Extracted from Relationship Reset by Lissy Abrahams, Published by Macmillan Australia, RRP $34.99
The Carousel is publishing excerpts by psychotherapist and relationships expert Lissy Abrahams from her best-selling book Relationship Reset – How to break the cycle of conflict and create secure and lasting love.
Lissy has spent years exploring the question, “Why do we fight most with those we love the best?” She knows how long-term conflict leaves us drained, anxious and worried for the emotional wellbeing of our families, but Lissy says it’s neither intractable nor inevitable. Conflict is caused by unconscious patterns of thinking and behaviour – unresolved feelings of fear, instability or pain – which can be consciously rewired for a healthier, happier relationship.
We look forward to sharing this excerpt and more in the coming weeks.
Relational templates in couple relationships
In any relationship, we’ll share some beliefs with our partner about how relationships should work, but we never have the same relational templates. That’s because we have lived in different homes, had different families and had completely different experiences.
It’s important for us to remember this, as we often create a fantasy that we should have similar views, expectations and behaviours in relationships. Even though it would be convenient if this were the case, this simply can’t occur, as we’re two very different beings and our life experiences have left us with different relational imprints.
Below are just a few examples of life experiences that would differ from our partner’s experiences, creating differing parental responses and contributing to our different relational templates:
- parents’ expectations or rules
- parents’ capacity to emotionally see us as a child
- sense of parental protectiveness and safety
- parents’ own relationship: conflict, capacity for repair, their ability to apologise, gestures of love
- parents’ separation or divorce
- parental experiences with extended families
- family trauma such as early parental death or illness, poverty, a sudden loss of money, or being a migrant
- own separation or divorce
- relationships with siblings and birth order.
We can see how these experiences shape our mind, our relational wiring, how we absorb and process information and experiences, and how we feel about them. These life experiences shape our ability to tolerate different viewpoints, and influence whether we listen well to our partner or find it difficult. They also influence what we react to and how, and what sets us off into fight or flight mode.
We all grow up in environments that are uniquely ours. Therefore, in our relationship we’ll always encounter differences that we’ll need to work through together. We all have different triggers and behave differently in fight or flight mode. We all have different thoughts about conflict: who was right or wrong? Who was to blame? Who started it? And we all have a different understanding of why we fight with our partner. All these beliefs and behaviours define our default expectations, rules for safety and non-negotiables in our relationship.
Our relational template will determine how we react to our partner when our expectations of each other and our relationship differ. Sometimes we can talk through differences; other times we can’t. Sometimes we can feel frightened by our partner’s actions, words or behaviour. Our relational templates are different, and the gap between them can be perceived as a threat.
Understanding our relational templates is critical if we want or need to reduce conflict and form a healthier relationship with our partner. This is what Josh is doing in therapy with me. We’re exploring his relational wiring; how rejection played out in the past with his father and how he unconsciously sets himself up to be rejected by women. In doing this, he’s liberating himself from his past relational template. By being conscious of his template, he can alter his behaviour, making healthier choices where he no longer unconsciously seeks rejection. He’s becoming free from his past.
We all need to examine how our childhood experiences persist inside of us today, and how this impacts our relationship. Only when we make these connections can we change the dynamic of our couple conflict. We, as individuals, can make our relationship better.
In the first one or two sessions with a new client or couple, I always seek some access to their relational template and wiring. I simply ask them about their relationship with their parents and what their parents’ relationship was like growing up. Not all clients had a huge event occur in their childhood like Josh did, but all clients have a relational template. I do, and now you know – so do you! In my book, I show how different each person’s template truly is, and how this can lead to couple conflict.
By understanding how we’re relationally wired, we can learn how to avoid getting into the emotional boxing ring, and if we do happen to find ourselves there, we can exit faster with fewer body blows. When we understand this, we can then understand why we really fight with our partner. This is a game-changer.
To do this we’ll look at our experiences with parents or caregivers where we felt secure and protected, as well as experiences where we felt less safe or less protected. This will offer clues about our rela- tional wiring and help us understand why and how we fight with our partner. This exercise isn’t about blaming or shaming anyone. It’s not about accusing our parents or judging them for how we were raised. This is about objectively considering what happened in the past to understand how our relational wiring impacts our adult relationship today.
I’d love for everyone to see how normal it is to have couple conflict. The truth is that couple relationships are often messy and complicated. During the dizzy joy of the honeymoon period, we often have no idea that we can end up locked in confusing and exhausting cycles of conflict. We have no idea that at the heart of these episodes is fear and a lack of safety. But this is not new – this is from our childhood, and was encoded way back then.
Safety and trust develop in childhood
We’re not born feeling safe. In fact, it’s the opposite. Just think of a newborn baby with no ability to dress itself, feed itself or even soothe itself. From the moment they’re born, they’re completely dependent on their parents for their survival. This enormous dependency means danger and threat is never far away. When we hear a hungry baby crying, it pulls at our heartstrings because their distress is so evident. They can’t go to the fridge and grab a snack. They’re literally screaming for their lives, and their nervous system is registering danger and threat.
As a baby, our sense of safety develops when we’re with parents who protect, feed, soothe and nurture us. We learn to feel safe knowing our parents are with us, attending to things we simply can’t do yet.
As children, it is written deeply into our mammalian core that it’s our parents’ job to keep us safe. That’s why children instinctively seek their parents when they’re hurt or afraid. When our parents protect us, meet our basic needs, comfort us and are available to us, we learn we can really trust them. These experiences calm our nervous system, and we feel safe.
To read more, check out Relationship Reset by Lissy Abrahams by clicking here.