Habitual relationship patterns that no longer serve you
When we interact with people, we make sense of the interactions using our own unique relational lens. Our relational lens or template is created from past experiences with others, specifically our caregivers. As babies, we quickly develop expectations of others in relation to ourselves, setting us on a path of habitual relationship patterns. Unless you’re aware of your primary relational template (what therapists call “attachment style” ), your childhood experiences with caregivers will predict the type of relational experiences you’ll have as an adult. This can be a dreaded realization for people who grew up in difficult family environments and vowed never to turn out like their father or mother.
I was recently reminded of the tenderness of attachment when I watched a clip of turtle hatchlings on the television series Planet Earth II. At birth, newly hatched turtles have the instinct to crawl toward the sea by following the moonlight’s glow on the water. However, in this particular clip, most of the hatchlings confused man-made city lights for the moon. As one would predict, the confused turtles crawled in the opposite direction toward the city. Audience members, such as myself, watched in horror as these turtles headed toward oncoming traffic and drains. In a similar way, human babies are born with certain hardwired instincts such as seeking engagement and connection — the guiding light of our parents.
The nuances of attachment looks uniquely different for everyone.
That said, there are some overall patterns that psychologists have noticed in babies and their caregivers. Some people, internalizing the natural moonlight, crawl towards the sea where they experience an overall sense of security and safety. Others, due to a number of environmental factors such as trauma or adverse communications styles passed down through generations, find themselves heading towards oncoming traffic, confused by what safety truly looks and feels like.
Depending on what type of guiding light you received, you might find yourself as the turtle in the sea, riding the natural ups and downs of life that all people experience. Or you might be the turtle navigating the city, feeling at any moment you will be crushed by a car tire. If you’re the city turtle, you might navigate your relationships and life with hypervigilance, always desiring what the moonlight can provide, but aimlessly wandering to your next streetlight still cold and scared. If you find yourself disappointed with yet another Tinder date, devastated by yet another promising relationship that went south quickly, or fighting yet again with a partner for ignoring something important to you, then you have a first look at the complications of attachment.
Relationships are our sea
Earlier in this post, I wrote about possible factors, such as minimizing feelings and being disconnected from your body, that can contribute to feelings of depression. Many therapists notice that attachment and relational experiences are a sort of underlying piece to why we numb out of our bodies and minimize our pain. The truth is that relationships are our sea. It provides a sense of safety for us in life, so when we find it difficult to feel truly intimate with another person, or to feel like we actually belong in a crowded room, our mental health will suffer. Anxiety and depression can sometimes be the signals that it’s time to reflect on our relational patterns, expectations and boundaries.
Although you can read about attachment theory or styles for days, the best way to understand the nuances of your own attachment style is through — yes, you guessed it — mindfully relating to someone! Relational conflicts are the natural byproduct of two people (or three+) trying to make sense of reality using their own relational templates. It’s like imagining two different family systems, in all their complexities, coming together to form a new system (a new relationship). As you can imagine, this process gets very messy and challenging to navigate, which is one reason why most therapists disclose in the first session that “things can feel worse before they feel better.”
To build awareness of your habitual relational patterns, and that of your partner, interact with a therapist that understands the nuances of attachment theory and object relations. The most informed relational therapists have navigated their own relational patterns and attachment through personal therapy. The therapeutic process is designed to hold the complexity and messiness of humans relating through a set structure that keeps both therapist and client safe. Explaining this design can take up a whole other blog post. But the best way to envision it for now is by revisiting our turtle friends. Going against the usual “do not disturb” rules that wildlife videographers adhere to, the Planet Earth crew intervened with the city-bound turtles. A therapist functions in a similar way for a client, by being the hand that can pick you up and point you safely toward the moonlight.
About the Author
Emily Stuart is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist (aMFT)at Well Clinic in San Francisco. In Emily’s words, “It is my goal as a therapist to help you grow the space between stimulus and response to feel calmer and enlivened in your relationships and work. Navigating this space can be tricky, challenging and also expansive and playful.”