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Relationships Begin with the One You have with Yourself
February is often considered the month of relationships because Valentine’s day falls during the month. The practice of romantic love in western culture tends to emphasise the other person in an idealised way that must be demonstrated on Valentine’s day through heroic acts, and acts of physical giving or ritual, such as dinners and flowers etc.
Whilst all these acts of service are normally well received and the rituals are moments of intimacy it can also be true that this romantic notion betrays the real sense of what is relationship. Relationships with others are based on what occurs every day and not just one day in the year.
Relationships are also a product of the relationship you have with yourself. These two principles underlie what makes a sustainable and grounded relationship with another adult person and also children who are dependent on you as their carer.
There is a lot of truth in the notion that you cannot have a relationship with another that you are not already having with yourself. Any external relationship mirrors the state of the internal relationship and beliefs that we hold about ourself, others and life.
Most relationships suffer due to a lack of communication, trust or abiding connection which alone or in combination makes intimacy at any level a real problem for one or both the partners. In many cases we can trace the stance we hold towards relationships and beliefs we hold about ourself, others and life to the early formative years of infant attachment.
Trauma researchers and childhood development psychologists now understand the importance of the baby/infant stage of childhood development and in particular how relationship capability as well as self-belief is shaped in this period by the attachment process between mother and baby/infant.
We now know that the health and success of the bond between the baby and the infant shapes the babies social engagement system, and sense of self in the world when it comes to later adult attachments (relationships).
Our society promotes the idea that happiness is based on our relationship to external objects, other people, and our relationship to both of these. The idea that happiness is “out there” or can be found in another person as a “soul mate” or some other romantic or spiritual fiction is a popular idea that creates misery in the minds and hearts of those who run their life to those principles.
There also exists the unrealistic expectation that one can validly expect and demand that one’s own emotional and other needs can be met and fulfilled through objects, and relationships with others. The notion of getting one’s own needs met through romantic relationship is a recurring theme in the distorted notions that underlie the Western romantic stereotypes of love and relationship.
The basic problem for many adults is that their beliefs around intimate relationships are based on fantasies that can never be met by another person in any enduring and abiding way. There is also the problem that instead of dealing with one’s own issues that create problems in relationships we will instead blame the other person, or withdraw and self soothe with some alternate pursuit or an addiction.
The social neuroscience field has identified that our bias or abilities in relation to how we approach others in adult relationships was initially “wired” in our baby and infant years. These years are those where we are exposed to interactions with others, especially our parents, and where the success of those attachments creates the basis for future ease or future problems in initiating and continuing in relationships.
This early life developmental phase is one that each one of us had to go through, and which shapes each one of us in key ways, including our own ability to create intimacy. Any frustrations, trauma or unmet needs from this baby/infant period will be patterned in the adult psyche, awaiting a chance to be expressed through the inner child of the adult, via projection and demand onto future partners.
Because we are embodied, and have evolved from an animal instinctual basis, we all possess as adults certain base drives and instincts that motivate us on occasion to seek heart/soul connection at the bodily level via sex or the intimacy of sharing ideas, sensations, feelings and experiences.
The different experiences and outcomes of adult attempts at relationships are often seen to become a pattern when viewed over a timeline. This is because there is often a legacy of trauma or disruption from early life that has resulted in unconscious defences against feeling safe to be vulnerable in an adult relationship.
So many adults fail to be able to enter and sustain adult intimate relationships over a long period of time without “issues” and “patterns” of a negative nature surfacing and causing problems or the end of a relationship. It is often an early life defence that will be found to have activated and sabotaged that relationship from a place of the ego trying to keep the person “safe” from being hurt again.
Stephen Porges pioneered work that showed that all human beings require an effective social engagement system in order to build attachment and have effective affilitative relationships. This social engagement system develops and is influenced by early attachment experiences that the infant has with its caregivers, and will shape how it deals with and regulates internal and external forms of stimulation.
The trauma work of Pat Ogden has shown that we as human beings are only born with limited capacities for self-regulation of our emotional arousal states. We learn and are dependent on those attachment relationships with our care givers to give us our context by which we as adults will then have lifelong tendencies for regulating arousal of stimulus and dealing with issues that arise within every relationship as a result.
A key problem for many adults is the inability to handle their own emotions or the emotions of the other person in the relationship. This may show up as wanting to withdraw or end the relationship, or moving closer and wanting to caretake the other person in unhealthy ways.
The adult approach to being with a partner who is emotionally aroused or shutdown will often be found to mirror how they experienced and coped with a parent when they were young. As a baby we are totally dependent on the mother for all our resources, nourishment, needs and safety at this stage in our life, and relies on our developing social engagement system to communicate our needs.
The child learns via this constant interaction to experience safety and to maintain or return emotional arousal to a window of tolerance by dampening their Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). A well formed and stable social engagement system that effectively regulates the child’s brain and nervous system in this way will over time allow the baby to become a child with a wider window of tolerance of experience and stimulus that does not compromise its safety.
Many babies and infants suffered some form of deficiency or disruption in this developmental stage and so as a legacy they will later suffer in their capability to tolerate, process, and even transform difficult experiences into opportunities for growth within their adult relationships.
Neuroscience and trauma researchers have found that the capacity to self-regulate is the key foundation upon which a functional sense of self develops. From this place we understand that it is the relationship one has with oneself that is going to determine how effective one is able to navigate fulfilling adult relationships.
This sense of self is first and foremost a bodily sense of self, experienced not through language but through sensations and movements of the body. This is why body centric psychotherapy achieves such enhanced effects when working with people who lack a solid sense of self, or when doing adult repair to early life wounds such as attachment trauma.
As a baby we relied primarily on tactile and body centric interactions and communications when first born, and then over time were able to interact with auditory, verbal, and visual stimulus and communication becoming available and integrated into consciousness and experience.
Ideally we each developed our own sense of self through the careful and gentle attention and stimulation from the mother or parent in each of these areas from repeated and stable experience that allow the baby to sense and understand the contact and its meaning.
Where we did not get that we will struggle to be able to offer emotional, physical or sexual intimacy to another in an adult relationship over any length of time. Many adults now find that they can only tolerate mini-relationships that last for a month or several months before “issues” arise and they break off the relationship.
When this occurs, the disappointment often reinforces whatever defensiveness they enact in their relationships. One may find over time they even give up or become ambivalent towards relationships and instead form a stable attachment with some other object such as an animal who gives unconditional love and demands little in return.
The various forms of failure in relationship can be indicative of some form of hurt in prior adult relationships, or a one-off trauma, or abandonment, repeated failure or neglect or abuse at an early age. Any interpersonal trauma is not only a threat to physical and psychological integrity and formation in the person, whether an adult or a child, but also a failure of the social engagement system.
Secure attachment is the healthy mother-child emotional bonding process that provides emotional safety and understanding that secures the babies place in the world and which makes it safe to start to explore that world. Secure childhood attachment outcomes are good predictors of an adult ability to form strong and abiding relationships.
An adult who encountered an infanthood of secure attachment has a solid foundation with which to face life’s varied and many challenges. If their childhood was otherwise stable and not subject to other major disturbances and traumas then the resulting adult will be able to face adult intimate relationships with an enhanced set of internal resources.
Such an adult can generally seek proximity to others with little or no avoidance or angry resistance of a passive or active nature, and can tolerate relationship frustrations and disappointments. Such adults are likely to be able to work with an adult partner beyond the initial fantasy phase of relationships where idealisation of the partner tends to exist and which must fall away for the relationship to proceed.
Such adults can be with oneself without anxiety and can also go to another for interpersonal support, both of which are critical skills in adult relationships. They normally are quite psychologically grounded in themselves and form attachments (relationships and friendships) easily from a stable social-engagement system.
Such adults are not fooled by the “honeymoon phase” of relationship, in which we are madly in love with our partner and everything is exciting and wonderful. This is where our bodymind floods us with endorphins and opiate like chemicals that send us into the “lovers swoon”. This can be notoriously short-lived.
This phase of relationship is commonly built on idealised projections about who the other person is and these fantasy projections are typically unmet hopes about our own natures. It may be based on suppositions about who the other person is, which can turn out not to be true. A person who is grounded in themself via a secure social engagement system normally navigates this phase without major issue.
The next phase of relationship may involve some disillusionment, as it involves the dissolving of false idealised projections projected onto the other person and we start to really see the other person in the naked light of truth. This may require facing some harsh realities. Many couples break up at this point.
A healthy relationship might be said to be one in which there is freedom and support for each individual to pursue their personal goals, as well as nurturing and promoting the mutual goals which the two partners share. The relationship is able to simultaneously support both a “me” and a “we” entity for both persons in the relationship.
Such a relationship may function without intimacy, but most adults have an intention to establish varying levels of intimacy in adult relationship. Intimacy covers not just sexual contact but mental and emotional contact and sharing, and physical contact.
Intimacy is often alluded to as a magical “something” which gives excitement and depth to the relationship. Emotional intimacy is difficult to achieve unless the two people interacting with each other are relatively sure of who they are and have a fairly clearly defined sense of their own identity. One of the most difficult challenges is to maintain a strong sense of one’s own self whilst remaining in contact with the other person.
A person who has a past that involved a foundation built on secure-attachment is well placed to attempt a dynamic and flowing exchange of intimacy at its varying levels and with fluctuations to that dynamic over time. Such a person will typically seek a “stable” partner who can meet them in such a stable and adult place of relationship and intimacy.
If the person has later or other disturbances or unresolved traumas then of course they may still attract and be attracted to unstable or destructive relationships and partners in relationship. These issues often respond well to being worked through in therapy.
Where someone has issues within relationships as a pattern, or finds they lack the tools from which to deal with relationship issues then it is worth investing in some form of counselling, psychotherapy or relational skills learning. There are some common types of defensive behavioural patterns seen in adult relationships.
The avoidant adult tends to withdraw under relationship and work stresses and avoid seeking emotional support from others. As they have a compromised social engagement system and have defended and cut-off themselves from internal states of feelings these adults typically minimise their attachment needs and become walled off to others
They are emotionally deadened and defended and they prefer auto-regulation and self reliance to interactive support, and can find dependence frightening or unpleasant and avoid situations that would stimulate attachment or intimacy needs.
There are some adults who suffer from displaying a lack of congruency between their internal states and their external reactions and behaviours. Such a person may fidget and be restless but when asked how they are will always respond with “fine”, and may be totally unaware that their reported state is not matched by bodily arousal or affect. They will be unable to communicate their needs or wants, or which emotions they feel in the relationship.
Some other persons tend to find themselves in a “pendulum swing” with their partner where they alternatively come just so far towards the other person, get overwhelmed, and withdraw away from a mate who may chase after them. When the arousal which has threatened to engulf them dissipates, they attempt to re-enter the relationship on their terms, and control the dynamics from there.
An alternative way of avoiding contact is to move away and disengage from the other person, so that one’s individuality is maintained clearly but the price one pays is that there is a gulf between the two people. Their low threshold of arousal means that they typically learn to modulate it via solitude, turning inwards through reading, day dreaming, and worlds of fantasy.
Some adults start to self-soothe by isolating addictions such as the internet where alternate realities can be entered and which are “safe” and under their control. They exist in a world which is safe inasmuch as it is private and does not demand back anything from them.
Some adults can escalate quickly into frustration and anger as they cannot easily regulate their emotional arousal. They may express hostility in relationships due to a lack of social engagement skills in being able to resolve conflict. This is often a problem in their intimate relationships where emotional arousal is more likely to be triggered.
The avoidance of contact will exclude the possibility of intimacy. Intimacy can only begin to happen if both people are present as their true selves, and remain in contact. Contact is the dance of exchanging feelings and thoughts in an ongoing flow – honestly and without trying to control the outcome.
This is difficult, scary, and exciting even when one has a functioning social engagement system from the attachment phase of childhood. When this system is compromised it becomes less possible without proper therapy to overcome such constraints and impairments to enter and sustain emotionally intimate adult relationships.
We assist adults in the repair and to heal childhood traumas such as those described in this article. For many this now shows up in terms of frustration and issues in entering and maintaining adult intimate relationships.
The good news is that we as humans are “plastic” in the sense we are capable of repairing childhood issues and then as adults adapting and adjusting into ways of being that create more happiness and appropriateness in adult life.
For further information on the effect that childhood dynamics have on later adult relationships, you can access our two companion articles How Early Life Attachment Affects Adult Intimacy and Relationships as well as How Early Childhood Oedipal Narcissistic Development Affects Later Adult Intimacy and Relationships.