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  • Will Gutterson

Do opposites attract

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

What attracts couples to one other? Is it chemistry, sexual attraction, love at first sight? Civilisation’s most gifted poets and erudite philosophers have remained charmed as well as mystified by the enigma of human connection. Whilst couples therapists don’t hold the answer, we do know something about attraction that wanes, turns sour, or worse.

When couples argue, the core cause is never REALLY about the surface issue – whether that’s the housework, time spent apart, the dishwasher, or family vacations. In my opinion the underlying conflict centres around how different people find safety in our chaotic and unpredictable universe. Fundamentally people approach life’s challenges in two specific ways: one type finds safety by making plans and remaining vigilant, and the other group feels safer when things remain open and flexible.

For the first group, the route to feeling secure is to hatch plans, scrutinise all potentialities, or keep a watchful eye for danger and disruption. This approach will manifest itself in a variety of ways -- some focus on tasks, make lists, or keep themselves busy with tasks or work. Detractors label them anything from rigid to OCD.

For the second group, the key to security is to carve out unstructured time where they can live for the moment, indulge in pleasure, and let life unfold spontaneously with few limits or constraints. These people tend to plan less, freely indulge in pastimes or daydreaming, and take life more or less as it comes, with less concern about deadlines, rules and constraints. Detractors label them as anything from lazy to rebellious.

You can see how these two viewpoints are diametrically opposite. Yet, interestingly I often see these two personality types sitting side by side in my couple’s counselling rooms. One is not the right way and the other wrong, they are just different – but that’s not how couples under stress see it.

Let’s take a step back.

For any system to function effectively, it must do two things equally successfully: it must follow a roadmap for moving forward, and simultaneously adopt to changing circumstances – planning plus creativity. Whether we talking about a biological system, a team, a factory, or a marriage, having a plan and yet embracing the unknown is necessary for survival. Life on the planet would cease if planning and spontaneity weren’t present together. This is clearly a paradox and a contradiction, as well as true!

Let’s take the example of a driving holiday. There needs to be some sort of plan, a roadmap (or Google maps), a roadworthy vehicle checked for petrol and tyre pressure, some notion of where you are going, and usually what you are going to do when you get there. Someone on the team needs to prepare, anticipate what might go awry, and be vigilant to remaining on the charted course. But, if this were the only element, your vacation would be too confining and would miss out on the unexpected. A road may be closed, a particular street make look deliciously inviting, the car may get a puncture, or maybe it’d be fun to take an impromptu side trip. So someone on the team needs to be planning and scanning, and someone more carefree and open to new possibilities. Yet, spontaneity without planning is just as much a recipe for disaster as the other way around.

Interestingly, when this metaphor is seen through the lens of the couple relationship, I often find that one member completely takes over the role of vacation planner, and the other dominates the more spontaneous go-with-the-flow function. However, every couple will have their own language, patterns and vocabulary for this dynamic. One is a worrier, the other eschews worry. One is a vigilant planner; the other finds plans suffocating.

Conflict arises because each partner finds the other’s approach intolerable to their own sense of wellbeing. They want the other to become more like them, or to acquiesce to their life view, and arguing and unhappiness ensue.

The road to resolution is twofold.

The first step is to recognise the dynamic and call it out for what it is. “Here we go again” “We are doing our thing again.” “Ah, we’re not fighting about the issue, but how we manage time and tasks.” Individuals must recognise and express the feelings that are driving the behaviour. This can nip arguing in the bud. Planners often feel frustrated and stymied by daydreamers. The spontaneous partner’s lack of focus can feel hazardous to the partner who prefers structure. Expressing how you feel in the moment can immediately deflate conflict. “This is making me feel rushed”, or “this is making me feel unproductive and undervalued.” Even “I’m beginning to feel anxious” can help re-calibrate the conflictual dynamic. If you can see the other approach as different, even necessary, as opposed to a threat, you have a better change of negotiating compromise.

Step two is to do find a system to accommodate each approach. For some couples better planning is the key. Each couple will need to find what works. I had one client who admitted, “I love being spontaneous, as long as you tell me in advance!” Their partner was able to find ways to accommodate this.

Communication tactics may at first seem forced and overly dogmatic. It might feel ridiculous, even childish to over-explain yourself in such a doctrinaire, prescribed way. Don’t worry, this phase of overstated communication will reap results later on. It’s vital that you learn a new way to communicate during delicate and highly charged moments. It will help you each understand what’s happening with you, and your partner.

Another technique is to use a coloured card system to help express how you feel. A blue card means I’m feeling a twinge about our lack of communication; yellow means I’m getting more frustrated, even anxious about our interaction; red means I need some time by myself or I’ll explode.

Whatever method you use, use a method. Say something, do something, behave differently. Try something, if it doesn’t work, try something else. Lower the temperature, take a break, express how you feel. Any change in behaviour, even the most minuscule change, will necessitate your partner adapting to that change, and that can have a positive domino effect on recalibrating your couple ‘dance.’

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