To understand how relationships work, you need to understand how people work. This post explains how we are all made up of many selves that together form our personality – such as the Inner Carer and the Responsible Parent, the Pleaser and the Critical Parent, the Vulnerable Child and Playful Child – and how these selves affect our relationships.
W e all conduct our relationships with other people using our personality. But very few of us understand how our personality works. We attempt to have good relationships and to solve relationship problems without even knowing how we, the people in the relationship work.
We behave in relationships in a similar way to how we behave with our cars: Most of us are able to drive our car without really knowing how it works, and when there’s a problem this becomes even more apparent as we realise we can’t fix it ourselves, and so we take it to a mechanic.
In much the same way, we can have relationships and enjoy them to a degree without really understanding how relationships work all that well. But when there’s a problem, in order to solve it we need a better understanding of the relationship process. Of course we can go to a ‘relationship mechanic’, which many people do and which is usually worthwhile.
But it will help enormously if you have the information this article shares with you.
How People Work
If you are like most people, you believe that you are one, consistent personality or self – with characteristics, inner rules and values that rarely change. You probably wouldn’t even think to question this and would live your entire life believing it.
Whenever you experience thoughts or feelings different to your usual self, you probably become concerned and say things like ‘I don’t know what got into me’ or ‘I wasn’t being myself’ or ‘I only behave like that when I have a few drinks’. You also probably criticise yourself whenever you digress from being who you believe you are supposed to be.
The truth is that you are multi-faceted; you are made up of many parts, which can be called sub-personalities, energy patterns, inner selves or selves.
This knowledge is gradually being incorporated into relationship psychology and psychotherapy courses (and in films like Inside Out) but it is still not widely known – which is why you won’t find much relationship advice that takes it into account.
And it’s why relationships are never simple or easy.
How Your Inner Selves Affect Your Relationships
When you relate with others there are quite a few different parts of you – your selves – involved in your relationships. That’s why sometimes you feel caring towards your partner (when the caring part of you is active) and at other times you want to be cared for (the needy part of you is active); it is why sometimes you admire a quality in your partner and at other times you see that same quality as a fault; and it is why sometimes something your partner does amuses you and at other times that same action irritates you.
The selves that constitute your personality include parental selves, child selves, rational selves, emotional selves and others.
You have selves that you identify with and call ‘me’. These are your primary selves. It may be that you have one main primary self, such as the Rational Mind, and you rarely experience or express your other selves – especially those your Rational self is not comfortable with. Or you may have a number of primary selves, such as a Pleaser, a Responsible Parent, a Perfectionist, a Sportsperson and an Adventurer who makes an appearance once in a while.
You also have selves that you have repressed, which are your disowned selves. These disowned selves affect your actions, feelings and relationships as much as your primary selves do.
Your disowned selves also strongly influence what kind of people you will get into relationships with.
So it is valuable to gain an understanding of who your primary and disowned selves are if you want to understand and enjoy your relationships fully.
Discover Your Primary and Disowned Selves
The qualities that you admire excessively or overvalue in others, and those qualities that you judge in others, give you a good indication of who your disowned selves are.
So if you really admire someone who is an artist and you think that they are better than you because of their artistic ability, then you have probably disowned your own artistic self, and you probably have as a primary self a more logical, practical self.
And if you can’t stand someone who is blatantly selfish and you judge them for being selfish, then you have probably disowned your own selfishness and have as a primary self a more giving self who values giving-type behaviours such as taking care of others, being helpful and considering others’ needs.
Why You are Attracted to Particular People
What you have disowned and what is primary in you, also reveals the kinds of people you will be attracted to and enter into relationship with.
The two main scenarios are:
1. You will like people who have similar primary selves to you, and you will dislike people whose primary selves are your disowned selves. You will usually choose as friends those people whose primary selves you like.
2. But, you will be attracted to (and at other times repelled by) people who carry your disowned selves, either the positive ones or negative ones. Usually we will enter into quite intense relationships with people who carry our disowned selves.
Falling in Love
For an example of how relationships work let’s look at Sally and Michael: Sally is a warm, kind, giving person; she is artistic and tends to flow wherever life takes her. One evening at a party, Sally meets Michael. Michael is powerful, self-contained, confident and financially successful. He is a lawyer. They are introduced to each other and begin to talk. Sally is impressed by Michael’s strength, focus and powerful energy. Michael is attracted to Sally’s warmth, relaxed attitude and lightness, and her different way of seeing things. They start seeing each other and a relationship starts.
Almost immediately they fall in love. They find each other perfect. Sally feels completely accepted, as Michael loves her totally, and Michael feels adored by Sally. They both feel safe with each other so their defences are let down – which is another way of saying that their primary selves relax off a little.
This enables them both to have access to modes of expression or selves they previously didn’t have access to. Michael finds that he can enjoy going to the art gallery and lazing around on weekends, when previously he’d work through the weekend. Sally finds access to her power and focus and starts taking action with organising exhibitions of her artwork. She even sells her paintings when previously she would give them away for free. Nothing could be better.
Eventually they move in with each other. But after some months things change: those qualities that Michael had found so attractive in Sally – her easy-goingness, her relaxed attitude to everything, her tendency to always be available to friends when they need her, now annoy him. And those things Sally loved about Michael, his strength and focus and organisational ability, now seem to be stifling and rigid.
One day Michael has a terrible day in court and he comes home feeling awful. He walks into the house and sees mess everywhere – paints, brushes, canvasses, and Sally with an old shirt with paint splattered all over it. He gets annoyed and criticises her for the mess.
She becomes defensive and tells him that he’s too tidy and that he should loosen up a little. But then she becomes apologetic as she can see he’s angry and really upset. He then feels guilty about telling her off. But then she gets angry at him and yells at him.
Does this sound familiar? Can you see that Sally’s disowned selves are Michael’s primary selves and vice versa? They reflect each other. Michael judges in Sally what he has disowned in himself and Sally judges in Michael what she has disowned in herself. This is how all relationships work.
Your Partner Reflects What is Disowned in You
At first they had liked the opposite qualities in each other, in fact it was the opposite qualities that attracted them to each other.
That’s what happens when you disown some part of yourself – you are attracted to it because your psychological system wants to become whole. So you’re drawn to it outside of yourself if you don’t acknowledge it inside.
But as soon as a stress occurs in this type of situation, as with Sally and Michael when Michael had that bad day, the attraction to the disowned self in the other person transforms into judgment as your defences kick in and your primary selves become dominant again. You then judge what is unlike you in your partner.
This leads to what is called a negative bonding pattern.
How Relationships Work: Bonding Patterns
Bonding patterns occur in all types of relationships. A bonding pattern is like a blueprint for how we interact with others. They are based on the initial parent/child bonding we all experienced as infants.
These patterns activate a parental self in one person and child self in the other. In male/female relationships, a daughter part of a woman will bond with a father part of the man and vice versa.
Bonding patterns are fluid; we kind of flow from identifying with a parental self to identifying with a child self and back again, and so does the person we are bonding with.
And this is what happened with Sally and Michael: When Michael arrived home from work after losing his case, he felt vulnerable.
His whole identity as a successful lawyer had been threatened. But instead of admitting to himself and to Sally that he was upset and needed some support, which is really admitting responsibility for his Vulnerable Child self, he, in order to maintain his self-protection and to not feel his vulnerability, fell into a complete identification with his main primary self.
From that position of total identification with his primary self, he judged Sally for her opposite characteristics – he judged Sally’s primary self.
Then, when Sally felt that her primary self was judged and criticised by Michael, she became defensive. Her Vulnerable Child felt awful about being criticised, but because she is also not aware of its existence, she moved into a total identification with her primary self, which is judgmental of Michael.
We fall into our primary selves automatically when our vulnerability is threatened because when we were infants the reason our primary selves developed was to protect our vulnerability.
Negative Bonding Patterns
So the bonding pattern here can be described as follows: when Michael came home from work, his Critical Father self bonded with Sally’s Defensive Daughter self, and then Sally flipped into Angry Mother self and Michael into Guilty Son self.
This is a negative bonding pattern because the feelings activated are negative.
Negative bonding patterns occur because we identify with only a part of ourselves – which means we have other parts of us that are disowned – and they are triggered when we feel vulnerable.
When you’re feeling vulnerable, what do you do? You get defensive, and you attack or judge the other person. At the very least you feel self-righteous about your point of view. Either way, the other person flips into defensive mode also and it is usually in some way opposite to what you are expressing.
Now all this is going on at the subconscious level of your mind. All you’re aware of is an uncomfortable feeling, which you try to get rid of, and then you feel defensive, angry and judgmental toward your partner. You both keep arguing from your individual perspective and nothing is resolved. It’s almost like the more you argue the more both of you are pushed into opposite extremes.
It’s like a see saw. If one of you goes all the way up, the other goes all the way down.
Positive Bonding Patterns
There are also positive bonding patterns. With the example of Sally and Michael, the Responsible Father self in Michael looks after Sally by providing her with a space and materials so she can paint. He supports her and encourages her. He is bonded with her Pleasing Daughter self who tries to paint the best artworks she can, to please him.
Then the pattern switches when as a thank you for his support, she cooks him fantastic dinners and eagerly waits for him to come home so she can feed him and look after him. When she is in this Nurturing Mother self, he goes into Needy Son self and enjoys her attentions. This is a positive bonding pattern because the feelings are good.
Bonding patterns are our primary way of making contact with others; they are the way in which we are able to give and receive nurturing, just as in the above example, and as in the original infant/parent bonding.
Why Many Relationships Fail
When we are in a bonding pattern we lose much of our vitality and spontaneity. Because they are a blueprint, they force us to behave in ways that are only a part of who we are; we feel compelled to behave in the particular way of the self that is bonded in the bonding pattern.
Positive bonding patterns, even though they feel so good and loving, dampen passion in a relationship. When you’re a Needy Child, for instance, you can’t relate with your partner in an adult way. There’s nothing more anti-passion than one of you being in a Nurturing Parent self and the other in a Needy Child self – you can give an receive affection but little else.
That is one of the most common reasons why long-term relationships fail. How often have you heard people say that they have basically become good friends but there’s nothing else left? They still love each other but only in a parent/child or good friends way.
“Bonding patterns force us to behave in a particular manner, and this manner is not necessarily the way we would behave if we had awareness of the pattern and of the selves we have disowned – and if we were taking care of our vulnerability.
Without awareness that all this is going on in our relationships, we are destined to repeat arguments and unsatisfying patterns, and we have little control over these situations.”
Another example of how bonding patterns work is as follows:
Let’s say that I tend to be more tidy around the house than my husband. He’s not really messy usually, but generally has a higher tolerance level to mess than I have. But the tidier I become, or the more I start to behave as though my way of being is right, the more messy my husband becomes, messier than he usually is. When I’m in my Tidy Mother self, he bonds with me from his Messy Son self. The more I want him to be tidy and the more I judge him for not being tidy, the messier he becomes.
Yet, although I take the tidy role in relation to my husband, when I visit my mother, I play the messy role. Because she is more identified with being tidy than I am, I go into the opposite when I am with her and bond with her through my Messy Daughter self. And she judges me for being messy from her Tidy Mother self.
This illustrates how bonding patterns nudge you into behaving in a particular manner, and that manner is not necessarily the way you always are. This process occurs in all relationships – it’s a fundamental relationship dynamic that determines how relationships work.
How to Handle Relationship Bonding Patterns
The good news is that you do not have to remain stuck in a particular bonding pattern.
You can learn to become conscious of your bonding patterns and then use them as a way to learn about the primary selves you have become identified with and the disowned selves you can now start to connect with.
So your relationship itself contains the solution to any problems. Your relationship shows you – by the kinds of bonding patterns you get into and by the kinds of selves that are activated in both you and your partner – what the work is that you need to do.
This involves becoming aware of your primary selves as only a part of you and not as all of who you are. And it means developing a sense of self – or an ego – that can be aware of opposites within yourself. In Voice Dialogue this process of becoming increasingly self-aware is called the Aware Ego Process.
The benefits of discovering and embracing more of who you are extend further than your relationships. When you reconnect with parts of yourself and can express those parts in other areas of your life, your whole life improves!
4 Steps to Help Make Relationships Work
Here are some steps you can take to enhance your self-awareness and help with making your relationship work:
1. Really listen to your partner and really see them.
Try to see who in them is speaking and listen for the vulnerability that self might be experiencing underneath what they are actually saying. The more you listen, the more your partner will open up.
2. Listen to yourself and consider who in you is involved.
When you listen to yourself, consider whether you are truly expressing your feelings and/or thoughts or if you are operating on autopilot and possibly trying not to rock the boat. What are your reactions? What do you really want to do or say? What do you really feel?
You don’t have to express all this out loud to your partner but use what comes up for you for your own information about which selves you might be identified with in this particular bonding pattern.
3. Take care of yourself.
Find out what your needs and wants are and look after them. The more you take care of yourself, the less power the bonding patterns have, and the freer both you and your partner become to be yourselves more fully.
4. Do some Voice Dialogue.
Voice Dialogue is something you can learn to do with your partner or a friend (I’ll be posting instructions on how to do this soon, so sign up for my newsletter to be informed about it), or you can see a trained Voice Dialogue facilitator.
5. Read my posts and books!
Many of my articles are about the various selves so read them carefully and try any exercises outlined to see if you experience a shift in your self-awareness.
Which Self Are You? covers 45 different selves in a light-hearted and entertaining way. You’re bound to realise which selves you are connected to and which ones you might like to unearth as you dip into this guide or journey through it from the beginning where the major selves are introduced.
More Relationship Resources
This article on when the passion has gone from your relationship (i.e. you’re in a positive bonding pattern) gives you more help with recognising and dealing with bonding patterns.
My ebook Three Instant Relationship Fixes gives you three practical techniques to break a bonding pattern and start the healing process in a relationship instantly.
My ebook The Perfect Relationship gives you the ten essential steps to make your relationship work and last.