A CONVERSATION WITH CASS DUNN
‘If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t NOBODY happy!’ … It’s a funny one-liner, but there’s truth in it! Our happiness can affect the happiness of those around us. And our interactions with those around us greatly affect how happy we feel! We know that diet, exercise, genetics and other factors all play a role in our health and wellbeing … but nothing (it seems) is as crucial to our life satisfaction – our ‘happiness’ – as the quality of our relationships.
Enter CASS DUNN!
Cass wears lots of different hats. She’s Australian (we won’t hold that against her!), a clinical psychologist, speaker, educator, and facilitator. She regularly contributes to media on topics like happiness, mindfulness and wellbeing. And she hosts the wildly popular Crappy to Happy podcast. Cass recently released her third book in a series, Crappy to Happy: Love Who You’re With, and we sat down with her (virtually) to chat about growing more satisfying relationships.
GRAPEVINE: In a nutshell, what do you hope people might learn from Crappy to Happy?
CASS DUNN: Well, I hope it shows them how to have higher-quality relationships. Relationships are fundamental to happiness (as well as to our physical/mental health and general wellbeing). Understanding the psychology of relationships is important – how we relate to people, and how our early experiences and family backgrounds influence us later in life.
I’m trying to lay out some basic principles – and give people a bit of insight into how those things can sometimes get in the way of their relationships being fully satisfactory.
GV: In our increasingly busy lives, one of the challenges you pinpoint is: “We’re failing to intentionally carve out time for the people who matter most.” How can we fix this?
CASS: Mindfulness and meditation are really helpful. It’s important to regularly slow down and take time out from the busyness – even if it’s just going for a walk. We’re often so busy that we neglect our friendships.
PEOPLE MATTER MOST
It’s vital to pause now-and-then and ask if we’re properly looking after the relationships that are important to us … to identify who we need to catch up with, and how we could take time out if we’re struggling. Relationships need to be maintained – it’s too easy to take them for granted.
You can be living in the same house with somebody and still not have talked deeply with them about anything for ages. So we need to look at the quality of our interactions, too.
GV: Why is it so important that we intentionally set goals to be more connected in our relationships – and to improve the quality of those connections?
CASS: When you don’t have a close, supportive network of people in your life, the health consequences can be huge. Loneliness is toxic. It’s as damaging to our physical health as cigarette smoking, obesity, or alcohol abuse.
Those who enjoy better close relationships tend to have better health outcomes across the board – and they even live longer than those who don’t have those connections! Our happiness, our health, our sense of wellbeing – even our sense of self-acceptance and self-worth – are all improved by having people in our lives who really see us, really know us, and really appreciate us.
It’s so much easier to manage crises, stress and challenges in life when we have people we know we can count on. Friends make a profound difference to our experience of life no matter what’s going on.
GV: What role does our upbringing or our childhood experiences play in the kind of relationships we have as adults?
CASS: More than we’d like to admit! As a psychologist, I know people can be really wary of that “tell me about your childhood” idea. And, yes, it’s important to look forward and not dwell on the past – especially if we’ve experienced trauma or haven’t got a good relationship with our family of origin. But past experiences do influence our behaviour, thoughts and feelings now, and it’s helpful to understand how.
Our attachment patterns – the blueprints in our brain for how relationships work (for example, I cry and then someone feeds me) – are formed within the first 18 months of life.
IMPRINTED WHEN WE’RE YOUNG
Our sense of who we are … how loveable or worthy we are … whether somebody will be there for us if we’re distressed … whether we can safely express emotion and someone will hear us or shut us out – these are all laid down very early in our lives.
And, if we’re not careful, those early attachment patterns can continue to play-out over the rest of our lives!
We all have blind-spots – that’s part of human nature! But when you’re aware of those blind-spots, it helps a lot. For example, it can help us show more compassion to those around us – because we recognise that some of their problem behaviours stem from stuff they’ve been through earlier in life. And having gained that awareness we can start to do something different.
GV: So, what do healthy attachment patterns – these early blueprints – look like?
CASS: Well, if you’ve grown up in an environment where (for the most part) your needs were met – your caregivers were sensitive, consistent and responsive to your needs, and you had a secure ‘home-base’ from which you could go out and explore the world – then you’re considered to have a secure attachment style.
That means that you’d feel pretty emotionally safe in relationships. You’re pretty comfortable in yourself … you feel okay being dependent in relationships and having others depend on you … and you don’t take things too personally.
You don’t exhibit that anxious neediness or clinginess or fear of rejection that we see in more insecure attachment styles. People with secure attachment aren’t perfect when it comes to relationships, but they have a solid emotional grounding to start from.
GV: How about insecure attachment styles?
CASS: If you have a more insecure (also known as ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’) attachment style, it often stems from having parents who were consistently unavailable (either physically or emotionally). You weren’t always sure if you could rely on these parents to be there and to meet your needs.
If your attachment system gets triggered by too much distance, there’s this constant need for closeness and reassurance – never really feeling 100% secure, or that people can be relied upon. That’s an anxious attachment. We’ve all known people who show this neediness or insecurity in a relationship – it’s almost like no matter how much reassurance they get, it never really sticks. There’s always this core of anxiety about not having their needs met.
The avoidant attachment style often comes out of early experiences in which a parent was physically or emotionally unavailable – through death, divorce, substance abuse, mental illness … or even just a really emotionally-distant environment, where ‘we don’t talk about our feelings’. Those people grow up with a kind of rigid self-reliance. But as much as it might feel comfortable for them to be on their own and avoid relying on others, we actually all have the same need for attachment (even if we don’t recognise it!).
Unfortunately, that rigidity can get in the way. People like that are less likely to ask for emotional support – even when they could really use it. They can be very hard to reach emotionally because they don’t feel comfortable with any level of vulnerability or people getting close to them. So it can really be a pretty damaging mindset.
Again, it’s just how they’ve grown up … essentially on their own.
GV: If we recognise signs of one of the less healthy attachment styles in ourselves (or others close to us), is change possible?
CASS: Absolutely! It’s true that these behaviour patterns tend to carry on through the generations if we continue to run on autopilot. But here’s the good news: just because you’re conforming to a pattern doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to repeat it for all time without hope of change.
A CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
More recent research indicates that, if you’re able to make sense as a parent of your own attachment style – and how your early experiences and upbringing have shaped it – you and your children are more likely to move to a healthier style that’s more secure.
You can develop what we call ‘earned security’ – as a result of self-awareness, mindfulness (which helps you to observe what’s happening with compassion and without judgment), and meditation (which helps to calm your stress response). Approaching your own experience with curiosity and kindness enables you to cultivate a level of acceptance and compassion for yourself that you may not have experienced growing up.
Mindfulness is also helpful because it helps you pause and choose something different – instead of acting out of instinct or pattern; it helps you notice what’s being triggered inside you.
When you have an insecure attachment style, you have really strong emotional reactions – and can take things really personally. Especially in stressful situations or when there’s conflict or difficulty in a relationship. However, being able to see that happening as it’s happening and pause to calm ourselves down, we’re able to choose a different response. And that’s what will ultimately help us have healthier and more secure relationships going forward.
GV: Okay, so what’s going on when we fall into the trap of unhealthy relationship dynamics over and over again?
CASS: There’s another whole area of psychology that looks at schemas – like frameworks or blueprints about how relationships work: “If x, then y”… Schemas go into a lot more detail than just attachment styles, and they look at all of these potential relationship dynamics that you might experience in early life – messaging you got from your family, going to school, or growing up. We can find ourselves continually drawn to the same kind of relationship dynamic, and it’s often one that mirrors our early experiences.
The reason that happens is that our brain is wired to seek the familiar – because it perceives that as safe – even if it’s not emotionally very pleasant or healthy. So it feels unsafe to break away and do something different, even if that something is healthier and in our best interest to do so.
One common schema is the abandonment schema. If you’ve lost a parent through death or divorce, you can clearly see overlaps with the anxious attachment style. Schemas don’t always map perfectly with the attachment styles, but they’re both helpful for shedding light and unpacking what’s going on in your adult relationships.
GV: You’re an advocate of setting boundaries in relationships … how do we go about doing so in a way that’s healthy?
CASS: People get really nervous about boundaries because we feel like we’re somehow being rude – or we’re going to upset people because we’re drawing a line. But it’s not like that at all! As individuals, we have a strong sense of what’s okay for us. We need the courage and confidence to be able to hold firm to that – which then sets the framework for what we feel is acceptable – and what’s not – in our relationships.
I love Brené Brown’s take on this: “Generosity cannot exist without setting boundaries.”
THE TRUTH IS:
When we don’t have those solid boundaries – when we’re constantly saying ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’ … when we’re continually letting behaviour slide that makes us uncomfortable … when people are demanding things of us all the time – it actually breeds resentment and suffering. And that has a negative effect on relationships.
People-pleasing is really common, especially for women – we feel obliged to make everyone happy and to keep the peace, and we think we’re being a really good person! But by setting boundaries, we can be more present, engaged, authentic and generous.
It’s easier said than done, though. There are social issues that complicate boundary-setting: like the idea that women are often expected to carry the mental load for their families, for instance. Additionally, various attachment issues and schemas also affect how easy or difficult you might find it to set and maintain boundaries. If you’ve grown up in a family where the way that you got attention, validation or approval was by being a people-pleaser – by always putting other people’s needs before your own (i.e. a schema of self-sacrifice) – you have to do some work to break those patterns.
But although it’s hard work, it’s essential that you do it.
GV: Conflict is inevitable, obviously … but is it possible to ‘argue well’?
CASS: Absolutely! We need to allow for peoples’ different communication styles. Some people try to avoid conflict at all costs, but we need to find ways to communicate so that people can be heard and have their messages received.
Going back to attachment theory, we talk about ‘rupture and repair’. When a parent gets angry and yells at a child but then attempts a repair – an apology, a reconnection – that actually strengthens the relationship. It teaches young children that “someone can be mad at me and still love me”. People who haven’t experienced that rupture-and-repair process can feel like, “if we have an argument, it’s all over”.
It’s also important to recognise when to step back and cool down, because you can’t resolve things when you’re too emotional. Sometimes it can help to write things down, if you get anxious speaking about emotional things. So if you have that awareness about how you behave in relationships and how you communicate best, you can learn to air your grievances in a healthy way that’s emotionally-safe for everybody, and in a way that keeps the relationship intact.
GV: So, how can we avoid allowing conflict to damage our relationships?
CASS: John Gottman is the master of healthy relationship dynamics. He talks about the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ – relationship patterns that could spell the doom of a relationship if people fall into them too often. Gottman could famously predict whether or not a relationship would fail simply by observing a couple arguing or having a heated discussion for 15 minutes.
Interestingly, the amount a couple argues is not what will determine whether or not they’ll stay together; it’s these particular styles of conflict – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling – that do the damage.
In relationships, there’s often a pursuer and a distancer/withdrawer; one trying to get their partner to engage or pick a fight, and one trying to avoid it. Gottman says that dynamic actually works a lot of the time! But when you have a burnt-out pursuer who’s just given up, or a distancer who just will not come to the party, that’s when the writing’s on the wall … when there’s that complete disengagement.
GV: What’s the value of ‘letting go’ or forgiving past hurts?
CASS: It’s really important. If we carry too much of our past conflicts and grievances with us, it taints all our future relationships and interactions. We all know people (maybe even ourselves) who’ve been betrayed or rejected, and they remain guarded in a way that stunts their ability to move forward with new relationships. It’s vital to let go and not carry the past into the future. If an issue’s been discussed and resolved, you have to leave it and move on.
However, if someone’s constantly upsetting, betraying or disrespecting you – and (no matter how many times they apologise) their behaviour isn’t changing – then it’s obvious that the relationship needs some boundaries. You really need to be clear about what’s acceptable to you and what’s not.
So it’s not just about constantly forgiving and moving on if there’s no solid demonstration of a change in behaviour.
GV: In fact, you write, “If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who is volatile, or passive-aggressive, or dishonest, or who belittles you, or is condescending, or causes you to question your confidence, this is not a sign that you need to work on yourself …” What is it a sign of?
CASS: It’s a sign that you should run for the hills! I wrote that because people who are very compassionate and empathetic can sometimes get in the habit of being too understanding or permissive of behaviour that really isn’t acceptable.
Thinking about that schema stuff, the danger is that an empathetic person will say, “Oh, I see that’s why he treats me like that – because he had such a terrible childhood!” and will make all sorts of excuses or allowances for the behaviour, because they understand where it’s coming from. However, there’s a key distinction to be made between understanding somebody’s behaviour patterns and justifying their bad behaviour.
Understanding doesn’t excuse or justify ill-treatment – but those who are the most compassionate and empathetic are the ones most likely to fall into the trap of making excuses.
GV: It seems there’s a loneliness epidemic out there in the world. But lots of people find it hard to go about making new connections. How do you suggest we develop new friendships?
CASS: In our modern world, where people are often going off in different directions, we’ve all found ourselves at times looking around and thinking, “Where are all my people?!” But to admit that can feel like, ‘How does that make me look?’ or ‘Am I not likeable – what’s wrong with me?’ So we need to be a bit kinder to ourselves: it’s really just a reflection of the world that we live in!
WORTH THE RISK
We still need to make the effort to reach out and make new friends. When you find someone who you’ve got something in common with, take the risk and be vulnerable. Just ask them if they want to catch up for a coffee!
In my own life, some of my closest friendships have been the result of somebody else making that effort. It’s great when someone wants to get to know you better or spend time with you, but when we’re the ones offering that, we sometimes hold back in fear of judgment or rejection – we can be our own worst enemies!
Yes, it might feel uncomfortable, and yes, it feels like a big risk. But just be brave and make that effort anyway.
GV: What are some of the best ways to build connection with others?
CASS: Shasta Nelson (Ted Talk speaker and author) identified three key ingredients for a high-quality friendship: Consistency, Positivity and Vulnerability. You can have a friend you see all the time (Consistency), and you always have a lot of fun (Positivity) – but then you realise that you don’t feel safe being vulnerable with him/her, and therefore the friendship lacks depth. Or it could be the friend that you see often, but it’s always the vulnerable sharing and in-depth discussion – and you just kind of feel like, “Could we maybe lighten up and have a laugh every once in a while?!”
So a neat little audit you can do in your friendships is to make sure that you have all three elements in those interactions. And if you have a friendship that you feel is a little off – or it’s not quite as satisfying as it could be – then you can tweak it according to which of these elements is missing.
GV: How do you suggest we take care of the good relationships in our life?
CASS: We’ve gotta keep making the effort! Often when we do have a solid friendship – when we’ve got a friend who’s been there since the beginning – it can be really easy to take it for granted and not put in the work to maintain it.
Lock in a date and keep it! Stop saying, “We must catch up!” and watching the months roll by without making it happen.
Covid got in the way of that, last year – but it also really highlighted how important those connections are. Plus it opened up all these other ways we can communicate and connect with each other, even when we’re physically apart.
It’s a matter of following through and not letting other things take priority or get in the way. And let’s make sure that, when we are getting together, there’s that space for vulnerability – that we’re actually sharing more of what matters.
GV: Any closing words for our readers?
CASS: A lot of what I say in Crappy to Happy is about self-awareness. I don’t want people to buy it with the idea that I’m going to teach them how to fix all the problems with their partner – because I know a lot of people are hanging out for that book! The truth is, so much about relationships has to come back to us, about us understanding ourselves first.
We each need to go into relationships as a really solid, secure person of integrity – because that’s the foundation for everything.
GOTTMAN’S ‘FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE’
Criticism: personal attacks on the person’s character, sweeping statements – not just complaining about a behaviour.
Contempt: lack of respect – which usually develops from too much unchecked criticism. Can be as passive as just eye-rolling, but can also be aggressive.
Defensiveness: constantly on the defensive; if your partner complains, you’re always on your guard, and you’re not really listening. Always standing your ground or arguing your case. No room for open communication, feedback, or progress in the relationship.
Stonewalling: when you just shut your partner out altogether. The silent treatment; no communication; physically and emotionally distant.
IF YOU’D LIKE TO FIND OUT MORE, CHECK OUT CASS’S WEBSITE AT WWW.CASSDUNN.COM. CRAPPY TO HAPPY IS AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSTORES.