When you understand how relationships work, it becomes easier to solve relationship problems and enjoy better relationships. But in order to do that, first you need to look at how you work. This post explains how we are all made up of many selves (also known as inner selves, parts or sub-personalities), and how the dance of these selves affects our relationships.
If you’re like most people, you’ve spent your life until now believing you were one, consistent personality or self, with characteristics, rules and values that rarely change. You probably never thought to question it, and could even live your entire life believing it.
When you’ve had thoughts or feelings different to your usual self, you probably felt concerned and said things like ‘I don’t know what got into me’ or ‘I wasn’t being myself’ or ‘I only behave like that when I drink/am angry/upset/excited’. Maybe you believe you have one true self or you try to act from a ‘higher’ self.
The truth is, you are made up of many parts, which can be called sub-personalities, energy patterns, inner selves or selves.
This is gradually becoming more known as more people study psychotherapies that are based on it, such as Internal Family Systems, Gestalt and, of course, Voice Dialogue. Even the film Inside Out dealt with the idea of selves, and inner selves are referred to frequently in popular culture, such as when people talk about their Inner Child, Inner Critic, Inner Goddess and so on.
But even with this growing awareness of how our psyches are constructed, you won’t find much relationship advice that takes it into account.
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 the relationship. That’s why sometimes you might 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’s why sometimes you feel admiration for a quality in your partner and at other times you see that same quality as a fault. And it’s why sometimes something your partner does might amuse you but at other times that same action will irritate you and bring up judgmental feelings and thoughts about it.
The selves that constitute your personality include parental selves, child selves, rational selves, emotional selves and others.
You have selves 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 that take turns being prominent in you, such as a Pleaser, a Responsible Parent, a Perfectionist and a Sportsperson, together forming a ‘primary self system’.
You also have selves you have repressed. They are your disowned selves. These disowned selves affect your actions, feelings and relationships as much as your primary selves do. Your disowned selves also influence what kind of people you will get into relationships with.
Discover Your Primary and Disowned Selves
The qualities you admire excessively or overvalue in others, and the qualities you judge in others, give you a good indication of who your disowned selves are.
So if you admire someone who is an artist and you think 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 your primary self is most likely a giving self who values giving behaviours such as taking care of others, being helpful and considering others’ needs.
Why You Are Attracted to Particular People
The selves you have disowned and those that are your primary selves, also reveal 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 have intense relationships with people who carry our disowned selves.
Falling in Love
For an example of how relationships work with the idea of selves in mind, consider 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 by Michael, and Michael feels adored by Sally. They both feel safe with each other so their defences come down – which is another way of saying that their primary selves relax a little.
This enables them both to have access to modes of expression (or selves) they previously didn’t have access to. Michael finds 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.
Eventually they move in with each other. But after some months things change: those qualities 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.
Negative Bonding Patterns
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.
At first Sally and Michael had liked the opposite qualities in each other. In fact it was the opposite qualities that had attracted them to each other.
When you disown a part of yourself you are attracted to it because your psychological system wants to become whole. You’re drawn to it outside of yourself if you don’t embrace 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. 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.
Bonding patterns occur in all types of relationships. A bonding pattern is 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 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 that’s what happened with Sally and Michael.
When Michael arrived home from work after losing his case, he felt vulnerable. His identity as a successful lawyer had been threatened. But instead of admitting to himself and to Sally that he was upset and needed support, which is really admitting responsibility for his inner Vulnerable Child, 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, together with his disowned vulnerability, 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. That’s because the reason our primary selves developed in the first place was to protect our vulnerability.
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.
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.
Positive Bonding Patterns
There are also positive bonding patterns. These are occurring all the time that a relationship has positive, loving feelings flowing between the partners.
With the example of Sally and Michael, the Good Caring 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 Good Grateful Daughter self who appreciates his support.
Then the pattern switches when in return for Michael’s support, Sally cooks him gourmet dinners, making sure he is fed well and all his nutritional needs are met. When she is in this Nurturing Mother self, Michael becomes the Appreciative Son self and enjoys her nurturing attentions. This is a positive bonding pattern because the feelings are good.
Positive bonding patterns are our primary way of caring for 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 So Many Relationships Fail
When we are in a positive bonding pattern we lose much of our vitality and spontaneity. They lead us to behave in predictable ways that utilise only some parts of who we are. We automatically express only the particular energies of the selves that are bonded in the bonding pattern. And we lose connection to all our other selves, along with their feelings, thoughts and energy.
So even though positive bonding patterns feel good, they diminish passion and excitement in a relationship. When you’re a Pleasing Child, for instance, you can only respond to your partner as a pleasing child. And if you feel safe in that space, and your partner cares for you in the corresponding good parental self, then there’s no room for honest reactions or other feelings. The relationship becomes unsatisfying.
And that’s one of the most common reasons long-term relationships fail. How often have you heard people say they have basically become good friends but there’s no passion any longer? They still love each other but only in the parent/child way of the positive bonding pattern.
The other main reason relationships fail is when a positive bonding pattern turns to a negative bonding pattern. As most people aren’t aware of these patterns operating in their relationships, they end the relationship when a negative pattern is powerful enough.
Handling Relationship Bonding Patterns
The good news is you don’t 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 that have been disowned since childhood or even infancy, your whole life experience improves.
3 Steps to Start Improving Your Relationship
1. Learn to listen to your partner with full attention and really see them
Try to see who in your partner is speaking and listen for the vulnerability that self might be experiencing underneath what they are saying. The more you listen, the more your partner will open up. (My ebook The Simplest Relationship Remedy explains how to listen better.)
2. Listen to yourself and consider who in you is involved
When you listen to yourself, consider where the feelings and thoughts you are expressing come from. Are you operating on autopilot? Maybe trying not to rock the boat? Or are you trying to ‘win’ an argument? What are your reactions? What do you really want to do or say? What do you really feel? What rules do you feel you are trying to follow?
You don’t have to express all this out loud to your partner but use what comes up for your own information about the selves you might be identified with in this particular bonding pattern.
3. Take care of your own vulnerability
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 will become to relate as complete people.
More Relationship Resources
My ebook Which Self Are You? outlines a range of different selves in a light-hearted and entertaining way. It’s a good start to becoming aware of which selves you are connected to and which ones you might have disowned.
My ebook The Simplest Relationship Remedy gives you three practical techniques to break a bonding pattern and start the healing process in a relationship.
My ebook The Perfect Relationship guides you through the ten essential steps to make a relationship work and last.