My relationship is not working, so what's wrong with me?
When people come into therapy to talk about relationship problems, they often feel that there must be something wrong with them. This is particularly the case when it is not the first time that they have had the problem they are encountering. It may feel like a pattern is repeating over and over, and this can be frustrating and upsetting.
Whoever and however we are, we naturally, unconsciously repeat the patterns of our childhood relationship experiences through our life. That is, we do this until we notice the ones that don’t help us and change them.
So why is this? When we are young, we do not have the critical reflection skills to step back and analyse what it is that happens to us, making sense of what the adults in our life do and deciding what is and is not normal. Instead, we accept whatever is happening, and that becomes our normal.
When that involves parents and/or carers making good space for us and our experiences, providing attuned, caring responses, and helping us to deal with big emotions, again and again, all is well. We learn that the world is a safe place; that we are fundamentally OK, and that emotions can be contained and worked through.
However, this is not always the case. This does not mean the adults in our life are at fault or have deliberately let us down, it may just mean that the patterns they are repeating from their pasts may not be what we needed. So while some of us may feel confident in the way we relate, happily moving from being very close to more distant and back again, many of us do not.
Where someone does not have this secure pattern of attaching and relating to other people, a range of different things may be happening instead.
You may have a preference for holding people very close. You may feel very comfortable when you are physically with them, or they are very close by or in good contact, but may become anxious when you are separated, perhaps feeling strong feelings about this or ruminating.
You may prefer to hold people at arms-length. You may feel comfortable when relationships are not too involved, but feel smothered if the relationship gets too deep emotionally. You may need plenty of your own space to the degree that you do not really get close to people, or find this closeness very difficult.
You may swing between wanting to be close, and avoiding intensity and experience feelings of anger and frustration about not feeling that your needs are met. This back and forth of wanting closeness and distance can be painful and difficult, for everyone involved.
Whatever your pattern of relating to other people, it can and will show up in your couples relationship. This will help to shape the relationship, and will affect your experience of it. The good news is that patterns of relating are something you can develop insight about, and with time and effort, change. This change can come through self-reflection and personal development, but often there is a therapeutic element to growth when these changes begin to happen.
So what might give you clues about what is impacting your experience of relating? The first thing to notice is the pattern of your adult relationships. What are the commonalities across your romantic relationships? What are the patterns of your friendships present and past? How about how you feel about professional relationships?
Another useful thing to reflect on when you are exploring patterns in relationships, is the patterns in the relationships in your family. We each grow up in a context, in a web of relationships. Do you come from a family with mostly long-term, stable relationships, or do the people around you have less stability in romantic relationships? What was the pattern of your parent’s relationship with each other and with other people?
The web of relationships around you can give clues to what seemed normal for you as a child, and illuminate the unconscious assumptions you may be making now, and this can be useful information. Familiar patterns can feel somehow safe and comfortable, even when they do not serve us well.
It is really important to remember that we do not arrive at adulthood entirely responsible for everything that happens to us. There is nothing wrong with being you, just as you are. We each have our own idiosyncrasies, and we can work with them. Blame is not a useful concept here, curiosity, on the other hand, can take you a long way. Accepting yourself as a product of your experiences to date, and taking responsibility for moving forward from here, is a useful frame for healing.
If you want to explore yourself in relationship, search the counselling directory to find a practitioner near you with whom you can experience a positive, healing relationship.