never read a self-help book about marriage before picking up Eli Finkel’s The All-or-Nothing Marriage. Turns out my categorization was wrong anyway: Finkel’s book is more of a diagnosis of marriage in our current moment, and a consoling argument about how hard we make it for ourselves, while still believing it should be easy.
A psychology professor, researcher, and director of the Relationships and Motivation Lab at Northwestern University, Finkel posits that our current model of marriage requires an unprecedented investment of time and energy — and that it’s worth it. In a 2015 study Finkel called this “The Suffocation Model,” which has to either be the bleakest or most apt name for a study on long-term relationships. According to Finkel, while we now expect higher-than-ever levels of growth and fulfillment from relationships, we also need to provide endless oxygen to keep them from dying. Marriage is no longer primarily for economic or political advantage, and it’s no longer even necessary for love or sexual intimacy. These days, he argues, marriage is for achieving “autonomy and personal growth.” Plainly put: it’s harder.
The overachiever in me lapped this up. Contemporary marriage often buckles under the pressure of world-historically high expectations, but if we could pull it off, we could have the most intimacy ever! I would not have said I got married in order to grow as a person, and the phrase “personal growth” does make me recoil, but between my child-of-divorce baggage and the fact that I now had two children with someone I couldn’t so much as mutually decide what to have for dinner — maybe some personal growth was in order.
Caryl Rusbult, who died in 2010, was considered a pioneer of the scientific study of close relationships. She was also Eli Finkel’s mentor: Her research argues that we look for a spouse who will bring out “our best self” — someone who embodies the qualities we think of as ideal. She called this the Michelangelo Effect, recalling the way the artist considered the act of sculpting to be less about creating a new object as it was freeing an object from the rock it was trapped inside.
So, I married my husband not only because he reminded me of the way my mom made me feel as a baby, or because he was like me, but because I wanted to be like him. On the surface, now that we are in deep, this makes me laugh. Did I think my best self was someone who hated texting back? Did I want to get into hiking? Eastern European novelists? But there might be something to it. Perhaps the things my friends and I complain about now were once thrilling novelties. Maybe once upon a time we wanted to stop some of our now-ingrained habits; maybe we liked that they didn’t worry about money, or that they wanted to stay in on the weekends. Maybe before the passage of time or the arrival of difficulty, our incompatibilities were exciting; something new. (For better or worse, I do feel less obligated to text people back.)
What strikes me in this image is how effortful it would be, to get a person out of their rock. How painful, for both parties. How could you not second-guess the process, midway through? If I ever imagined “becoming my best self,” I think I imagined it more like I would have supportive love and pooled resources from my partner, leaving me better equipped to tend to other parts of my life. I was thinking of being supported, not thinking of the other side of it: supporting him. But supporting a partner as they become their “ideal self” is arduous, Finkel reminds us, especially when you are busy doing the same.
I realized that I must have imagined, without really thinking about it, that being in a relationship would make my life easier, not create its own challenges. I mostly thought that with the unconditional love and support of my husband locked down, I’d be free to focus my energy elsewhere, like on my career. I see now that I was operating under the idea, or at least under the fear, that if something is hard, if it takes work, that means it’s not right.
Conquering your insecurities and doing the hard work of responsive communicating with your spouse, Finkel points out, can help us serve as a safe haven for them, or, to borrow the language of attachment theory: “the secure base.” We can ultimately become for each other the secure base that we might have missed as infants. It just takes a lot of painful work, work that doesn’t come naturally to many of us.
This Shit Is Hard
Hoping for more advice specific to my own communication issues, I explained the way I’d been fighting with my husband lately to Chad Perman, a licensed therapist who works with individuals and couples in the Seattle area. First he reassured me that “communication issues” were “probably the single most common presenting issue” he’s seen working with couples over the years — like Sloane, he emphasized that “right” and “wrong” don’t really factor into a relationship’s work.
But he did give me something concrete to work with, saying I should work on communicating my frustrations sooner, and that my husband should work on validating my emotions and recognizing I shout when I’m in distress. “If you’re doing it right,” he told me, “it will feel uncomfortable for both of you at first. But that’s how we grow.”
The trick is that while the idea of viewing everything as an opportunity for growth makes sense to me in the abstract, in practice it’s more of a nightmare. “The pursuit of personal growth can be arduous,” Finkel writes. In practice you are triggering each other’s bullshit, crying when you would rather not talk about it, writing long, explanatory emails in the middle of the day when you need to get work done, saying shit that is painful or feels impossible to express, generally chipping away at the rock of all your issues like Michelangelo with a blunt instrument.
When I talked to Lily Sloane about personal growth, I suggested that possibly we were incorrectly imagining the experience of “personal growth.” “Oh yeah,” she said, “The very things that might balance us are painful and challenging. It’s difference and it’s tension and we need difference and tension in order to check ourselves, and to grow. But it’s not, like, a pleasant experience a lot of the time. I mean mostly, I think I actually don’t want to grow as a person,” she joked. “Can we just agree and just agree back and forth forever? That sounds nice.” Imagine it! It sounded boring when she mentioned it to me but now, as I am facing down many weeks inside with my husband and our two small children, both of us trying to somehow get work done, it sounds pretty damn appealing.
Given our current pandemic circumstances, a partnership completely free of conflict is completely unrealistic anyway. We feel allied right now; I know we will fight again. I hope, like Sloane suggested, I can muster up some bottom-of-the-barrel compassion for him the next time I snap (“This frying pan critic is, underneath it all, a scared child, just like me”). So far we are stressed and stretched thin, but our marriage, of all things, does not feel doomed.