Increasing Self-Awareness in Relationships

Increasing Self-Awareness in Relationships

Have you ever noticed similar patterns throughout your relationships based on attraction to certain types or people or reaction to conflict? When exploring relationships and communication, ‘intrapersonal’ refers to the relationship with oneself, while ‘interpersonal’ refers to relationships with others, and exploring both types is beneficial.  Self-awareness is vital for self-love and personal development, which ultimately influences the quality of other relationships.

Here's a crash course on two helpful psychology concepts to consider for all relationships:  

1. Attachment Theory

2. Conflict Methods

Attachment Theory

Our upbringing shaped the way we recognize love—even if it’s an incorrect association. Attachment theory is based on the premise that as infants, the way our caregiver(s) interacted with us determines our sense of reliability and safety when receiving love and having our needs met by others.  Attachment styles vary from secure attachment to three forms of insecure attachment which govern the way we interact with loved ones into adulthood. While the terminology varies somewhat, the four types of attachments are explained below:

Secure Attachment 

a couple

People with secure attachment feel happy and confident in expressing and receiving love because this is what they experienced growing up.  Vulnerability is not seen as threatening because a sense of safety is present.

Insecure attachments form from the beliefs and experiences that one’s needs will not consistently be met by others.  Inconsistent attention from parents can cause these insecure attachments to form, and attachment styles were based on observations with infants responding to the presence of their caregiver(s). Even into adulthood, insecure attachment styles can contribute to feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety.  The three types of insecure attachment include:

Anxious Preoccupied 

People with anxious preoccupied attachment can become hyper focused on relationships because they need others to fulfill their sense of self-worth. They can be seen as demanding in relationships and become uncomfortable with time spent apart or a partner’s emotional distancing. An anxious preoccupied creates heightened sensitivity in detecting mood changes in others. These observations were formed in childhood when a caregiver’s mood determined whether or not an infant’s needs would be met.

Dismissive Avoidant 

This is the stereotype of the emotionally unavailable or commitment phobic person.  Strongly independent, intimacy and relationships are downplayed or avoided altogether to not hurt one’s sense of safety. Dismissive Avoidants do not understand empathy as well as others.

Chaotic, Disorganized, or Fearful Avoidant 

An anxiety inducing mixture of fear and need come into play in relationships in this attachment style. Fear of rejection clashes with a need for intimacy. Fearful Avoidants avoid dealing with relationship problems.  They have a roller coaster approach to relationships, alternating between need for affection and fear of rejection.

A person’s level of secure attachment can vary with each relationship partly because many people have more than one attachment style.  For example, you may have a secure attachment in some of your friendships but a fearful avoidant attachment in a romantic partnership. Additionally, our attachment styles can cause us to be attracted to the same types of partners.  This is what happens with unresolved issues from our childhood (which all of us have).  If our understanding of love was developed by a parent or caretaker who was absent, emotionally unavailable, etc., we may seek that same behavior in current partners without realizing or understanding it.  Bringing awareness to patterns like these, however, can help to heal and improve our future patterns.  

To explore these ideas further, research the work of John Bowlby.  Free attachment style quizzes are available online for self-assessment, along with reading materials and even support groups on social media platforms.  Attachment styles can be improved over time with effort.Working with a therapist who is familiar with attachment styles is a wonderful way to heal from insecure attachment.

Conflict Methods

To improve communication and avoid destructive habits, it is important to recognize when argument patterns become unhealthy or toxic.  In conflict, people can become quickly flooded in their emotions and resort to standard fight, flight or freeze responses. Recognizing the way we represent ourselves in arguments can start by understanding unhealthy argument tactics that fall into four categories.  These categories comprise the research findings of what Dr. John M. Gottman defines as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  His work is available online for further research, but below is a crash course on The Four Horsemen: 


It’s easy to resort to criticizing someone instead of focusing on the initial complaint but mixing these approaches can affect the future of a relationship. Criticism is an attack on another’s character when an argument should be focused about a specific complaint or an action.  Name calling and using generalizing statements with the words “always” and “never” are perfect examples. Focusing a complaint on a specific action is more constructive than attacking someone’s character. Instead of blaming through direct, accusatory statements targeted with “you”, try using statements that express ownership of your reaction (“I feel”, “I’m upset”, etc.).


The harshest of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, contempt is the high horse people should stay off. It removes any sense of resolving attempt and is a predictor for divorce.  Sarcasm, eye rolling, superiority, and hateful remarks fall under contempt, along with name calling and other tactics commonly seen in children’s arguments.  If someone’s intention--whether conscious or not--is to the demean the other person rather than resolve the problem, they’re contempt driven. 


In sports, people are familiar with the phrase, “The best offense is a good defense.”  Unfortunately, this strategy is not conducive to resolving conflict. Defensiveness is a common but unhelpful response to criticism. Defensiveness creates barriers in communication through refusal to listen to or understand another’s point of view. It’s easy to resort to this approach when we feel like we’re being verbally attacked by someone, but defensiveness simply deflects the blame into a counterattack. Instead of automatically resorting to defensiveness, a better strategy in the wrong run is for each person to take the time to acknowledge the other’s perspective.


Stonewalling involves shutting down in conflict.  Unresponsiveness is resorting to escape; it’s the refusal to engage any further to make amends. When someone goes silent instead of resolving an issue, it’s usually a reaction to being overwhelmed.   However, the other party interprets the lack of interactive cues as dismissive, avoidant, and apathetic. A better approach would be to communicate a break in the conflict with the intention of returning to the issue at a later point.

Although the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is focused on conflict with others, it’s also a good tool to utilize when monitoring inner dialogue. How often do people criticize themselves after making a mistake?  How many of us have made contemptuous, sarcastic remarks when we’re angry at ourselves? Interpersonal relationships can only be as good as our intrapersonal connection, so it’s helpful to apply this knowledge inward.


Understanding attachment theory and communication in conflict increases self-awareness while helping us to detach from negative emotions and gain awareness in the present. These concepts also help us to identify unhealthy patterns in ourselves or others, thus shaping healthy boundaries. Insecure attachments can influence conflict escalation or de-escalation, just as unhealthy conflict approaches can trigger our insecure attachments.

Use the attachment styles to gain an understanding of your connection to others.  And when it comes to conflict--an inevitable part of life--focus on active listening and collaborative approaches to reach a desired resolution whenever possible. 


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