We are biologically designed to seek and maintain attachments with others through which we learn the lessons of love, inter-dependence and trust.
The quality of our core relationships has a profound effect on our health and well-being. Studies show that the level of marital happiness is the strongest predictor of overall life satisfaction.
When we enter into relationships, both partners bring along all their unresolved conflicts, fears, hurts and expectations. There is a strong tendency to recreate abusive, neglectful, or in other ways hurtful relationships from childhood with our adult partners. These old, dysfunctional patterns become indistinguishable from current emotional triggers. A stacking of emotions can occur — meaning an event in a current relationship triggers the unleashing of old feelings and reactions, creating a confusion of powerful old hurts and new ones. If our emotions in a situation are disproportionate to the provocation, we are probably bringing up an old hurt.
The tendency to unconsciously attract relationships that reenact past conflicts and beliefs is called “repetition compulsion.” This drive to repeat familiar patterns, no matter how painful or self-defeating, is very powerful. For example, adult children of alcoholics frequently marry alcoholics, and an abused child with a high tolerance for maltreatment may grow up and attract high levels of stress and conflict in his/her marriage. We unconsciously are attracted to people who allow us to revisit our childhood issues in an attempt to get it right.
To be successful in relationships, we must also learn how to blend our differences. When couples fall in love, differences are easily tolerated, and both work hard to please each other. However, as we become more familiar and the stresses of life take their toll, our best behavior is quickly eroded. Soon our little differences become annoyances and our predominant attachment style emerges. Partners commonly have different styles, which guides their attitudes and behaviors in relationships. We often attempt to change the other person to fit more comfortably with our own beliefs. This rarely works. The following is how the various adult attachment styles look in relationships.
The lessons we learn about ourselves and others from our caregivers and early life experiences becomes the template by which we measure our self-worth and our capacity to be empathic, caring and genuine. As children, our parents are the “all-powerful” center of our universe. If they think badly of us, then it must be true. A child has no perspective from which to cast doubt on this assessment. We then “internalize” their negative opinion and incorporate it into our view of ourselves. If we were regularly criticized or demeaned we can easily develop a damaged sense of self-worth.
Harmful childhood experiences (even those not remembered consciously) can force us to close our hearts in an attempt at self-protection from further pain. There is no such thing as perfect parents. We all have “baggage” from our pasts, and we construct walls of emotional scar tissue to close over our unhealed wounds. This protective barrier locks us in and others out and can inhibit our ability to develop close connections with others. The degree of this self-protection is equal to the severity of our perceived wounds.
Laws of Couple Relationships
Relationships are one of the most challenging paths for achieving emotional and spiritual growth.Few other experiences provoke the depth of our fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities.
Some people believe that it is much easier to be alone. There are easier paths, but none offer the opportunities for personal development inherent in intimate relationships. Unfortunately, most of us have no clue how to navigate the challenges intimate relationships provide. We are not born knowing how to create a successful relationship. We do not learn Relationship 101 in school, and self-help books offer minimal help. Most of us usually end up following what our parents taught us about relationships. Having a solid grasp of how relationships work is particularly important if you must deal with challenging children. There are four basic laws of relationships, that when understood, can make the road to intimacy easier to travel. If more couples understood the laws, then perhaps the divorce rate would not be so high.
Transference: This is the unconscious identification of some person in your current life with some significant person or situation from your past. A demanding boss can elicit childhood feelings of not being good enough. Having lived with a malcontent mother may cause you to overreact to your wife’s criticism. If your father was emotionally unavailable, you may be attracted to a husband who is distant and withdrawn. We truly do marry our mothers and fathers at least once. We all have expectations of behavior in current relationships based on previous experiences. We do this regardless of whether the past experiences were positive or negative. If we liked how our parents treated each other and us, we seek to replicate that in a current relationship. If our childhood experiences were less than positive, we also unconsciously seek to replicate that. If a pattern is not healed, then it is continually recreated until it is healed. This is why some people divorce and immediately remarry someone just like the previous spouse.
The magnetic attraction that draws us to someone is not just about physical appearance. The chemistry present in the beginning stages of a relationship might really be about transference. We are attracted to people who remind us of our parents. It is not uncommon for us to see what we want to see. We can project qualities onto a person based on our expectations. When the infatuation wears off and the reality sets in, problems can occur. Sometimes the qualities that we initially find attractive in a partner later become an annoyance. For example, if we had a father who was highly achievement and status oriented, we might pick a free spirited, laid back partner. However, over time our “old programming” kicks in. When our partner is unable to meet our pre-set expectations, the relationship loses its appeal.
Mirroring: “Put down the magnifying glass and pick up the mirror.” Most of us believe that we marry for ideals such as love and romance and practical reasons such as security, companionship, and starting a family. What we are also doing is picking someone who will help us recreate old familiar family patterns. By their very nature, marriages force the issues we have carried with us since childhood into the forefront. Intimate relationships are the mirror that reflects back to us all our emotional baggage. This is no cruel joke, the purpose is to help us face and heal our unresolved issues through repetition. You can not hide your “dark side” in an intimate relationship. Eventually all your hidden demons will emerge.
Blaming your partner for your unhappiness and other problems is futile. It is difficult to see our own shortcomings, yet quite easy to see someone else’s. What we do not realize is that what we do not like about the people closest to us, really is what we do not like or accept about ourselves. If we do not currently have a partner, then mirroring occurs with other players in our lives. It could be with our children, roommates, or co-workers. The more intimate the relationship, the more powerful the mirroring.
Trying to change your partner is another road to futility. The harder you try to make someone else change, the more you alienate them, and the more powerless you become. You can not change another. The only person you have the power to change is yourself. The irony is that if you change, they will have to change. It takes two to tango. The “emotional dance” between the two of you can not continue if one partner refuses to dance. The relationship must then adapt by choreographing another dance.
Balancing dependence and independence: The human infant is the most helpless mammal on earth. We are totally dependent on our caregivers for survival. Our identity is “we not me”. Between the ages of 2-3 years old we begin to test the waters of independence. The terrible two’s is a stage when we begin to entertain the notion of a separate “me”. Children need to assert a measure of control over their own lives in order to form their unique identity and establish their will. We hear the word “no” more as a two year old than any other time in life. With too many “no’s” our independence can be stifled. Not enough “no’s” leads to poor boundaries. This process of balancing dependence with independence continues throughout childhood and peaks during the heightened independence seeking and identity forming times of puberty and adolescence. Adolescents must disengage from parents in preparation for independent living.
Our relationship with our parents provides the solid foundation in which to discover our independence. Mature and loving parents create a safe environment in which children can freely express themselves. Stable families can handle the stress of “letting go” and can tolerate their child’s autonomy. They encourage exploration of the environment, allow mistakes, and permit disagreement. Healthy family systems promote both connection and individuality, accountability and independence. Unhealthy family systems discourage individuality and promote dependence. They interpret individual differences as an attack on their authority. They undermine healthy development by reinforcing dependency and helplessness. Because of the parents’ high levels of anxiety, stress, and need for control, individual expression is discouraged. Children are taught to conform to the parents’ wishes and desires. Personal boundaries (where I stop and you start) are vague. These children are needy or “pseudo independent”. They act independent on the surface, but are deeply dependent underneath.
The lessons we learn in our families growing up about dependence and independence are taken with us into our adult relationships. People who grew up with too much independence and not enough dependence have difficulty being present in relationships. Those who grew up with too much dependence and not enough independence tend to be overly needy or smothering. They place a lot of pressure on their partners to meet their needs. If both your partner and you are highly independent, then your relationships will be comfortably distant. If you both are dependent, then your relationship will probably be very co-dependent; obviously there will be problems with a highly dependent and a highly independent match.
Healthy couples know what they are bringing to the relationship and have an understanding of what they want to create. Each couple needs to work out its own unique balance of what works for them. How much time do we spend together, and how much time do we need alone. Without conscious awareness of our needs and expectations, the task of sorting out the balance of dependence-independence becomes a struggle strewn with conflict and hurt feelings.