Whether you’re aware of it or not, your very existence depended on relationships—and these relationships helped shape the person you are today. And some psychologists would argue that these past relationships continue to influence you in important ways (for better or worse).
How does the residue of your past relationships (even relationships that may no longer exist) continue to impact you?
Your Inner Life, Your Inner Relationships
As a child, you were continuously schooled in how to be in a relationship, and this learning occurs in several ways:
- By internalizing how others treated us (with kindness, support or hostility, neglect/indifference);
- By observing how others related to one another (how your parents, family, friends, teachers, peers interacted);
- By the consequences that occurred based upon how we related to others. (Did being compassionate bring relationship fulfillment, or did bullying and having power over others bring perceived benefits?)
All of these experiences create a relational-self – a self made up of expectations and assumptions about others (e.g., your relational-self anticipates whether others are reliable and trustworthy versus unpredictable and opportunistic); and based upon your relationship history, your relational-self might prioritize relationships (connecting with others and maintaining relationships is central in your life) versus seeing relationships as a means to other ends (using others to achieve success or status of some sort is central over the quality of these relationships).
Think of your relational-self as an internal blueprint on how to be in relationships—this relationship blueprint helps you answer the following questions:
- Can you be emotionally open, authentic and vulnerable with others?
- Do you have to “perform” and wear masks for others as a means of self-protection?
- Is creating some level of emotional distance your preferred way of relating to others?
- Is emotional intimacy desired, or is self-sufficiency the ideal to be reached?
Relationship Help: Does Your Relationship Blueprint Need Updating?
The good news is that our relationship blueprints can be changed if needed. You have the power to change your blueprint if, for some reason, it no longer works for you and does not fit your marriage/relationship.
For instance, if you’ve learned growing up that others cannot be relied upon to meet your emotional needs (in this instance your internal blueprint might read something like: whenever you’re emotionally vulnerable with others, you get hurt and no one seems to care), you might find that you keep others at arm’s length as a means of self-protection. While this distance may give you a sense of security, you might also feel lonely and still desire emotional closeness with others (your spouse, partner, friends).
In these instances, you could either consciously focus on all the ways in which your partner’s behavior confirms your old blueprint (confirming that emotional distance is best), or you could deliberately focus on all the ways in which your partner’s behavior contradicts your old relationship blueprint (for instance, s/he never intentionally tries to hurt you; while not perfect, s/he is loving and respectful toward you). By highlighting these positive-loving behaviors, you would slowly update your relationship blueprint to be more in line with the current reality of your marriage or relationship.
Changing outdated relationship blueprints is challenging because our old relationship blueprints have the tendency to direct our attention mainly to behaviors that confirm the blueprint. So if your relationship blueprint is built upon the assumptions that others are self-serving, you are more likely to be vigilant toward and highlight any perceived selfishness in your partner rather than all the times s/he is emotionally generous and giving with you. For this reason, your partner’s caring and generous behaviors may go undetected and not impact you unless you make the conscious effort to mentally highlight these behaviors.
Does your relationship blueprint need updating?
If so, list all the ways in which your spouse’s/partner’s behavior disproves any old assumptions that continue to block emotional intimacy and openness. Remember, you will have to continuously focus on any behaviors that indicate your blueprint is outdated.
Here’s to a stronger marriage/relationship!
Dr. Rich Nicastro