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Relationships

2 Essentials for a Secure and Stable Relationship

Commitment is just the start.

Key points

  • Commitment and managing anger are two essential ingredients in stable and secure intimate relationships.
  • Commitment to the relationship focuses individuals on cooperative solutions rather than threatening abandonment.
  • Expressing the pain underlying anger, rather than the anger itself, will support the relationship rather than damaging it.

Most people seek stability and security in their relationships, but few achieve it. Secure relationships are generally associated with lower levels of stress, higher levels of comfort, and a greater ability to negotiate differences and problems. Commitment and minimal expressions of anger are two characteristics of intimate relationships that support security and stability.

Unstable, insecure relationships, by contrast, are transactional: They are characterized by the last interaction. Any frustration or dissatisfaction is seen as the current status of the relationship as a whole. A constant feeling of being judged and an inability to predict the future behavior of significant others results in high levels of anxiety and insecurity.

Stable, secure relationships are supported by commitment, loyalty, predictability, and forgiveness. Securely attached individuals have lower levels of anxiety and stress associated with the stability of the relationship, which is defined by history and patterns of behavior rather than single events.

Commitment

Stability in relationships is achieved by both parties making a commitment to solving conflicts and problems with the attitude and belief that solutions will be found that do not threaten or damage the relationship. Insecure relationships generally have frequent direct and indirect threats to end the relationship.

Ellen and Ernie are insecurely attached. In the following dialogue, they try to negotiate where to go food shopping:

Ernie: We need groceries. Let’s go to Key Food.

Ellen: I hate that place. Let’s go to Stop and Shop.

Ernie: That’s twice the drive.

Ellen: But we'll save money.

Ernie: I hate when you argue about silly things.

Ellen: I hate when you're controlling!

Ernie: Why don’t you just go shopping by yourself?

Ellen: Why don’t you just live by yourself?

Because of the insecure nature of their relationship, even a simple conversation about where to shop for food ends up in threats of abandonment from both individuals.

Sean and Sally, on the other hand, have a secure, committed relationship. When they have the same conversation, they get a different outcome:

Sean: We need some groceries. Let’s go to Key Food.

Sally: I hate that place. Let’s go to Stop and Shop.

Sean: That’s twice the drive.

Sally: But we'll save money.

Sean: I'm tight on time today, so I'm only comfortable going to Key Food. If you're available tomorrow, I'd be happy to go with you to Stop and Shop.

Sally: That works for me. Do you have time for a walk right now?

Sean: I would love to.

The commitment that Sean and Sally have to their relationship keeps them focused on cooperative solutions when conflicts arise. Ernie and Ellen respond to conflict by being critical of each other, which is not cooperative and ends up being divisive.

Expressing Anger in Intimate Relationships

The expression of anger, which typically takes the form of threatening or lashing-out behavior, almost always pushes away the target of the expression. People instinctively either back away or attack when confronted with anger, both of which are divisive and destructive to the relationship. Anger is among the only emotions that repel others when expressed. Sadness, shame, guilt, fear, etc., all tend to draw others closer and should be expressed when appropriate in intimate relationships.

Anger is usually caused by the same underlying thing: pain. We get angry when someone has hurt us, is hurting us, or we expect they will hurt us.

In intimate relationships, the underlying pain should be expressed rather than the resultant anger. Presumably, in intimate relationships, others care about your pain and will make efforts to stop hurting you. Once the pain is addressed, the anger will typically dissipate. (As this technique depends on others caring about your feelings, it can only be used reliably in intimate relationships, including with lovers, family, and friends.)

The "Ouch" Tool

The simplest expression of pain is to say “ouch.” This generally gets the attention of your loved one, and then a conversation can clarify what is hurting you and how your loved one can help ameliorate your pain.

In the first example, Ernie expresses anger toward Ellen when he says, “I hate when you argue about silly things.” He uses the term “hate,” which denotes a high level of anger, and he invalidates her by using the word “silly” in describing her concerns. Not surprisingly, she responds by lashing out. She retorts, “I hate when you're controlling,” reiterating the hate emotion and accusing him of being controlling. Then the threats of abandonment come and the relationship is compromised, if not destroyed.

Had Sean decided to express his feelings to Sally, he might have chosen to express his pain and the response he might have gotten. It might have sounded like this:

Sean: I'm frustrated by my desire to go shopping with you in conflict with my time limitation. I wish I had more time today.

Sally: I understand. We can go tomorrow and take our time.

Two essential characteristics of intimate relationships: commitment and minimizing the expression of anger, will increase the stability and security of your intimate relationships if practiced consistently. For this to be effective, both individuals in the relationship must exercise these characteristics. The payoff can be life-changing.

Facebook image: PeopleImages.com - Yuri A/Shutterstock

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More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
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