GBA Partner Beth E. Maultsby discusses high conflict personalities and family law matters.
Specialty tag(s): High Conflict Divorce
Curtis W. Harrison | February 3, 2022
Understanding How Your Spouse Handles Relationship Stress Can Help You Navigate Marital Stress or Give You the Edge During Divorce Negotiations
We live in a world that thrives on negotiation. Whether you are trying to close a big deal at the office, bargain shop at the local trade days, or prioritize and refine your “honey-do” list at home, you are negotiating virtually every day.
Unlike traditional “arm’s-length” negotiations between relative strangers, however, spouses possess a wealth of insider’s knowledge about the other. Ironically, in most cases, neither spouse uses that knowledge to good effect.
Recognizing how you and your spouse respond to the stressors and conflicts that invariably occur during marriage; anticipating those responses; and adapting your own behavior in a constructive manner can help you to de-escalate unhealthy conflict.
Whether you are striving to strengthen the marital relationship or you have already been confronted by the reality of a failed marriage, there is nothing unethical or disingenuous about understanding your audience and tailoring your own behavior and communications with that audience. Ultimately, it is to your mutual advantage, as well as any children caught in the middle of such conflict, that you acquire new skills and methodologies for dealing with your spouse.
A growing body of research suggests that spouses form emotional attachments to each other that are similar to attachments that young children form with their parents. For example, when a happy toddler lives in a secure relationship with his parent(s), he has what is called a “secure base,” and he tends to feel safe enough to want to explore the world around him. If this securely attached toddler is then separated from his primary attachment figure(s), a predictable reaction of fear and anxiety is triggered.
Similarly, most adults living in a secure and healthy relationship tend to be more open to feedback about negative behaviors without feeling threatened or abandoned. But what happens when that security is stripped away by significant stressors, such as money trouble, job loss, health problems, or especially divorce? Like the toddler mentioned above, the loss of security that accompanies the removal of the attachment figure (in the case of divorce, the spouse) – triggers a predictable reaction in the stressed adult. The specific kind of reaction usually correlates closely to that person’s individual style of attachment.
The three primary attachment styles identified by researchers are “secure,” “anxious,” and “avoidant.”
Secure Attachment: Individuals with a secure attachment style generally channel distress fairly well because of their “strong base.” They tend to apply effective conflict resolution strategies and can integrate their own interests with their partner’s interests.
Anxious Attachment: Individuals with an anxious style of attachment tend to become more demanding, jealous, and ruminate obsessively about the relationship when placed under stressful situations. They are likely to appraise conflict in catastrophic terms and dwell on negative emotions. These feelings can persist and manifest for a time even after the original cause of the stress is relieved or removed.
Avoidant Attachment: Persons with an avoidant style of attachment tend to lack empathy for others and present themselves as highly self-reliant. Even though they are just as sensitive to rejection as others, they can appear to be distant or detached. They are likely to downplay the significance of conflict and focus on the “bottom line.”
It is important to keep in mind that these brief descriptions are generalized and simplified for purposes of the scope of this article. They are, by no means, indicative of an underlying pathology. Rather, they are descriptive “lenses” through which we can view certain personality traits and tendencies for a specific reason.
Experienced marriage counselors who are knowledgeable in this area will tell you that knowing and understanding your spouse’s attachment style can help you to modify your own behavior in a constructive way to minimize the unhealthy reactions to conflicts that invariably arise in long-term relationships between human beings. They likely can also help you identify specific methods, tools, and skills to practice based upon your individual marital dynamics so that you and your spouse can develop constructive methods of handling routine marital conflicts.
Experienced divorce attorneys who are knowledgeable in this area will tell you that knowing and understanding your spouse’s attachment style can be advantageous to you as you negotiate through the divorce process.
For example, if you believe your spouse has a secure attachment style then you can anticipate that he or she will attempt to apply a constructive approach to the negotiation and, assuming that you prefer a similar approach, you might consider resisting the temptation to pursue aggressive divorce litigation tactics from the outset.
What if your spouse has an anxious attachment style? Does he or she try to dominate the interaction? Does it seem as though your spouse easily shifts blame from the situation to you personally? Does he or she complain about not being “heard” during discussions? Do you ever feel that no matter what you do it’s not enough?
During this time of extreme stress compounded by the loss of a primary attachment figure, it can be very important that your spouse feel as though someone “has his back.” It could be very important that your spouse establish a new “safe” base, either through his or her extended family, friends, or even the divorce attorney.
For your part, try to balance your communications with a combination of objective information and subjective, positive feedback. Listen more than you talk. Reflect on what is said and show your spouse that you value and respect what he or she is saying to you, even though you are not necessarily saying you agree.
If your spouse leans in the avoidant direction then you may have to work a little harder to get your spouse to even engage in the discussions, as individuals with avoidant attachment styles are motivated to avoid conflict at all costs.
Start by trying to set clear goals by agreement and work cooperatively to achieve milestones throughout the divorce process. Your spouse may not value or appreciate hearing about your feelings or those of the children, so try to shield him or her from those emotional expressions. Instead, emphasize concise, friendly communications that are solution-oriented.
Of course, your spouse’s attachment style is only half of the equation. In order to anticipate, adapt, and optimize your negotiations, you need to have some understanding of your own style of attachment. If you would like to learn more about the theory of adult attachment, start by taking a look at a couple of well-written resources on the subject.
Now, more than ever before, knowing and understanding how your spouse handles relationship stress can give you a negotiation edge during divorce. That is because over the last 20 years there has been a gradual transition as a society away from resolving family law conflict through contested divorce court trials in favor of empowering spouses to negotiate their own solutions through facilitated processes outside of court.
Spouses who want to preserve a co-parenting relationship or want to avoid the cost and collateral damage caused by a final trial are increasingly finding solutions through mediation, Collaborative Divorce, and other non-adversarial means. Although each process is unique, the common thread that runs through each of these methodologies is they rely upon a principled foundation rooted in negotiation to achieve their objectives to one degree or another while avoiding the toxic and expensive courtroom experience. The best negotiators learn how to anticipate, adapt, and frame their messages in order to achieve an optimal result.
If you would like to learn more about finding creative solutions to resolve divorce conflict, contact Curtis Harrison at 214-473-9696.
Curtis W. Harrison is a board-certified family law attorney who is Master Credentialed in the Collaborative Divorce approach and a partner with Goranson Bain Ausley. Curtis practices virtually throughout the State of Texas and in-person in the North Texas communities of Collin County, Dallas County, Denton County, Grayson County, and surrounding cities.
If you would like additional help learning how to negotiate with your spouse please contact Curtis W. Harrison at 214-473-9696.
*This article is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon for any other purpose.
 Levine, Amir and Rachel Heller. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love. Penguin Group (USA), 2010; Tatkin, Stan. Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2011.
 The author would like to thank the following individuals and institutions, from whom the author has drawn heavily in preparing this article: Yuval Berger of Vancouver, BC; Lisa Alexander of Vancouver, BC; Dr. Honey Sheff of Dallas, TX; Winnie Huff of Dallas, TX; Tracy Stewart of Bryan, TX; and Collaborative Divorce Texas (formerly known as the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas).
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GBA Partner Beth E. Maultsby discusses high conflict personalities and family law matters.
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