Tension In Relationships
Experiencing tension or issues within family, romantic, platonic, and professional relationships is quite common across the board, and something we see a lot in working with the queer community.
Every relationship is going to superficially have different issues, but at the core there are some common themes that contribute: members perceiving that they aren’t being seen or that their experience is being minimized or invalidated. The root could also be that that their emotions aren’t welcome so they handle their emotions in isolation, or there are other needs that aren’t being attuned to or addressed.
Some of you reading this may already be familiar with attachment styles, which are relational patterns that we learn from how our early caregivers interacted with us. The two broad categories of attachment styles are secure and insecure attachment, with secure attachment signifying that our caregivers met our physical and emotional needs which instilled a trust and gravitation towards healthy relationships within us.
Insecure attachment on the other hand refers to a lack of trust in current relationships due to learning early on that the person (/people) that were supposed to meet our physical emotional needs didn’t come through. Another way to describe attachment styles is early programming that has taught us what to expect out of people in the future. Are people generally good and helpful? Are they generally scary and hard to relate to? Are people generally safe but just not that easy to connect to? Our attachment style holds our specific beliefs around these types of questions.
These attachment styles set a template for how we relate to people, and tension may come from insecurely attached people re-enacting their attachment styles in future relationships. An example of this is someone had an emotionally unavailable parent who was not a good communicator, they may be subconsciously attracted to that in their later romantic relationships since it’s familiar. But that lack of communication at the end of the day can lead to tension, as the insecurely attached person is still not getting their needs met.
Estrangement is another common relational experience that can stem from attachment wounding that has not been able to resolve. Particularly in parent/child dynamics, children are programmed to put their parents on a pedestal. From an attachment perspective, there is an expectation that parents will be able to meet the child’s needs and when parents can’t or don’t come through with meeting a need, it creates a wound. Many times, a child will grow to blame themselves for not getting the need met, believing subconsciously that they aren’t good enough. Estrangement can occur when the child (typically as a teen or adult), realizes that it wasn’t their fault that the need was not met, puts the responsibility back on the parents, and the parents still don’t come through. While estrangement can seem on a surface level to have occurred because of a surface level issue (such as different religious views or political beliefs), it’s usually due to a deeper attachment wound that has been festering for a long time. Estrangement dynamics can show up in other types of relationships as well expectations of needs being met are not easily resolvable.
Attachment styles are one way to explore the root of tension, but another framework to explore tension is through looking at needs. When our needs aren’t met, our nervous systems can get pretty activated. I mean, we’ve all heard the term “hangry” right- anger or irritability that comes from being super hungry. That general idea can be applied to our mental health in a broad way. When our basic needs, safety needs, emotional needs, relational needs, professional needs and more are not being met, it can invite challenging emotions to come up. Together we can explore what needs are not being met in whatever relational dynamic is tense for you, and figure out if the relationship can be improved or if it’s time to walk away.