Your Attachment Style and How You Argue

Kia Handley and The Sugar Doctor talk about how the way you were raised influences your style of conflict.
[Original recording on ABC website here]

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Kia Handley is: Not a car! Presenter ABC Newcastle. Loves vintage, Eurovision & great stories.

You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  Facebook kiahandleyjourno and on her podcasts: This Retro Life & Let’s Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.



Kia: I want you to be honest with yourself right now, it’s a hard thing to do on a Monday morning, but, you, me, we’ll all feel better for it, in the end, are you ready?

How do you argue? Do you go for the low blows? Maybe getting a little bit personal, sit on a silent treatment for a little too long? Do you bring up disagreements from the past [sigh] we’re never showing in our best light when we argue, and we all have different arguing styles, much like having your own personal fashion sense, you too have an individual conflict style, and if you know how you like to argue, it could help you have better arguments, or at least manage how you behave in the heat of the moment, Tara Whitewood is from The Sugar Doctor, our regular guest, good morning.

Tara: Good morning Kia.


Kia: Firstly do you have favorite album?

Tara: Yeah, I do, like I’ve said- quick research- at the front- “oh Gosh I know she’s going to ask me”, and so the one that I’ve picked today, it’s hard to narrow down to one always, but I love The Big Come Up, by the Black Keys-

Kia: Oh-

Tara: It’s always been a big favorite of mine.

Kia: Nice.

Tara: And one of those ones that you can kind of throw on no matter what you’re doing with, you know, kicking around the house or have a few people over-

Kia: Pumps you up-

Tara: Pumps me up.

Kia: Brings you down, could be good background music-

Tara: Love it. Love it.


Kia: Alright, let’s talk arguing, is it right to say how do I become a better arguer?

Tara: [laughing]

Kia: [laughing] How do I win all my fights?

Tara: How do I win more, so, I guess when we are talking about conflict starts what we’re really talking about, when you get under the surface of that, is how have you’ve been educated, how have you been taught to thrive and survive in your environment and really it comes from the way that you grew up as a child, like how is a conflict managed in your household, so you know later is that all to be logic ourselves and logic our partners and trying justify the way that that we do it is better.

Kia: [laughing]

Tara: A more, smarter-

Kia: “But in my life this is what I’ve used to”, yeah-

Tara: [laughing] But, I mean, it really just comes down to how you were taught as a small child to get attention and to navigate conflict in your household.


Kia: Do we realize, do you think, that we do have different ideas of what conflict and argument looks like?


Tara: Yeah, I think we do, but I don’t think that we necessarily have the consciousness that it’s something that is learned behavior, and we tend to present it as a logical conclusion that we’ve come to, you know, “oh this is how I’ve decided as an adult that I’m going to navigate conflict” and then we make our partner wrong, because they’re doing it in a different way [laughing] so quite often when we’re disagreeing about, about something, where the conflict actually lies is in the way that we are approaching it, rather than the actual thing.


Kia: What are some of the different styles that we might see?


Tara: Yeah. So, it comes from a model of psychology, or psychobiology, which is kind of the intersection between psychology and body, right, biology, called attachment theory.

And the man whose work I really love his name is Stan Tatkin and he’s written a great book called Wired for Love, he talks about attachment theory, using the metaphor of waves and islands, so if you think about a spectrum where on one end you have people who are waves, on one end  people who are islands. And in the middle you have an anchor, which is secure attachment.

So someone who has a really secure attachment style has been parented, and when I’m saying parented I don’t necessarily mean mother or father, it could be grandmother, it could be auntie, it could be foster parents-


Kia: Just family vibe.


Tara: Yeah, whoever the primary carer was in that child’s life, I mean, if they have a secure attachment style, then what that means is that they really- they know that they can rely on their carer, they know that they are going to be, that they are predictable, they are attentive, they know that their needs would be met, they become more secure as individuals, they become more willing to be collaborative and adaptive, because they know that they are safe.


Kia: Yeah.


Tara: So, as a child, someone with a secure attachment style, who’s that anchor, has a parent who they know that when they come back to them they’ll get attention, they know that they can go away and come back, and there’s no punishment for that.


Kia: Which then, if we are from too very different backgrounds when it comes to that sort of stuff, you can see why then there is clashing in arguments.


Tara: Sure, so then you just become you start to trigger each other.

So then, at that one end of that spectrum, you’ll have an island, who would be someone who have parents who were probably predictable, but quite inattentive. So maybe that child had to learn to self soothe they couldn’t come and get a cuddle if they’ve hurt themselves, and the focus in that household would have tended to be more in results,

[0:05:00] on performance rather than connection and relationships. So that child learns be quite self-contained, and, as adults, you can tell they tend to be pretty independent and self-reliant. But they can be in a relationship a little bit overwhelmed by intimacy, they sort of want their own space and Stan Tatkin has this quote that makes me laugh about this style, where he says, you know, “I want you in the house, but just not in my room”.


Kia: [laughing] Oh, he’s talking right at my heart.


Tara: [laughing] I see a little smile pass over your face.


Kia: [laughing] Just very glad again that I- my partner is at work right now and not listening, because this could be used in our next argument-


Tara: This is your personal Monday morning therapy session.


Kia: That’s it, that’s it, we are talking arguing in our regular relationship chat on ABC Newcastle, my guest is Tara Whitewood.

Some interesting thought coming in from you as well this morning coming on text 0487-99-1233 this text said, “I used to explain things in arguments over and over to someone that didn’t listen, however a friend told me a piece of advice, tell the person you are going to say something once, as it’s not my responsibility for them to listen.“


Tara: Yeah. I mean, that sounds like a really typical wave style.

So the other end of the spectrum from an island style is what Stan Tatkin calls a wave which is more anxious attachment style.

So, a child who is grown up in a household, where the parents are, maybe a little bit less predictable, so, they are attentive, but you don’t always know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you’re going to get reassurance and attention and sometimes, your parent might be overwhelmed or need a little bit more support. Or the child might actually need to regulate in some way that parent’s emotional state.

And so those kids tend to grow up to be more of a wave style, which is, you know, imagine, a wave crashing on the beach and then retreating and then crashing in and then retreating. So the reason that I’m thinking of that is that called a wave style tends to need to be reassured more, so they need the verbal and non-verbal cues, you’re loved, you’re okay, I understand you, I appreciate your point of view, they need to be heard and understood.

So, you think of the- if you have someone at the opposite extremes the wave and the island, the island will retreat, doesn’t want to be involved, and the wave would continue to crash-


Kia: Wait, wait, wait [smiling] it’s funny that it’s an island and a wave, cause an island can’t run very fast from a wave, it’s going to find it no matter what.


Tara: They’ll go internal, you know, go completely internal, and then ultimately if the wave continues to crash on the shores, what would happen is that island will completely shut down and do what we call stone walling which is just, completely shut down, block your partner-


Kia: Can’t, can’t-


Tara: Yeah.


Kia: Brit says, “I usually try to negotiate rather than argue, if I sense the other side isn’t being fair, or charitable, I’ll shut down and walk away, although if it’s just for sport, I’ll try to trap people by getting themselves to talk themselves into a corner where they contradict themselves”, oh I feel like that’s very Australian.


Tara: [laughing] It is.


Kia: Wanting to be like, um, game on [laughing]


Tara: Sure. [laughing] And the classic island behavior, you know, to, sort of, present the facts and to want to be logical and then want to retreat if there’s no- I mean if it gets too emotive. So wave tend to be much more large in their emotions-


Kia: Yes.


Tara: And that can be really confronting to an island.


Kia: Than idea of that, those words that Brit has used fair or charitable, how important is that in, when we think about arguing. Cause we’re going to argue, we’re going to have conflict, even if it’s not big stamping and screaming, there are going to be conflicts in our relationships.


Tara: Yeah.


Kia: How important is fair and charitable in the dealings that we’re having in these heated times?


Tara: I think that it depends on the outcome that you want to [laughing] I mean if the outcome that you want is to be right, then you might continue to rely on those logical arguments and facts and try to get to that point where if logic to the other person into submission.


Kia: Define right, though, when it comes to relationships.


Tara: I don’t think that right exists when it comes to anything in particular, we’re seeing everything through the lenses of our personal experience. So, you know, it makes me laugh when the people come and they say, oh, you know, my partner is doing this, because, they’re treating me like I’m their father, or their mother, or their ex-partner and I’m not that- and I think, well, but, you know, you are, you are the sum of all your experience and you have to know that when your partner, comes to a relationship, they’re bringing the sum of all of their experience, their memory, their perception, all through their own lenses so I don’t know that any of us really have any strong handle of what’s truly right and true and factual. In my opinion memory is a hazy and unreliable thing.


Kia: So hazy.


Tara: Yeah. So, I mean, I guess that’s the long answer, the short answer is, if you would like to be right, then that’s the fairness and the justice is one path you can follow, but that’s not often the path to connection.


Kia: So how do we argue better [0:10:00] fairer, in a way that, I guess doesn’t always end up in hate, clashing, but maybe ends up in resolution?


Tara: Yeah. So I think it’s about how do we connect better. How do we connect better during conflict, and that starts with understanding your attachment style, the attachment style of yourself and your partner and what that might lead to you doing behaviorally, so that you could recognize when it starts playing out.

If you’re someone who wants to get up and run the second that there’s some kind of conflict then you need to know, “okay, I’m being an island”, you know, “maybe it would be good for me just to be here, just to take some deep breaths and work on this connection”.

Because the really interesting thing about this is because it’s an adaptive behavior, it means that we can change, that we can grow and learn and we might be different in different relationships, so if you’re a wave and you’re crashing, you might think “oh how can I do this a little bit less emotively so that my partner can stay”.

It’s about the way to do is knowing which style is yours and your partner’s, don’t try to change them but become experts in each other, so really know how to soothe your partner because it’s in relationships that this healing takes place.


Kia: The earlier text who said, you know, say, I’m going to say this once, instead of island and wave it should be like tsunami and Fort Knox…


Tara: Right [laughing] Alcatraz.


Kia: Yeah that’s it, depending on where you are it’s like a big beach wall and a tsunami coming at it.


Tara: Yeah. And ultimately, I mean, that’s the expression that would happen if both people are really locked into their way of doing things,

Where you can perhaps begin to move towards a more secure attachment style, if you’re happy to be a little bit more adaptive, learn how to soothe your partner and recognize what’s coming up for them, so that you’re not triggering each other. Cause the really interesting thing is, the first thing that a wave would do, is the last thing that an island would do.


Kia: [laughing]


Tara: And vice-versa, so you think it’s worse than it really is.


Kia: Yeah.


Tara: Because you’re like, oh my gosh, they’re going to last resort first, disaster.


Kia: Disaster, it’s not- calm down, breathe, you can do it.


Tara: Relax.


Kia: Tara, thank you


Tara: Pleasure


Kia: Our regular guest on Monday talking relationships, that is Tara Whitewood from The Sugar Doctor

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