20 Nov 2019

How to navigate relationship challenges

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 20 November 2019

Healthy relationships are essential to a happy life, but most of us aren't taught how to foster them, says Auckland psychology professor Nickola Overall.

She talks with Kathryn Ryan about what she's learned from her team's extensive research into relationship challenges and how best to manage them.

Divorce and separation as a couple on a broken fading bridge flying away as a divided relationship concept with 3D illustration elements.

Photo: 123RF

Because relationships are so fundamental to our lives, it can be easy to overlook the importance of learning to manage them well, Overall says.

“We might think that we should automatically know how to manage relationships and how to respond to others. And [therefore we] don't really take the time to think about how best we can manage the challenges of those relationships.”

Humans tend to fall into habitual, automatic response patterns – both in daily life and in our relationships, she says.

“We have ideas, beliefs, expectations about how other people are going to treat us, and how we then can manage those relationships to protect ourselves.

“Usually that's to protect ourselves from the hurt and rejection that can occur when depending on other people – we need to depend on others – and that means we can't control them. “

As part of the research, Overall and her team film people – couples, parents and children – interacting in a laboratory and make detailed observations about their behaviour.

After a while, people soon forget they're in an artificial environment, she says.

“People forget or they just get embroiled in their interactions. When you're discussing something that's a really significant stressor for you, and you're talking about it with your partner, you very easily get back into the kinds of interactions you have at home.

“And when you're parenting, you’re usually focusing on your child and ignoring the fact that you're in a lab-based environment.”

A team of coders then replay the video and mark it, Overall says.

“We rate the degree to which people are expressing anger, for example, or being hostile towards each other, or expressing warmth and affection. And we use those measures to predict whether couples resolve their relationship problems over time.”

The aim of the research is to objectively assess common behaviour patterns, she says.

“Our primary aim, using these kinds of research designs, is to assess what people are naturally doing in their relationship interactions. So often people can't describe the kinds of behaviours that they are expressing during relationship conflict, or whether they're expressing emotions or not.”

A couple being studied in the lab might start off having a warm-up chat before moving on to more serious topics, Overall says.

“Conflicts often involve time spent together, balancing work and family life, money is a big one, sometimes sex and affection, communicating is one of the biggest problems that couples have – they fight about how they fight, how they can't talk to each other, how they’re not listening to each other, how they're having problems expressing emotions.”

Professor Nickola Overall

Professor Nickola Overall Photo: University of Auckland

Perception bias is a common problem between people in relationships, she says.

“When we asked couples – after [argumentative] interactions – whether one partner was experiencing negative emotions or one partner was being hostile, the other partner doesn't agree that they were as hostile or as negative.

 “We know that those kinds of bias perceptions are predicted by important expectations and beliefs that people enter relationships with. And they create problems in relationships that undermine the degree to which couples can maintain satisfying relationships.”

The problem of “divergent perspectives” is common in many relationships, she says.

To get the other person to see things from your point of view, people will display anger or induce guilt, often unconsciously.

Much of this behaviour is hardwired into us from our upbringing, Overall says.

“The way we learn to trust other people and manage relationships is really founded in our early relationships with our caregivers. We learn whether we can depend on others or whether, when we need others, they going to be there versus rejecting or neglectful.

“This creates bias perceptions. When we enter relationships, we see others as not being as dependable as they are. We also protect ourselves from this expected rejection and neglect in ways that harm relationships.”

Suppressing negative emotions is not a constructive strategy, she says. Anger and disappointment can be signs that someone is invested in a relationship.

“A lot of people think that suppressing negative emotions and trying to be loyal and affectionate to your partner in conflict interactions is best for maintaining relationships. But there's a great risk with that kind of behaviour. And that is that the problem doesn't get resolved."

According to Overall's research, the key to resolving relationship problems is an ability to express negative emotions in a way that isn't hostile or harmful to the other person.

"Because without expressing emotions, and without really expressing the severity of the problem, partners don't understand that something needs to be changed.”

Relationships make us vulnerable because they are outside of our control, Overall says.

“We cannot make a person love and care for us, we cannot make a person support us the way we want them to. We need to trust that they're going to remain committed and invested in our relationships.”

Aggression towards a partner can be a manifestation of that vulnerability, she says.

“Often we think about aggressive and violent behaviour in relationships as coming from 'bad people' who just want to dominate and control.

“But those behaviours are exhibited across all relationships to varying degrees and they come from the same source – that when we love and care for somebody.”

Building trust in ourselves and the other person is the way forward, Overall says.

“Our research shows that to reduce these kinds of patterns requires really leveraging the care both partners have for each other, if that is possible, and the care they have for their children, to try to reduce their automatic response to protect themselves and control.

“[The best thing is to] try to create an environment in which people can try to trust each other, or trust that they'll be able to manage the situation and less destructive ways.”