Several of my therapy clients over the years have had issues around feeling secure in relationships, so it’s perhaps worth covering a couple of key aspects of partner relationships.
A partner relationship is a very special case in human relations. It connects together three things:
- BIOLOGY – It is partly based on our evolution as organisms who mate sexually, and then stay together to look after our young.
- EARLY CHILDHOOD – It is also based on our early formative relationships with our own carers.
- RELATIONSHIP WITH SELF – Finally, it is also based on our fundamental relationship with ourselves – in particular, our ability to maintain self-esteem and to self-soothe.
All these three things have to be functioning reasonably for us to enjoy our relationships.
DEPENDENCE AND INSECURITY
An example of this is how we handle insecurity in relationships. Insecurity is the painful fear that we will be abandoned. Applying the above three factors:
- Biologically, we are programmed to depend on a mate to create a mutually supportive home life. Inevitably, we seek reassurance that our significant other is going to be up to the task. We are reassured when we see them attending to us, and we worry when we see them attending to others. This is natural.
- In terms of early childhood, we have models of relationship in our heads, particularly in relation to our early carers. Any unresolved hangups about our mother or father, for example, can leak into our adult partnerships. If we are used to mixed messages (e.g. the concept of love matched with neglect or abuse), then we may unintentionally reproduce those inconsistencies in adult intimacies, even with trustworthy and respectful people.
- Finally, our relationship with ourselves will reflect how we have resolved (or not resolved) relationship inconsistencies in our life to date. For instance, if we had an un-empathic parent, then we may be un-empathic towards ourselves, resulting in self-hate whenever we are uncomfortable.
The three problems – biology, early childhood, and relationship with self – are common to everyone. What differs, is how they play out.
- Healthy biology means being watchful of our partners: firstly making sure that they are a good choice for us; and then making sure they behave in supportive ways.
- Healthy management of our inner relationship models means realising that our parents had faults; our partner is not our parents; and that we don’t have to repeat abusive or neglectful patterns.
- Healthy management of self-relationship means learning to soothe ourselves. When we are left alone, we need to be OK with that, and not escalate worry.
- Unhealthy biology can be hormonal. Unfortunately our inner chemicals are very blunt instruments, and we may swing wildly between feeling secure with our partner, and feeling that we’ve made a horrendously wrong choice of someone who is unsupportive. The partner doesn’t change, but our perception swings wildly depending on our mood.
- Unhealthy inner relationship models can arise when we haven’t realised what patterns we are repeating. A typical pattern is the repetition of emotional unavailability. If we learned to be dishonest, or to live with others’ dishonesty, then straight talking is incredibly difficult. We would rather hide.
- An unhealthy relationship with oneself usually involves lack of self-empathy. When we feel anxious or threatened, we crumble into nothing, and curl up into a ball. Usually we retreat from the world, but sometimes we fire ammunition towards our nearest and dearest, to cover up our own pain.
If you notice yourself living through unhealthy patterns, then you may be feeling like those clients I talked about at the beginning, who have difficulty feeling secure in relationships. They can suffer huge mood swings; they hide their feelings from their partner rather than honestly share them; and they retreat into isolation and self-hate, with the occasional foray into argument.
FINDING A BALANCE
There are no easy answers, and no miraculous recoveries. Sometimes we are lucky enough to find a set of circumstances which make relationships easier – usually it will be a partner who is easygoing, and yet can stand up for themselves; and being in a reasonably healthy place ourselves in terms of our mental health.
If we are fairly sure that our partner is an OK person, we may want to look at our own behaviour. broadly speaking, there are three things we can work on:
- We can manage our biological self with careful management of our nutrition, hormonal balance, and general health. This has little to do with our partner, and everything to do with self-management.
- We can develop our inner relationship models in the company of a therapist, a good friend, or by self-reflection. In particular, we can practice being emotionally available, so that we don’t repeat any learned dishonesty.
- We can develop routines in which we learn to soothe ourselves, empathise with our own anxieties, and build our own support systems. This is true even when we have supportive partner relationships. No partner can be expected to be an ’emotional department store’ for us. Some of the best partnerships are between people who have learned to be self-sufficient emotionally.
Our biology, our childhood, and our developed relationship with ourselves, are all factors in our adult relationships.
To have healthy partnerships, we need to take responsibility for our biological health. We also need to work on our inner concept of what a good relationship looks like, and establish healthy patterns. Finally, we need to develop sufficient self-empathy, so that we are not over-reliant on our partner for reassurance.