The root of conflict in couples?

We often say that most conflict between spouses boils down to money, sex, or power–and the first two are also all about power in the relationship. I think that is true. But, don’t forget that the power struggle may be less about the two people and more about a life-long pattern of feeling powerless  and unsafe in the world. In psychology terms we talk about this as the lack of secure attachment.

Here’s a few summary statements about attachment that I wrote up some time ago. I have no idea where these thoughts came from or why I wrote them so I apologize now for plagarizing them. They may well be my own thoughts or someone else’s…

1. Attachment injuries are often the culprit behind continuously conflicted couples.

2. Fights, then, are more symbolic than content driven.

3. Attachment insecurity precedes most conflict: the feeling of being alone, abandoned, rejected, etc.

4. Injuries usually are trauma based (or the perception of) in the present marital relationship or much earlier in childhood. There is a “violation of connection”

5. Two common problems result: (a) numbing, and (b) obsessional repeating/self-reminder of the experience of the violation. (example: the person repeatedly recalls the time 5 years ago that their spouse treated them as an object)

6. As a result of #5, the person experiences (a) and increased desire/”need” for a safe haven, but (b) lacks trust in the spouse, and (c) is vigilant for any sign of relational danger (i.e., reads ambiguous data in the worst possible manner)

7. The other spouse feels pushed/pulled at the same time and commonly physically and/or emotionally withdraws

8. The cycle perpetuates itself allowing both parties to solidify their labels for each other

9. The GOAL of therapy is to get a commitment to stop the cycle/script and to have each party soften towards each other so as to see the desires behind the emotion/behavior. If couples can see beyond the criticism or withdrawal to common desires of intimacy, they may be able to re-interpret and validate that desire while at the same time supporting a healthier way of expressing that desire.


Filed under Communication, conflicts, counseling, marriage, Psychology, Relationships

7 responses to “The root of conflict in couples?

  1. Kyle Sprecher

    Is there any connection between attachment injuries and generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder?

  2. Not sure. All would be considered various forms of anxiety. So there should be some parallels. Not sure I would want to claim that attachment was the root.

  3. Scott Knapp, MS

    I think I can track with the listed steps right up until the end…and perhaps my beef is simply a matter of semantics. I think what you’ve stated in point 9 is a good OBJECTIVE, but should be listed amongst other effective objectives under a much more worthy GOAL of the counseling efforts. I’ve been dramatically impacted by Larry Crabb’s efforts to get counselors to see good marriages, healthy relationships and “effective living” as good things to pursue, but still to be kept as “second things” (his words) behind a “first thing” objective of helping others become sincere, repentant worshipers of God in all they are and do. I think the action required in step 9 could not be effectively and solidly accomplished without some groundwork being laid in the heart regarding the spiritual issues that surround the choice of the relational strategies that need first be repented of…which would lend power to the commitment. However, I think helping someone deal with underlying spiritual issues (first things) can help them approach a point of repentance which would put some “staying power” to a commitment to relate more effectively to one’s spouse (second thing). Just one guy’s thoughts.

  4. Scott, interesting points here. First off, I’m not sure why I capitalized goal but that could signal to some that I meant it as the superordinate goal–and that would be wrong. I also could see calling pt. 9 an objective and not a goal. I get those two things mixed up.

    But more substantively I think I don’t completely agree (or agree as much as I used to) with your position. While I am in agreement that without the spirit, nothing good can happen, I think some do much better with the order. Some don’t get spiritually better and then fix their marriage. Some need some practical helps IN ORDER to see the spiritual issues. An addict needs to get sober in order to see the idolatry. An angry man needs to stop screaming to see the distructiveness of their habits. So, some couples need help moving towards each other and a change in the dance to open their eyes to what they could not see. I have had success with a nonchristian man using some of these skills–the success was helping him see the value of moving towards his wife, his trying to do so, and then finding out that he didn’t have enough love in his heart on his own to do so.

  5. Scott Knapp, MS

    OK, the “cup of cold water” perspective…I can agree with that.

  6. Jenny

    I have read lots of relationships books (secular and Christian) and not come across this analysis – I’ve read about the push/pull dynamic, and understand the idea of reacting to past events over and over. From a personal point of view, I think there is truth in what you write! Thank you.

  7. Hello!

    I stumbled across your writing accidentally but as a christian and a masters level counselor (working towards a license) I was hooked from the beginning! I just realized I’ve spent the last half hour reading and contemplating many of your insights/ideas. I have to say this attachment approach to relationship problems while it may not be completely founded empirically from an anecdotal and experiential perspective it is SPOT ON! I just emailed it to my fiance 🙂 I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about over lunch tomorrow 🙂 Consider publishing this; you’ve easily got ten chapters right there.



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