Learn how to have healthier and fulfilling emotional connections with others coming from a dysfunctional or traumatic background. In this article, NY Therapist Heather Coleman discusses ambivalent relationships and relationship repair.
Many great articles have come out about attachment theory in the past few years; for example, this article from New York Magazine in 2016 and this most recent one from The New York Times (though, I don’t entirely agree with the title: it’s too easy to blame blame blame parents for everything.) So perhaps your self-inquiry has begun on your fourth painful break-up or your third firing from a prominent company by having vague “difficulties with the boss.” Coming from a gentle place of curiosity, we can begin to look at these dynamics and patterns in a therapeutic context and start to put the pieces together. It’s a difficult pill to swallow (hence gentleness) beginning to realize that it all starts with us and the old information (childhood/adolescent information) that we’re bringing into our present adult relationships in an unconscious way. So what do we do? We begin to make the unconscious conscious so we can start to make different empowered decisions in our relationships.
I’ve been listening a lot to the podcast The Adult Chair with Michelle Chalfant. She uses a very straightforward model of three chairs (child, adolescent and adult) to explain three different aspects of self and how they function in the world (basically feeling-child, thinking-adolescent and presence-adult.) In one of her episodes, she explains that from 0-7 years of age, we are simply a tape recorder of information– we record every single event in our lives. It is also a time of many many feelings and not really knowing what to do with them!
When we grow up in chaotic and dysfunctional households where our parents were not very healthy themselves, can you imagine all of that information that’s being recorded and how it’s being processed? For example, if we had a depressed parent who often locked themselves in their room for days at a time, can you imagine how a child begins to feel? My guess is pretty sad, lonely and abandoned–this can get translated into personal beliefs, like “i’m unworthy”, “I’m unlovable”, “If i ask for anything, i’ll be a burden and then i will get left” and beliefs about others “I can’t trust others to meet my needs, look at how inconsistent they are!” “Relationships are entirely controlled by the other person; they aren’t workable at all!” Of course, in a child’s brain, this gets pushed down pushed down pushed down, as well as the painful feeling that is never processed.
As adolescents, we then begin to function (albeit unconsciously) out of these formed belief systems. And then we aren’t quite sure if we should get close to people– after all, just like our parents, people may be loving and consistent one day, only to be chaotic, withdrawn or hurtful the next. This can certainly be true for Adult Children of Alcoholics and those coming from dysfunctional family backgrounds as discussed in one of my other articles here.
Cut To Adulthood
So now we’re adults- maybe we’re the ripe age of 35 and still on the quest for a romantic partner. However, the old patterning from childhood that we learned early on that people are untrustworthy and relationships are unworkable may sneakily be playing out in our current relationships. What does that look like? A lot of ambivalent dancing; It looks like dating emotionally unavailable folks, or getting involved with healthier people but consistently having the sense of running because “when are they going to turn on me?” It looks like getting close to people when things are going well and we can feel their love for us (and our love for them) only to then exit or withdraw or get caught in addiction/distraction cycling when dynamics become more challenging. In a therapeutic way, it looks like dipping a toe in, kinda getting close to the therapist, but not really, canceling mostly, and not really confronting the therapist when there is disappointment, disagreement and “something goes wrong”– because that would then be a workable framework.
Using Chalfant’s model, if we are coming from the Adult Chair, then we would be looking into the facts and truths in relationship–not our stories and assumptions. From this place, we would also be able to communicate our needs clearly, set boundaries, sense when someone is actually a threat and we need protection from them, make conscious decisions about our choices and wants in relationship–so even if someone were being hurtful, chaotic or withdrawn, we could still manage to care for ourselves and evaluate the relationship further. We would also make room and sit with our uncomfortable feelings and from a present state, tend to those feelings in a loving way. Easier said than done, i know; it takes work, but its worth it if the end result is not living out of our old patterns and having healthier more fulfilling relationships in the present tense!
Engaging In The Work
What do we do to start some relationship repair? We become more conscious of the patterns that we are taking with us into adult relationships. We challenge them. We learn to stay in healthier relationships and that they are not actually as threatening as we once thought. We can learn to do this in the care and safety of a healthy therapeutic relationship; one where the therapist can be challenged and work through any ambivalence along side of you, and one where the therapist can eventually help you to feel and be present for your feelings, become aware of your beliefs and encourage you to live from your adult self with empowerment and confidence.
On a nervous system level, we also have to start to be able to take in new, present moment information (rather than enacting the old habitually and cyclically.) Two of the best ways to do that is with meditation (having a daily sitting practice of at least 20 minutes a day) and neurofeedback. Because the old childhood patterns are so old and strong at times, it can help to have a boost to bring ourselves into our current adult bodies where the most resources and wisdom actually resides (it’s not in thinking, that’s for sure.)
Another great idea is joining an interpersonal psychotherapy group; here you can engage with 4 to 6 other people and see your patterns play out in realtime in a supportive environment. It’s somewhat like looking in a 4-way mirror with others reflecting back how they see you and the dynamics playing out; this helps to strengthen that adult part/observing ego, that can see what is happening in the relationship and make different choices based off that factual information. You can join my group if you’d like! We would love to have you.
Anyway you cut it, if you would like to have more successful and fulfilling relationships, it all begins with looking inside yourself and becoming curious about your experience–when we can live more in our present, adult selves (and be kind and compassionate to those child/adolescent parts), the change is inevitable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Heather Coleman LCSW, is a Buddhist psychotherapist in NYC, specializing in working with Adult Children of Alcoholics, addiction issues and relational issues coming from dysfunctional family systems.
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