Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Relationship Shadow

I've been thinking for a few days now that beyond the shadow concerns of each individual in a relationship that there is also a relationship shadow.

I'm not quite sure about any of this, I'm just thinking out loud.

When a relationship is new and exciting, we do not see the shadow part of it at all, but it is still there, growing and developing in the darkness. All the things that bring two people together feel wonderful and healthy. We tend not to see any of the less desirable qualities in our partner or ourselves. We think -- or try to convince ourselves -- that it will always be this way.

Hal and Sidra Stone talk about bonding patterns in relationships, the inner selves that interact to bring couples together. I've posted on this in the past.

The authors look at relationships through what seems, at first glance, to be a very limited and limiting filter. They believe that all relationships -- romantic, sibling, parent/child, friendship, and so on -- can be reduced to a simple diagram. I tried to find it on the web to include it here, but was unsuccessful. So I will just recreate it as best I can and quote their brief introduction to the topic.

Mother . . . . .[the woman]. . . . Daughter

Son . . . . . . . . [the man] . . . . . . Father

This is their diagram, sort of. Here is their explanation:

In this diagram we see the basic male-female bonding pattern. The mother side of the woman is bonded to the son side of the man (the M-S axis), and the father side of the man is bonded to the daughter side of the woman (the F-D axis). This diagram illustrates the basic bonding pattern that exists in all male and female relationships before the development of any kind of awareness. It is a normal and natural process. It cannot be eliminated, nor would eliminating it be desirable; these bonding patterns contain much life and vitality. They often provide warmth and nurturing. The problem is that without awareness they are very likely to turn negative. In addition, the two people miss what is possible in the interaction of two aware egos.

These bonding patterns are part of the shadow of all relationships, although the Stones never really use that term. If we are not aware of how we are seeking to get our needs met, and if we continue to live these bonding patterns throughout the relationship, then the healthy bonding that brings two people together can become negative.

Here is a little more from the first chapter of their book:

To summarize what we have so far discussed, we refer to this way of being locked into each other in a relationship as a negative bonding pattern. The term "bonding patterns" in relationship refers specifically to the activation of parent/child patterns of interaction between two people. These are normal and natural configurations that exist in all relationships. This bonding can develop between any two people, whether they be male/female, male/male, or female/female. The catalyst for all negative bonding patterns is the activation of the disowned vulnerability in the two people. ... The fuel for these bonding patterns can generally be found in the mutuality of the disowned selves that exists between two people. This keeps the bonding pattern burning bright and strong.

To analyze a negative bonding pattern in a relationship, one looks for the following:

1. What was the ignition point or catalyst? How was the vulnerability of the two people activated? Where are they feeling insecure, overwhelmed, or otherwise vulnerable?

2. What are the disowned selves that each carries for the other? What is the fuel that keeps the fires burning?

3. What are the actual selves that are involved in the bonding, i.e., the mother daughter selves in the woman, and the father and son selves in the man?

For an explanation of primary and disowned selves, please see this post from last April.

The relationship shadow, as I am now conceiving of it, consists in these negative bonding patterns. Even more to the point, the relationship shadow consists of the interaction of our disowned selves.

Part of what draws us to a partner is that s/he contains or represents some element of ourselves that we have disowned. These are parts of our personal shadow, elements of our own psyches (and often distinct subpersonalities) that we do not own and have not integrated into our self concept. Our psyches are drawn to this energy in the other person and if everything else is right (attraction, compatibility, emotion, and so on), then we fall in love.

This is as it should be.

Part of the work of relationships is learning to see these disowned selves in the other person so that we may reclaim them. We most often become aware of them when conflict comes up. Because disowned selves are necessarily shadow elements, we have projected them onto our partner. Our projections have the unique ability to make us crazy when we see them in others, even when they are not negative elements of ourselves.

Much of our conflict in relationships, according to the Stones, is a result of our disowned selves interacting -- and this includes the father-daughter, mother-son bonding patterns. For example, if my internalized father becomes distant when my partner's inner daughter is acting needy, then there will be conflict. If my inner child is being selfish and her inner mother were to respond by being critical, there would be conflict. Often, this would set off a cascade of different selves acting up, with each partner switching roles quickly and fluidly.

The interaction of subpersonalities (selves) within each partner -- the bonding patterns that most often occur behind the scenes -- is what I am thinking of as the relationship shadow.

But we are not doomed to live with this for the duration of our relationships. With a little bit of work, we can become aware of our subpersonalities and those we have disowned and projected onto our partner. The Stones' book, Embracing Each Other, is a great place to begin. Once we know to what look for, we can begin to see negative bonding patterns as they arise in a conflict and stop the process before it escalates.

If we can disidentify with our subpersonalities in a conflict, we can short-circuit the negative bonding patterns and expose the relationship shadow to the light of day.


Anonymous said...

Bill, I'm sorry I missed this when it was posted. More good stuff. This model seems similar to Harville Hendrix' Imago model (Imago Therapy). He says we fall in love to complete what we didn't get to complete when we were children. In other words, if my parents lacked intimacy in their relationship, I will pick someone with whom it's difficult to be intimate with,, hoping I can complete what was missing in my childhood. The problem is, that our partners are also choosing us for their own completions, and unless we know what's going on, we don't get what we want. In Imago Therapy, each partner agrees to give the other what they want as an act of love (comapssion, empathy), even if it's uncomfortable, so resolution can be found.


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Esther Friedman said...

I think you've got some serious good stuff on your blog. How do I join to keep updated? Thanks Esther

william harryman said...

Hi Esther,

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thanks for your interest