Relationship Counselling

From maternal bond to life partners, the shape your adult relationships take are formed early on

The first and most fundamental relationship is between ourselves as a baby and our mother. The quality of this is unique and endures in our unconsciously remembered feelings. It influences all our future relationships and sets a template for the way we manage the rest of our life.

A child’s basic needs

Nature has biologically primed women to feel maternal love which most do, leading them to build a warm loving relationship with their child. But sometimes circumstances militate against this. Think of mothers who are so depressed that they put their own survival needs before their child’s, or children born of rape, or in extreme poverty, or in a family where a woman already has many children born closely together and is overwhelmed by fatigue and responsibility. The environment a child is born into, as well as his genetic predisposition, sows the seeds of his future life.

From the child’s point of view he has basic needs (relief of physical or emotional discomfort plus delight and affirmation of his uniqueness) which need attention whether by his mother or some other consistent, predictable and attuned carer.  Babies are born anxious to survive and if they are ignored or neglected they experience  terror. The neural paths in their brain develop in a way which means high level anxiety is likely to trouble them all their lives. Babies cannot soothe themselves: their limbs flail around wildly and they cry themselves to sleep. It is absolutely necessary for a carer to intervene by folding them in their arms and calming them down.

But it is a good thing that no mother can be perfect. Inevitably there are other calls on her attention which prevent her unfailing availability and produce episodes of disillusionment which if gently managed, help the child to relinquish his expectation that the world is at his command and under his total control. In this way he emerges from his self-absorbed state at birth and gradually develops into a social human being. He has to learn who he is by gazing at his mother’s face. Her mirroring look tells him whether he is loved and valuable. If she stares at him in a hostile way it may set the scene for later paranoia. If she is unable to meet his gaze he will withdraw into himself and become as depressed as her.

Early experiences and emotional development

A neglectful, cruel or abusive mother prevents a secure and fulfilling relationship developing. Instead, the child risks experiencing ‘developmental trauma’ where he can neither fight nor flee from the abusive caregiver and so ends up in a ‘freeze’ state where he retains an unhealthy level of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol which he has not been able to discharge.  He develops dysfunctional  defences or ways of managing his environment which do not serve his interests well. I am thinking of aggressive or avoidant traits which although common behaviour in young children, need to be grown out of and discarded. If not, the first might persist into adulthood in outbursts of rage, uncontrolled physical fights, domestic violence, abuse. The second might appear in addictive behaviour, lying, apathy, disconnectedness,  day dreaming or an inability to square up to problems and deal with them.

Probably  over half the population has had experience of good, or good enough, parenting to make a success of their own lives especially in becoming a stand-alone individual who, in Freud’s words is able ‘to love and to work’.   But a vast number suffer from such insecure early experiences that their emotional development is compromised. Unconsciously their relationships will be characterised either by a need to cling or comply, or, by contrast, because they feel so unlovable and worthless and care little about themselves, they may become unreachable, take risks and court death through self harm.

Relationships build our personality traits

Since none of us has a perfect maternal-baby relationship we all develop defence mechanisms or coping strategies to get through life. This means we have an individual and habitual way of thinking about ourselves, and being in the world, which is labelled ‘personality’.  We are our personality as it does not exist separately from us. So every interaction we make is affected by our personality and other people notice it, label us with it, and adjust their behaviour towards us according to their experience of us which leads to their expectations and perception of us. And we react to this and so a reinforcing cycle is established.

Finding love which mirrors the familiar

One of the most important relationships we negotiate as adults is finding a partner. Unconsciously we are looking both to recreate what is familiar to us which means we will unconsciously seek a partner who has some aspects of our opposite sex parent, and to fulfil unmet needs from our earlier lives. Unconsciously, we remember how it was to live in our family and we recreate that. Secure children will have felt that Mum and Dad reliably shared values so disagreements were minimal or could be resolved, and they backed each other up. That is like having a protective roof under which the child can enjoy a carefree childhood. Other children will have experienced something like two opposing walls where parents either cannot cooperate or have split up. In this situation there is a danger the children will bounce back and forth, made worse if either parent recruits the child to his side when competing with the other. The child is often left to sort out his place and feelings, unsupported, and might well become self-sufficient far too young.

Allowing relationships to develop and moving on

The quality of our own maturing process is the key to forming an enduring and mutually beneficial relationship with another adult. Girls identify with and copy their mothers. Boys have to find a way of breaking their maternal bond and identify with their fathers. They will develop best in a loving atmosphere of friendly, supportive, rivalry with an admired Dad in which they learn the male role. The wise father acknowledges his son as an equal rather than a child in his late teens. In that way boys feel they have fledged as real men and are ready for procreation.

Terrible twos and difficult teens – testing relationship boundaries

Girls too need to move away from their mothers. A new relationship cannot be made until the ties to an old one are broken. Children begin to separate when they are aged two and appear to become uncooperative and wilful. It is labelled ‘the terrible twos’ but is a normal and vital developmental process in which the child is learning to find and express his own individual self. Children are aided in this by the father, one of whose principle tasks is to gently prise the children from the maternal relationship by the use of his authoritative voice and the introduction of the wider world into the domestic routine. While boys are learning how to be a man, Dad also has to make a platonic heterosexual relationship with his daughter so she gains confidence in her value and attractiveness as a future mate. A fatherless child is significantly handicapped by physical or emotional absence although another benevolent male figure may act as a substitute.

The teens bring the second bout of separation activity, with gender development, when healthy rebellion and attachment to the peer group, preferably underpinned by a secure home base meaning tolerant, available, but non-interfering, vigilant parents, allows the adolescent to experiment with the aim of discovering himself. The most viable and long lasting partnerships between adults is likely to arise where each has been securely attached to a warm, loving and attentive maternal figure, and then carefully encouraged to separate, with the father’s help, within a united family who share values and give boundaried but unconditional acceptance.

I often tell my clients that the secret of a happy life lies in finding the ‘right distance’ between themselves and other people. We all have a notion of our ‘personal space’ and where our boundary lies. If any of us oversteps our own boundary we are invading another’s space.  Any violation of our own boundary requires self-protection through assertion, a very adult form of controlled anger. It means having the concept of what is ‘me’ and what is ‘not me’ which leads to respect for others as well as understanding what is one’s own business and what belongs to others. Those who try to ‘make others happy’ or fear that their assertiveness is going to upset other people, have to learn to trust that other adults can discuss and negotiate and have the capacity to manage their own emotions. We cannot force anyone to change. Many relationships fail because one party cannot accept the other for who he is.

Relationships can be complicated and are often hard to find a place of balance and understanding, but counselling can help. Although your personality traits are formed at a young age, learning why you do certain things or act in a certain way can help you go on to have more positive relationships in the future. If you’d like help with a relationship or want to break a pattern of unhealthy relationships get in touch.