As I’m about to train students in Transactional Analysis skills for coaches next weekend, I’m exploring the drama triangle dynamic in depth at the moment. I’m quite interested by the work of Barry and Janae Weinhold on codependency, where they explore the early childhood dynamics’s impact on our current relationships. One of their thoughts around the drama triangle is that often parents project onto their children their own unmet needs. Perhaps the child will be able to fulfil a destiny they themselves haven’t managed to develop ; Perhaps the child will unconsciously play the other parent’s role and give them the love and attention they crave ; or perhaps the child will meet their need for finding meaning in life. And the parents unconsciously will raise the child to meet those needs rather than encouraging him to develop his own life, his own rhythm and meet his own needs.
What is interesting in that perspective, as the Weinhold describe, is that in that process the parents will thus fail to see the child as she is: an independent, complex and unique human being who has her own destiny and aspirations. And immediately that made me think of relationships.
What I often observe in romantic relationships is how often we unconsciously project onto our significant other, and how this person becomes the recipient of our unconscious needs. How we turn to the other person to meet our needs for reassurance, or validation or acceptance. And even though those needs sound reasonable, often they trigger behaviours and responses that are quite ineffective. Over time you may see your partner become needy or controlling, or defensive and closing down ; you may notice that the lovely person you initially fell in love with becomes bitter, critical or judgmental over time. How do we get into those patterns?
It seems that initially when we enter a relationship, we come from the position of the Adult ego state (in TA terms). We’re empowered, we’re fully taking care of our needs, we take responsibility for ourselves and we are looking for a partner to share our journey. But over time, the closeness and intimacy that emerges in the relationship seem to be triggering old unconscious memories and we start to make parallels between how we interact with our lover and how we used to interact with the other people we had a strong attachment with: our parental figures.
It is a completely natural process and that’s why relationships can be so complex. They’re healing and challenging at the same time as we unconsciously re-experience old patterns and interactions. That brings up unhealed wounds, unresolved conflicts and put our old unmet needs in the spotlight. Sometimes the relationship heals them as we spontaneously discover new ways to respond. But a lot of the time it actually creates more challenges in relationships when we unconsciously try to make our partner meet those needs and heal those wounds. And sometimes, in the process, like those parents the Weinholds describe, our partner becomes a mean to heal our past, rather than an individual person with their own needs, their dreams and their individual path.
It sounds like in order to have a healthy mature relationship, we need to discover, explore and sort out as much as possible our unmet needs that stem from childhood. We need to identify the wounds and heal them ourselves through a self-development or therapeutic journey. So we are able to claim our past, meet our own needs and emotionally be complete and as scar-free as possible – and then stay in the adult in our relationship and avoid the common dysfunctional dynamics.
I used to be in a relationship with someone I didn’t trust. Because of both our past, I never managed to feel completely secure and was constantly anxious that he would cheat on me. I do recognise I have a vulnerability on that side, but at the time instead of owning my fragility and taking responsibility to heal it myself, I turned to him to reassure me. But of course he couldn’t do this – because of his past, but also because I was asking for an impossible task: for him to heal my past wounds on which of course, he had no impact as he wasn’t there! So I became more and more controlling and anxious, asking him to reassure me all the time – he became the person who was supposed to be here for me – instead of having the freedom to just be himself. I didn’t see him any longer as an individual with his own personality and needs, I ended up only seeing him as the mean to my reassurance. And of course, that didn’t work.
In hindsight I now recognise that I wasn’t taking ownership for my own “stuff”. I was trying to change him, to control him. My approach today is completely different. When I’m being triggered by a situation, I immediately turn to myself and ask myself what it reflects in me, where the vulnerability is, what open wound it triggers. And I take responsibility and address it with various therapeutic tools. It’s not always easy nor successful, I must admit, but at least that’s what I strive to become: an emotionally mature responsible Adult.
And that’s where I’m slightly puzzled. So I’ve discovered that we can’t expect our partner to meet those old needs and heal those wounds that belong to us and are our responsibility. But surely in a relationship there is a beautiful part that is about meeting each other’s needs, right? So my question is: what needs? where is the balance?
I have met a lot of people who have taken the opposite approach. They close down and don’t allow any of their needs to be met by others. That’s what codependency experts call “counter-dependents”. I have friends who tell me they don’t need anyone, they certainly don’t need a relationship, they can meet their needs by themselves. Yet I see their vulnerability, I see their wounds and I’m wondering if they’re just protecting themselves…
So in a healthy compromise – what experts call inter-dependency – how do you differentiate which needs should be met by you and which ones are healthy to bring in the relationship and can be met by your partner to enhance intimacy?
No matter how much I like to have answers, I suspect there isn’t an easy one to this dilemna 🙂 There isn’t a formula – I’ve been looking for it endlessly! but rather a more complex approach. I suspect it has to do with unmet childhood needs and Adult needs. Perhaps a healthy relationship meets the needs we have as Adults, that don’t cover up for past unfinished business. Such as closeness, touch, intimacy and emotionally mature Love ; versus immature needs such as validation, self-esteem and affirmation. Even though we do need that as adults as well!
So how do we draw the line?! Any thoughts?
4 thoughts on “What’s the secret to happy relationships?”
I share your intrigue around these complex questions and I fear that there has often been an unbalanced focus on codependency with some neglect of its opposite.
Currently my thinking around this leads me to consider the many other factors that influence behavioural adaptations, besides childhood history. Relational issues stemming from needs going unmet can surely be created at any point along the stages of life. Since wounds are caused by people to people, so it makes sense that they can also be healed by people – either by the person who caused them, or others. Surely a strong negative experience needs a strong positive to neutralise it, wherever it all comes from. If both participants have awareness and are well informed, is it too idealistic to think that they can form a partnership which promotes healing alongside its other purpose? I think that seeing too much through the lens of codependency theory puts us at risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by failing to provide each other with necessary and appropriate support during difficult times. If we exacerbate issues and needs rather than ameliorate them, in effect we risk creating the very thing we are trying to avoid.
The other thing about needs is that they are not necessarily static. Our needs can change as we navigate the rigours and flow of life. It seems particularly harsh to create or entrench vulnerabilities by denying assistance at times of increased need, not to mention the additional pain it might cause to someone who usually meets a good deal of their needs themselves in a reasonably healthy, mature way.
Hey Sara thanks for sharing your thoughts! I totally agree with you on the healing power of relationships, and that’s where my question comes from: where do you draw the line between what’s healthy to heal within a mature partnership, and what needs to be healed separately?!x
Peggy, I could have kept on writing on that subject, and something I thought but didn’t get around to writing is this…
Perhaps the mark of a mature partnership is one where both people jointly negotiate between themselves what is acceptable to bring into the relationship for healing and what will remain an individual effort. Surely what is possible is only limited by the individuals concerned – their understanding, awareness and capacities to communicate, negotiate fairly and kindly, learn from and be guided by each other, i.e. first rate, dynamic teamwork?
Yep, I like that!! It takes 2 mature aware people indeed though…tough!! x