Understanding How Relationships Work

‘Marriage may be the closest thing to Heaven or Hell any of us will know on this earth’.   

Edwin Louis Cole 

It’s hard to overestimate how central relationships are to us. They provide the context in which we begin, and continue, to function as human beings. Often, how we feel and behave in the present moment only makes sense when the environment in which our feelings and behaviour originated is taken into account. So, for example, the extent to which our parent or caregiver was emotionally available and present for us in our dependency years will determine how accessible we are to ourselves and others in later years.

There is an ambivalence in Western cultures about being dependant in relationships. Whilst we acknowledge the importance of early child/parent dependency, we also actively promote the idea of self-sufficiency and independence. However, having a satisfying early experience of dependency on nurturing parents is necessary before we can become truly independent, comfortable ‘in our own skin’ and ready to form loving relationships in adulthood. Without this early nurturing and the dependability it creates, a core insecurity is created in us and, unfortunately, this gets played out in subsequent interactions with others.

To see how this happens, let’s see how the 3 core qualities that are necessary for a healthy functioning relationship are affected by upbringing.
The qualities are – Empathy/Understanding; Love/Affection; Openness/Transparency.


Firstly, the challenge of achieving Empathy/Understanding in relationships is dependent on how attuned we are to our own being. Unfortunately you cannot will genuine empathy for others, or a caring attitude to your own feelings, into existence. Rather these are capacities that are internalised through experiencing them first-hand from carers in childhood. A consistent caring responsiveness to your needs helps you, over time, to recognise and identify your own feelings. This early regulation equips you with the confidence to deal with the ups and downs of emotional life. Without that early reciprocity, if parents are emotionally absent or distant, we get the message that how we feel is not important and so we easily treat our feeling state in the same way. We begin to supress feelings and lose touch with what they are telling us about ourselves and others. If this trait is present in adult relationships, a demand-withdrawal pattern begins to emerge, where one partner’s increasing efforts to connect with the other produces a stonewalling effect. There are no nods of encouragement when their partner speaks, little attempt to empathise and minimum efforts to respond or connect. But what is often seen as obtuseness or insensitivity is simply unawareness. The person genuinely does not know how to respond due to poor early attunement.


The second element, Love/Affection, incorporates such qualities as appreciation, respect, tenderness and care. If we are secure in our own being and have developed good self-esteem then we are more inclined to achieve a satisfactory level of relatedness. A study by Fincham & Beach, (2006) highlighted how, when we feel satisfied in our relationships, we have the ability to both develop ‘unrealistic beliefs’ about our partner – ‘He’s not lazy. He’s laidback, chilled out’ and attribute positive reasons for our partner’s behaviour – ‘it wasn’t her fault she was late home, the traffic was awful’.
Notice that here it’s all about how those traits are interpreted. The positive beliefs re our partner are often reflective of our own positive self-image, fostered in the consistent loving touch and gaze we received in early childhood.
However if we grow up in a hostile environment where criticisms are the norm, often with the implication that we are bad or wrong at some deeper level, then the attribution pattern is reversed and we begin to paint our partners in the same negative way. This can set up a negative loop where, for example, you start off commenting on the lack of milk in the fridge and end up trading full-scale character assassinations.

The third quality, Openness/Transparency, is determined by how much self-acceptance we have achieved in our own lives. When conditions are attached to the love we receive as children, we begin to form a self that conforms to those conditions. We begin to live for others, not for ourselves and we often lack the ability to be open and informed by new experiences and challenges. And, of course, one of our biggest challenges in adult relationships is how to achieve real intimacy, especially when we feel vulnerable, inadequate or flawed. The risk of yet again experiencing rejection, pain and shame is often too high for many to take and so we retreat into a familiar defensiveness, where making excuses for failures or slip-ups becomes a persistent theme in our relationship. We become emotionally detached and distant and we end up as strangers to each other.

heaven and hell
Thus, to return to our original quote above, marriage can be either Heaven or Hell depending on the kinds of early attachment we experienced with carers. Having an early start in which we felt loved and valued augers well for subsequent intimate relationships but, even in the absence of ‘good enough’ mothering, it’s not all bad news, as you can still change damaging relational patterns by accessing skilled therapeutic help. A little time in purgatory is surely preferable to eternal hell fire!

Click here for more information on relational counselling.

©- Patrick Counseling All Rights Reserved


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