The following blog post is from my new book Meet Me In Hard-to-Love Places: The Heart and Science of Relationship Success. You find reviews and purchase the book here.
Chapter 1. Building a Successful Relationship
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers
within yourself that you have built against it. ~ Rumi
So how do you create a successful relationship? There are many ways to answer that question. But first, it is important to understand that my definition of a successful relationship is not the happily-ever-after fantasy version in which the “right” person makes you happy and complete. Nor is the duration of time spent together the measure of success or failure of a relationship. There are many miserable or stale relationships that last for decades, and there are many people who remain good friends after separating as a couple.
I used to think that a successful relationship was one in which things were always easy. I am not alone in thinking this. Often, when I hear others praising their relationships, they delight in describing how easy it is. Today, when I hear that a relationship is easy, I wonder if it is still in the honeymoon phase and old wounds have not yet begun surfacing, or if the attachment trauma is being avoided and the innate longing to heal and return to wholeness is being buried under a facade of happiness or under addictions, distractions, and packed-full lives.
My definition of a successful relationship includes commitment to and support for healing the attachment trauma that inevitably surfaces—“the barriers to love that you have built within yourself,” as Rumi wrote. Healing attachment trauma is the foundation of great relationships because it allows you to dismantle your barriers to love and to continue discovering the love that is looking for you, both inside yourself and with your partner. In other words, it allows you to keep falling in love with yourself and your partner, even after the honeymoon stage is over. An inspiring relationship is a rich and rewarding relationship, where lovers become more and more alive through facing their trauma and fears, and where their creativity, passion, courage and sense of purpose continue expanding and deepening. This approach to relationship is not easy, but it does allow for ongoing romance, love, creativity, and discovery, and far less arguing and fighting.
In the end, the most important relationship to succeed at is the one you have with yourself. Whether or not you are in a long-term relationship that is rich and rewarding, the questions to keep asking yourself are: Am I healing? Am I growing? Am I being true to myself? Am I following my heart? And, am I truly meeting myself in my own hard-to-love places?
The Cornerstones of Successful Relationships
There are some cornerstones to be aware of and put in place for building great relationships and healing attachment trauma. The two cornerstones I will start with come from the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB): differentiation and linking (Siegel, 2010). Differentiation and linking are important for any type of relationship: a romantic relationship, a familial relationship, a platonic relationship, the relationship between the masculine and feminine aspects of our psyches, the relationship between the different parts of your brain and body, and so on.
Differentiation refers to something being separate and different from something else. For example, although they are physically connected, the left hemisphere of the brain is separate and, in certain respects, different from the right hemisphere. Being separate and different allows for specialized functioning. The left hemisphere specializes in linguistics, logic, literal meaning, linear processing, problem solving, cause and effect, and attention to detail, among other functions. Among the specialized functions of the right hemisphere are body language, tone of voice, metaphors, painful, intense, or expansive emotions, visceral information from the body, and big-picture perspectives. When the brain is examined, some differences between right and left hemispheres are visible to the naked eye, while other differences can be identified microscopically (Chance, 2014; Hutsler & Galsuski, 2003). For instance, in some areas where language is processed, neurons (nerve cells) in the right hemisphere are more closely packed with overlapping branches than in the equivalent area of the left hemisphere. Chance (2014) suggests that these differences reflect the more global (big-picture) processing in the right hemisphere versus the more focused processing in the left hemisphere.
Linking means that something that matters is shared between differentiated parts, with the opportunity to co-create something more meaningful and wonderful than each part can create alone. For example, when the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain are linked, there is room for structure, logic, details, and completing tasks, as well as creativity, stronger emotions, empathy, intuition, and big-picture perspectives. Together the left and right hemispheres of the brain can process, integrate, and understand experiences better than either can do on its own. And together they can better contribute to a rich and meaningful life.
When such linking does not happen well and the functions of the left hemisphere dominate, life may become rigid and devoid of depth, creativity and emotions. Or it may be packed full of to-do lists or filled with all kinds of distractions and addictions. If the functions of the right hemisphere dominate, life may become chaotic and disorganized, or one may be flooded with emotions, overly focused on relationships, or full of visions and dreams but with little or no effective planning and follow-through. When the functions of the hemispheres of the brain are linked and differentiated, life has an enjoyable balance and flow. The above information on the functions of the hemispheres is based on the work of Daniel Siegel (2010), a pioneer in the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). Siegel uses the metaphor of a river to describe the hemispheres of the brain, with one shore representing rigidity, the other shore chaos, and the flow of the midstream current representing a balance between the right and left hemispheres. As a former river guide and kayaker, I relate well to this metaphor. What is important for me to include in this metaphor is that the midstream current is not always flat and easy. Sometimes there are large waves, piles of frothy water, steep drops, and even waterfalls. Sometimes life brings us challenges and upheaval. Just as navigating rapids requires paddling skills and teamwork, navigating life’s challenges requires the necessary skills, tools and support in order to maintain balance in the brain.
I Get to Be Me and You Get to Be You
In adult relationships, differentiation means that each person:
is separate and different from the other
has their own needs and emotions
has their own preferences and dreams
has their own character and truth
has their own “yes” and their own “no”
is autonomous and takes responsibility for choices and actions
is not responsible for the needs and emotions of the other.
Differentiation is an ongoing process that can last a lifetime. In other words, you can become more and more of who you truly are, realize more and more of your potential, and live an ever richer and more rewarding life with ongoing differentiation. In his book Wild Mind, Plotkin (2013) lays out a comprehensive nature-based map for ongoing individuation that I find very powerful and enlightening. Plotkin and others use the term “individuation” to describe the process of becoming your whole self. Individuation and differentiation are very closely related, if not interchangeable.
That Is Not a Part of Me
An important part of differentiation for adults involves uncovering and reclaiming the disowned parts that were not accepted or loved by their parents. The term “shadow,” first suggested by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung is often used when referring to our disowned parts, or to the place in our psyches in which we have hidden them. If disowned parts are not uncovered and reclaimed, they are projected onto others. This will inevitably interfere with differentiation and linking.
When parts are disowned they are not just buried away. They are often condemned, loathed, even hated by the individual who harbours them. When life cracks us open and our disowned parts slip out we condemn them with judgments, contempt, shame, or we deny their existence. I remember the feeling of deep shame I experienced as an adolescent when I was not able to hold back my tears. I hated my vulnerability and worked hard to hold in my emotions. Vulnerability certainly was a disowned part of my psyche.
When those around us express themselves or behave in ways that are similar to our disowned parts, we often project our condemnation of that part onto them. In my case, this meant judging my girlfriends as being needy, as being weak, or as acting as victims when they expressed vulnerable emotions and needed more support than I wanted to give. I remember once feeling repulsed when a girlfriend was particularly vulnerable. It seemed like such an awful reaction, but I couldn’t seem to help myself.
A disowned part is any aspect of yourself that was not acceptable to express when you were a child. Disowned parts include:
emotions, such as anger, sadness, excitement, passion or joy
characteristics or traits, such as competitiveness, shyness, expressiveness, playfulness, vulnerability, beauty, boldness, introversion, or extroversion
needs that were not acknowledged and supported, such as acceptance, nurturing, support, intimacy, autonomy, empathy, or self-worth (you will find a more comprehensive list of needs in Appendix A)
Take some time to reflect upon which parts of yourself you may have disowned. Were you supported to:
have strong emotions: sadness, anger, fear, shame, excitement, exuberance, confidence, joy? If not, then strong emotions might be in your shadow
be vulnerable: to cry or to be afraid and need comfort and nurturing? If not, then aspects such as vulnerable emotions, asking for help, and allowing yourself to need others might be in your shadow
be powerful: to have your “no” and your “yes” and experience autonomy and respect for your needs? If not, then speaking up for yourself and creating healthy boundaries might be in your shadow
make mistakes? If not, then exploration, experimentation, and taking risks might be in your shadow
figure things out on your own and receive support when you needed it? If not, self-motivation and discipline might be in your shadow
follow your dreams, explore, share and be appreciated for your talents? If not, then believing in and valuing yourself might be in your shadow
Disowned parts can also be aspects of our masculine or feminine sides. We all have access to masculine and feminine aspects, regardless of our sexual orientation, gender, or non-identification with gender.
Masculine aspects include:
protecting, accomplishing, competing, doing
deciding, organizing, focusing
building, leading, asserting yourself
developing intellect, mindfulness, strength, and discipline
Feminine aspects include:
nurturing and being nurtured, caring, relating, being
birthing/creating the new, opening, appreciating beauty
embodying, expressing emotions, being sensual and wild
developing intuition, compassion and empathy
When parts of us are disowned, other adaptive parts develop to keep disowned parts hidden. For example, if vulnerability is disowned, an inner perfectionist might develop, whose role is to keep vulnerability hidden by never making mistakes. Maybe an overly self-reliant and independent part develops to keep vulnerability buried through strength and toughness and pushing feelings away. Perhaps a caretaking part develops that hides vulnerability underneath looking after everyone else. In terms of our masculine and feminine sides, if either of those are hindered, judged or condemned, children adapt by over-expressing the side that was acceptable or encouraged or that they most identified with.
As children, we needed our adaptive parts to help us cope with the loss of the parts that were not loved or accepted. However, as adults, our adaptive parts tend to keep us from realizing our wholeness, expressing our full authenticity, and creating wonderful relationships.
There are different processes for reclaiming disowned parts, including powerful empathy processes in which disowned and adaptive parts are deeply heard, understood, and valued to the extent needed to integrate back into who you are and how you express yourself. Although reclaiming disowned parts can be quite challenging, it is an important part of relationship success (Chapter 7, Practice 9).
Along with projecting disowned parts, we also project onto our adult relationships the unresolved relationship dynamics we experienced with our parents. This is typically known as transference, a term originated by Sigmund Freud and expanded upon by others. For example, if your parents were not able to show you that your needs really mattered, you will likely project this onto your close adult relationships. In other words, you will see all the ways in which your partner does not show you that your needs matter, and conversely you may not notice the ways in which they do show you that your needs matter. Furthermore, when you experience your needs not being attended to by your partner, it will be particularly painful. Caretaking can be another example of transference. When parents do not have the resources to heal their attachment trauma or to work through their challenges, they sometimes turn to their children for support. If this was your reality, you may now find yourself taking care of your partner or other loved ones and disregarding your own needs. Disowned parts are often an element within the dynamic of transference. If you are interested in reading more about disowned parts, I recommend Zweig and Wolf’s book Romancing the Shadow (1997) or Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers (1998).
Sometimes people tell me that the NVC process did not work for them in a particular relationship or situation. When I hear this, I suspect that they did not embark upon the inner process of reclaiming disowned parts and healing attachment trauma—either with NVC processes or with other modalities. As previously mentioned, this was an issue for me in my past relationships.
How do you know when you are projecting disowned parts or replaying old relationship dynamics? It is hard to know for sure, but there are a number of cues to look out for. You may find you are very upset or shutting down. You may be unable to have a dialogue in which you can speak clearly about your feelings and needs. You may be unable to empathize with the other person’s feelings and needs. While projection is not limited to these signals, when you notice them occurring, you are possibly projecting your disowned parts onto the other person. As a general rule, the stronger your reaction, the more likely you are projecting.
You will know you are no longer projecting when you feel more compassion toward the other person and view the stimulus in a different light. If the stimulus was a particular behaviour, dissolving a projection may leave you still wanting to address the behaviour (although sometimes that is no longer necessary). Dissolving your projection allows you to have an empathic and connecting dialogue about the behaviour, without strong emotional and judgmental reactions.
If we don’t build a relationship with our disowned parts, they lurk below the surface of consciousness, like dragons and demons fighting us (and others) every step of the way as we try to fulfill our potential and create great relationships.
If you are strengthening your differentiation by building a relationship with your disowned parts and your partner is too, then together you can meet each other with more awareness and empathy during difficult times, instead of getting lost in projections.
Dragons and Demons
Maybe our dragons and demons are waiting for us to love the fire
Maybe our walls can come down now
Are you ready, am I ready to meet you in hard to love places
Place your bets this breath with you is the best one yet
Let’s take another
Ever ending, ever beginning, ever in the middle
Maybe our dragons and demons are waiting for us to be bold and humble
Maybe our love can melt the mortar
Are you ready, am I ready to meet me in hard to love places
I’m all in. What do we lose and what do we win
And what are the chances
Ever ending, ever beginning, ever in the middle
Are you ready, am I ready
Maybe our dragons and demons are waiting
The Link to Love
Linking in human relationships means that two people:
Care about each other
Express their care through words or actions and through repairing the relationship when connection is broken or compromised
Matter to each other
Offer and ask for support, including emotional support
Share openly and meaningfully, including expressing emotions and vulnerability, and listening with empathy and presence
Linking is also an ongoing process, an evolution in which there is ever more to discover, care about, and create together.
Attunement is particularly important for linking. Attunement refers to being aware of another’s emotional state and needs through noticing and reading verbal and nonverbal signals. Attunement is an easy and natural part of parenting in cultures with a healthy pace of life, a grounded lifestyle, a network of support, and lots of parent-child interaction. In western and westernized cultures in which the pace and demands of life seem to be ever increasing while the amount of support seems to be decreasing, attunement is not easy. In adult relationships, attunement is easier when there is harmony and warmth, but very difficult when there is stress, conflict and activation of attachment trauma.
Resonant responsiveness is a natural extension of attunement and is also important for linking. Resonant responsiveness involves responding to another person’s needs and emotions with an energy that harmonizes with that person’s emotional state: responding with tenderness when there is sadness; with an energized response when there is excitement or celebration; with strength when there is anger; and so on. The most effective way to increase your capacity to attune and resonate with another person, be that with a child or an adult, is to reclaim disowned parts and increase your window of tolerance for all emotions. For more about the window of tolerance, see Chapter 4.
A friend of mine once displayed a difficult but powerful example of resonant responsiveness. She was picking up her seven-year-old son at school. Something difficult happened for him and he exploded with anger. With her energy and physical strength she created a container in which he could push and yell and safely release his anger. The resonance came from her meeting him with energetic and physical strength that could “meet” him in his anger. Non-consciously, the right hemisphere of her son’s brain could sense her strength and be reassured that he wasn’t alone with his intense feelings. Had my friend not had a window of tolerance in that moment for his anger (it is unlikely that any parent would always feel strong or centered enough to support the expression of anger), she might have told him in one way or another that it is not OK to be angry—telling him to calm down or be nice, ordering him to his room, or using some kind of punishment or consequence. When children do not receive enough resonant support for strong feelings, including anger, those feelings get disowned and their repression will very likely cause future health and relationship problems. Of course, children need to learn healthy ways to feel and express anger and other emotions, but teaching them to shut those emotions down is not the answer.
Finding a way to balance and continually evolve differentiation and linking is an important element of the ongoing adventure of being in relationship. The more you practice, the more you can experience integrated relationships, or what is known as secure attachment in the field of Attachment Theory (Bowlby). When differentiation and linking stop or become unbalanced, problems occur. If differentiation predominates, relationships and life get stale, uninspired, and lonely because you are not learning, healing, growing, connecting, and realizing more of your potential. When linking predominates, life gets confusing and overwhelming because you are enmeshed and entangled within another’s identity, emotions, and needs. That is to say, you are projecting your disowned parts back and forth, and you are unwittingly letting your shadows lead the way.
When you continue to consciously engage in differentiating and linking, each can reinforce the other. In other words, differentiating supports better linking because you will be more resilient, more aware of your shadow, and less likely to look to your partner or others you are close to for a sense of purpose, inspiration, or wholeness. Furthermore, you will less likely get caught in unhealthy caretaking of your partner, a subconscious way to avoid the sometimes-difficult work of differentiation. Healthy linking with others gives you the bolster of being deeply known, connected, and cared about, which nurtures your ongoing differentiation. Becoming more of who you truly are will help you connect more deeply with others, and connecting more deeply with others will lift you up to become more of your true self.
Becoming more aware of your feelings and needs
Knowing that your needs matter
Speaking up for and taking care of your needs
Not taking responsibility for others’ needs
Making room for your personality, needs, feelings, desires
Following your dreams and doing more of what you love
Being aware of the other’s feelings and needs
Caring about the other’s feelings and needs
Supporting the needs of the other—offering empathy
Offering and asking for support
Making room for the other’s personality, needs, feelings, desires
Developing a meaningful connection, with room for vulnerability, intimacy, depth
Building greater capacity for differentiation and linking often requires healing attachment trauma.