A Choose Your Own Adventure Guide to Building Relationships
Discover the challenges you may face in your intimate relationships.
Posted June 23, 2017
So you want to build an intimate relationship or maybe discover why and how you built the one you're currently in. We’re going to walk through the process step-by-step, and like the old Choose Your Adventure books, there are choices and decisions to make along the way.
Ready? Here we go!
Step 1: Evaluate your parents' relationship
I know what you’re thinking: Are you going all Freud on me? No. But this is important because your parents’ relationship is, like it or not, a template for your own. You cannot leave your childhood without some impression that you are consciously or unconsciously responding to.
Pick One: My parents’ relationship was: a) good b) bad
I'm pushing you to pick one or the other because as a child that is probably how you thought. If good, what were the three most positive aspects of it—e.g., they were affectionate, spent time as couple, did a lot as family, etc.?
If bad, what were the three most negative aspects of it—e.g., they fought a lot, they drank too much, they weren’t affectionate, etc.?
What’s important about this:
If you believed that your parents had a good relationship you are apt to want to recreate it. The positive aspects can become the goals and expectations you most desire.
That said, what can often happen is that you march ahead and do all the right stuff in your own relationship but don’t feel as good as they seemed—there is boredom or tension or disconnection. The reason is that your impression is that of a child—black or white, simple... and incomplete.
What you didn’t know and couldn’t know are other aspects of their relationship that you didn’t see—arguments that you never heard when you did sleepovers, or that fact that your mom had an affair when you were in middle school, or your dad’s traveling out of town for several years was partly to get out of town and out of contact to create some distance. The undertows, which you were unaware of, in their lives can contaminate your own.
And if their relationship was bad, these can become your fears, what you likely want to avoid in your own relationship. If your parents argued too much, your instinct is to not argue and find a partner who doesn't argue; if they drank too much, you may want to not drink or clearly not drink so much and find a partner who does the same.
The problem here is, like those of positives, your impression is simple and incomplete. In your efforts to avoid their problems, there is a danger you may now swing too far towards the opposite direction. That may seem to work, but often it really doesn’t quite work. You hold back your anger, but then feel depressed, or you use distance to avoid conflict; you don’t drink but you're acting much like a dry drunk. The pulls of their relationship linger because you don’t and couldn't understand the subtleties, the problems under the problems that they were struggling with.
What do you see as your parents’ biggest mistake—e.g. that they got divorced or didn’t manage money or were abusive towards the children, etc.?
No big mistake may come to mind. But if one does, this can easily become your Big Fear, the huge emotional pothole that you go out of your way and spend considerable energy and resources trying to avoid.
Step 2: Evaluate your parents
Okay, maybe we’re going a bit Freudy on this one. The rationale is the same as the other—you cannot not bounce off of your parents’ personalities.
Write down the three most positive qualities or behaviors of your mom.
(I realize we’re talking in mom and pop terms here, but no stereotypical bias implied; this could also be grandparents who raised you or if your parents were gay, same sexed parents—fill in the questions as you view them.)
Write down the three most negative qualities or behaviors of your mom.
Write down the three most positive qualities or behaviors of your dad.
Write down the three most negative qualities or behaviors of your dad.
Now out of these six possibilities, pick the one emotionally strongest positive quality and the one strongest negative quality that stand out to you.
The positive quality can become what you most want to recreate in yourself and/or desire in a partner.
The negative quality is the one you most want to avoid seeing in yourself or avoid having in a partner.
Unfortunately, the negative quality can carry more weight. As brain and developmental experts tell us, we are naturally oriented towards seeing the negative. This was a survival mechanism that was necessary to have to avoid all the dangers that our prehistoric ancestors had to face. They (and now we) became wired to be hyperalert to what bad things could happen.
These negative qualities become the source of our own emotional wounds, which in turn become our emotional Achilles Heal (see my article on Why we tolerate what we hate for more info on this). Usually these wounds are one of five common ones: being sensitive to criticism, control, not being appreciated, not being heard, not getting enough attention.
While these emotional wounds can tell us what we often need most in our relationships—not being criticized, being appreciated, etc.—the danger here is that again we can over-compensate. In order to avoid not feeling controlled, for example, you may pick someone who is relatively passive, or in order to get a lot of attention, be drawn to someone who is actually very dependent on you—all creating new problems over time.
You also may be seduced. What this means is that you may find someone who seems to provide what you need, e.g., being attentive and kind, but has a dark side, where later you discover that she does, in fact, have a raging temper, or who you thought was "responsible" actually turns out to be fairly controlling.
The problem with emotional wounds is that you are likely to tolerate this wounding behavior beyond the point where someone else not so sensitive to them would not. One reason is that you see the current behavior as “not quite as bad” as that of your parent—she drinks, but not as much as your dad did, or is critical, but not abusively so like your parent was.
But the other reason is that the triggering of your emotional wound also pushes you into magical thinking—that if you just do it right this time—figure out what to do and not do, break the code, dance the right steps—the other person will stop this negative behavior and give you what you want. You're sucked back into your childhood and most of time feeling like a child. No matter how hard you try, you likely can’t figure the code to make it right because it is magical thinking and you’re operating out of your child brain.
Finally, if you were abandoned by a parent—because your parents divorced and one parent dropped the relationship, or died, was always away, or simply was preoccupied with his or her own problems and neglected you, it’s easy to idealize this parent. The problem here is that any real person in your life now will not ever be able to match your idealization. You will likely be chronically disappointed and your partner will feel frustrated and discouraged, often triggering his or her own emotional wound.
Step 3: How do your cope with conflict?
Four choices here: a) withdraw b) accommodate c) get angry d) be assertive and solve the problem.
Here we get into the way coping styles of you and your partner combine. Here are the possible combinations and outcomes:
Withdraw / withdraw: two turtles who retreat into their shells: the outcome here is that problems are never discussed and solved.
Withdraw / accommodate: while the accommodating person is trying to be...accommodating, there is nothing there from the other side to provide traction. Honest conversations never happen and problems go unsolved.
Withdraw / anger: being the one filling up the room, the angry person generally gets his way; the withdrawn person feels unsafe.
Withdraw / assertive: the assertive person may get his way at first, but being also more emotionally sensitive, he can with patience help draw the withdrawn person out, helping the other to feel safe and, by being a good role model, eventually begin to help the partner speak up.
Accommodate / accommodate: again, a rudderless ship. The danger here is everything decision is hyper-compromised for fear of creating conflict. Over time life begins to feel watered down as each partner's true wants and desires are forever pushed to the side.
Accommodate / anger: accommodating person feels unsafe, anger once again is likely to rule.
Anger / assertive: By holding to her ground without getting angry, the assertive person has a voice. She can also push back on the angry person to manage his anger and take responsibility for and work to control it, rather than blaming and bullying.
Assertive / assertive: marriage made in heaven. Both partners are able to say what they want; both can compromise without over-compromising; problems can be solved.
Step 4: How to do cope with anxiety?
Three choices: a) approach b) avoid c) bind
Coping with anxiety is the cousin to coping with conflict, but the focus here is less on problems and more about internal reactions.
Approachers can feel anxious, but they have learned that anxiety is part and parcel of learning something new or solving a problem. Once the skill is learned, the problem solved, the anxiety goes away. This allows them to move forward; they are often creative.
Avoiders, in contrast, get overwhelmed by the feeling of anxiety itself and want to get rid of it—by avoiding / procrastinating about the situation, killing the feeling through addiction or drugs, or having someone take over the problem.
Unlike the other two, binders don’t feel anxious only because they are rigid and routinized. As long as they stay in their comfort zones they have no anxiety, and they always do their best to stay in their comfort zones.
As with conflict, what’s important is the mix in relationships. Again, the possible combinations and results:
Approach / approach: another marriage made in heaven. Both able to solve problems together, both creative.
Approach / avoid: Avoiders like pairing up with the approachers because they can take over problems. Over time the approacher can be a role-model who helps the avoider learn to cope better and become an approacher himself.
Approach / bind: The approacher gets frustrated and feels stifled by the binder’s rigidity. The binder feels that the approacher is fool-hardy and always making life difficult with reckless behavior. They are likely to fall apart.
Avoid / avoid: Here the couple goes around in circles as they both try to avoid anxiety and continually issues that create it. Over time they may form protection pacts with each helping the other avoid the other’s sensitive triggers in social situations, or they unite together against a hostile, frightening world. Problems are rarely solved.
Avoid / bind: Avoiders initially loves binders because they are in control and manage the world. But over time the avoiders may resent the binders’ control, while the binders may get tired of the avoiders’ emotional drama.
Bind / bind: A relationship that can work as long as each stays within his or her own comfort zone. From the outside the relationship can seem very sterile and disconnected.
Step 5: But wait there’s more…. Change
Regardless of the foundation you build from the previous four steps, the final ingredient is change. Like or not (except maybe for binders) all of this can change. Why? Because people do grow, initial needs do get filled, partners get fed up being treated the way they are being treated, they both feel stifled by the box of a life and relationship that they have built. This is the basis for the infamous 7-year itch, the midlife crisis.
How do you cope with change?
Three choices: a) work through, accommodate, adapt b) ignore / distract c) leave, break apart
Working through means you acknowledge the change or need for change, discuss, develop a new plan and approach. Ignore is exactly that, pushing it to the side until someone explodes or collapses. The close cousin to ignoring is to distract from the issue—get a new job, have more kids, buy a boat and go out on the lake every weekend.
Leave means you skip the other two options and just move on to another relationship rather than dealing with the problems in the current one. This plan works for a while until nasty change rears its head once again and you have to once again make a choice.
Whew! Okay, we’re done. Time to tally up your results:
What are your fears? What are your goals, your vision of a good relationship?
What do you need to do to not overcompensate for them and / or overcome them?
What do you need most from yourself, your life, a partner?
What is your emotional wound, what is that you are most sensitive to in a relationship? What are you in danger of tolerating in a negative way?
How do you deal with conflict, with anxiety? How can you learn to manage these better?
The aim here is not make you feel depressed about you or your past, but instead to help you be more aware of what you have learned in your past, recognize what you are sensitive to in both positive and negative ways, understand what gets in your way in solving problems and adapting to change. Once armed with such awareness comes choices, real choicest, about how to act differently, rather than going on default mode, recreating your parents’ lives and relationship, or swinging too far in the opposite direction and still missing the mark. With awareness you can begin to see what skills you need to develop to overcome your unique challenges.
The healthier middle ground through all this yin yang is clear: be assertive; approach problems and anxiety; tolerate conflict; let others know what you need and what you are sensitive to, as well as understand their needs and sensitivities; be realistic in your expectations of yourself and others.
That’s it....undoubtedly feeling difficult at times but doable.
You are, after all, the final architect of your life and relationships.