Where do relationships begin?
Research by people such as John Bowlby [et al] suggests that we learn about relationships from birth, but that may not necessarily be the case.
Is it possible to experience relationships before birth?
We know that there is a conscious part of ourselves that is aware of anything that our mothers are experiencing. If she is showing any kind of emotion with her partner, from love to anger and conflict, then the baby feels it and has first-hand experience of any chemical changes that are triggered by whatever is happening in their mother's life. Even physical problems that the mother has during the pregnancy could affect how we react to painful experiences, such as conflict, in later life.
As a baby we can find ourselves in another kind of relationship before birth. If our mother is addicted to alcohol, or class A drugs, then she has a relationship with whatever she is addicted to. When babies are born to a mother with such a problem then they too have to be treated medically to withdraw from that 'relationship'.
Through the use of Family Trees in couples work, I have found numerous indications of family patterns moving along the ancestral line. Most of these indicate learned behaviour in their relationships in life. Research shows, however, that one of these – depression – could be something we inherit 'In Utero'.
“Women who suffer from depression during pregnancy are more likely to have children who become depressed in their teens. This may be because the developing foetus is affected by exposure in the womb to the stress hormone cortisol.” - Dr Rebecca Pearson (3)
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the ideal first milestone on the journey to the relationship with another adult is at birth. That very first relationship is with their birth mother, but from birth to three months the baby is not particularly concerned who their carer is. If they cry and the primary carer responds with food and or affection, that is a positive engagement with baby and carer. If the baby then shows contentment and the carer responds by staying close and by sending positive messages then their attachment is secured.
Until seven months, the baby begins to develop different relationships with different carers, who respond as above. At the same time, they differentiate between people they know well and those that they are less familiar with. The primary carer, however, still holds their preference.
From seven months they begin to show a greater attachment to the primary carer and become very anxious if separated from them. This concept of attachment (attachment theory) was developed by John Bowlby, and has been a huge influence in couples work, as well as how these individual attachments and dynamics we develop as humans can influence our long-term interpersonal relationships.
From about nine months old the baby starts to develop their relationships further with others - family members in particular.
Many threads linking relationship problems begin at this time.
If secure attachments are made during this period then the child should have the ability to sustain long-lasting relationships in adulthood. If not, then the patterns may be taking shape for the difficulties that we find in the 'relationships' that we counsel.
Here are some examples of how our clients’ early attachments may have an impact on their current relationships and may be evident in their relationship counselling sessions:
- Taken away from the mother soon after birth to be fostered or adopted.
- Mother being ill and hospitalised or dying.
- Experiencing violent or loud arguments between parents.
In cases where attachment issues are evident, this can be worked with within the couple dynamic. In many cases, one or both partners, in the couple that are being counselled, may find that they came from stable families where attachments are indeed secure.
The next part of the adventure begins when the child begins nursery or school and the world gets much bigger and more complex. The first day, being “abandoned” by mum or dad, can be an experience that remains for a long time, but if your new carers know what they are doing, they create safe boundaries that allow for the exploration of peer group relationship.
The next few years are when you learn about close friendships and how transient they can be. You learn about cultural and societal norms and how you fit into your group – or not. You learn about antisocial behaviour and bullying, about prejudice and stigmatisation.
How we deal with all these experiences defines how we move on to the next, and perhaps the most difficult, part of the journey – the teenage years.
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