Relationships are not easy. They can often be messy and hurtful, and at the same time fulfilling, deep, and meaningful. Human beings are complex creatures, so the dynamics between two or more of them can get much more complicated. Because of this, there is no one single way to do relationships "right." This is true for all our relationships - with our parents, siblings, relatives, friends, spouses, lovers, roommates, classmates, coworkers, bosses, and strangers. "Relationship issues" are usually understood as problems in a couple or another romantic configuration. "Relational challenges" refer to difficulties, issues, or problems that are present in the way we relate to others, taking "relationships" in a broad sense.
Because there are many types of relationships, which might trigger and connect with different parts of ourselves, there is a wide range of issues that could be considered "relational challenges." They might include experiences such as anxiety in social situations, inability to feel vulnerable in intimate relationships, or challenges setting boundaries with others. How we feel about our relationships has a great impact on how we feel about ourselves. In fact, in the first years of our lives we depended on relationships to learn how to understand and love ourselves
We are wired for relationships
We come to this world in a very vulnerable state, completely depending on others to survive. Connecting and feeling connected with others is a biological imperative as it ensure our survival. Moreover, we seek attachment and need others not only to ensure our physical survival, but for our emotional and emotional well-being.
One of the most important jobs our parents have during our childhood, is helping us make sense of our internal and external world. No human being is born knowing what is anger, sadness, pain, love, or joy. It is through the reactions from our parents and other caregivers that we start understanding our own thoughts and emotions and, in doing that, we start developing a sense of who we are. As child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said several decades ago: "the precursor of the mirror is the mother's face."
It is in these earlier relationships that we first learn about ourselves, about others, and about what it means to be in relationship. For example, about ourselves we might learn to feel whether we are lovable, deserving, worthwhile. About others, whether they can be trusted, will accept our feelings, or soothe us when we are in distressed. About relationships, we might learn to believe that our needs can be expressed and fulfilled, that a close relationship can survive confrontation, or that can have our own ideas and still be loved.
What can go wrong?
Relationships are complicated and challenges are bound to occur. There is no such thing as a perfect relationship; the question is not so much how to avoid conflict and rupture, but how to work through healing and repair. That said, usually the issues we are dealing with as adults are rooted in our earlier relationships, those we had with our family of origin. That period of time played, for better or worse, a fundamental role in shaping who we became, in defining our personality, and how we relate to others.
Did we grew up in an environment that respected our boundaries? Were we allowed to have our own feelings and express them even if they were uncomfortable for the adults around us? Did we receive the help we needed to make sense of our own thoughts and emotions? Did we feel seen, heard, accepted, and understood by the people we depended on? Did we feel safe? What did we learn about love, intimacy, and relationships, from what we saw and experienced at home?
The answer to these questions are complex and the result of a number of variables. One important dimension to take into account is the balance we experienced from our parents between being close enough that they could be responsive and supportive, and far enough that they allowed us to become independent and autonomous. For many people, their upbringing experienced was marked by neglect or enmeshment. Their caregivers were physically or emotionally absent, or had poor boundaries. These experiences can be traumatic in that they may have been experienced as overwhelming.
As a result, they developed an insecure attachment to others, in which they would feel very anxious about the stability of relationships, or dismissive of their importance and their own feelings. We internalize others and the relationships we had with them, and those internalized figures may continue to impact (consciously or not) on how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others. The situation gets more complicated when there is any form of abuse or any challenging environmental circumstances. Adverse experiences during childhood have a negative impact on our development and on our psychological, emotional, and physical well-being.
There are multiple challenges
The challenges that people deal with as a result of these experiences can be very diverse. We can find it difficult to set boundaries, express our needs, engage in confrontation, trust, be vulnerable, express or receive love. We might feel lonely even when we are not alone, find ourselves easily bored or disenchanted, or depend on others' validation to feel worthy. Often we repeat patterns, sometimes inadvertently, such us trying manage or control others, engaging in toxic relationships, or becoming other people's caretakers.
Many times the thing we want is the thing we fear. We want to be loved, but feel uncomfortable when someone expresses love and care for us. We may long for intimacy and connection, yet at the same time we are anxious or terrified of letting other people in.
Some of these patterns and issues have a developmental origin, and can be traced back to our early relationships and attachments. Our entire personality is partially developed and organized as a result of the experiences we had in early relationships. These outcomes are "normal" consequences of experiences that were hurtful or scary, of wounds that remained open. In fact, those challenges may have a response to adapt to our environment or protect ourselves from it. For example, someone might become very controlling as a reaction to deep-seated insecurities that were created by an unresponsive parent. Or someone else may feel easily resentful for not having a voice, because he was never allowed to claim it.
We tend to repeat the experiences we haven't really processed or worked through, whether that means mourning a loss, recognizing a wish or a longing, or connecting with feelings of anger or pain. The less aware we are of how our past still lives with us, of how we internalized our most important relationships, the more likely we are to repeat patterns and to project those internalized images onto others.
Traumatic relationships are not reserved to what happened during our childhood. Our experiences as adults can also have a great impact. Experiencing betrayal, disappointment, or heartbreak can also have a deep impact on ourselves and our relationships. For example, perhaps being betrayed by a romantic or business partner made it almost impossible to trust someone else again. However, the foundation for our ability to deal with these situations, including the way in which we see ourselves and others, was created during our first several years of life. The experiences that followed were built on top of this foundation. This is particularly true if we have spent a long time without allowing ourselves to acknowledge, feel, and process losses, longings, wounds, fears, sadness, and other feelings too difficult to look in the eye.
How we relate to ourselves matters
Are we harsh and judgmental of our actions? Do we constantly put ourselves down? Does it feel like even minor things make us doubt of our abilities or self-worth? Do we feel we are terrible and, if others really knew us, they would run away? Do we trust our own feelings and our own abilities? Do we believe that our needs are valid and deserve to be met?
A very important component of how we relate to others, whether they are loved ones, friends, colleagues, or strangers, is how we relate to ourselves. The interactions and relationships that we experienced with our caregivers and other important people in our life play a big role in the development of our sense of self, in how we learn who we are, and how to think about and feel toward ourselves. Those relationships can also impact
What can be done?
Sometimes, people engage in couples or family therapy to give an opportunity for all the parties involved to process the dynamics of their relationship. However, working through relational challenges does not necessarily require this set up. It is hard to work through our relationship with others without working through the relationship we have with ourselves.
This work usually involves gaining awareness, tolerance, acceptance and love for feelings, thoughts, conflicts, wishes, and parts of ourselves that we learned to hide or to hate. The goal is to expand our awareness and our capacity to understand who we are -to recognize and accept all parts of ourselves- and where we are coming from. This will allow us to find new ways to feel and think about ourselves and, in that way, to find new ways of being and relating to others.
As mentioned above, relational wounds and trauma during adulthood can also have a significant impact in all our relationships. By the same token, new relationships can also contribute to healing, reparation, and growth. Partners and friends can offer us a different relational experience if we are open to receive it and willing to work on our unresolved or unprocessed issues.
The relationship with a therapist can be an very important vehicle to do this work. When it comes to relational challenges, the power of therapy comes from seeing it as an encounter between two human beings. It is a type of relationship like no other. Therapy offers the opportunity to recognize and examine the relational patterns you engage in, as they inevitably -if you allow enough time- emerge in the therapeutic relationship. It creates the space to explore the reactions you may have toward yourself and your therapist and to work through moments of closeness and disconnection. We cannot change the past, but you can change the relationship they have with it, by having the opportunity to experience self-awareness, recognition, acceptance, trust, and freedom.