All relationships have a system. Some work well and some don't. Since I have been working with relationships for the last 44 years, I've become very attuned to what kind of a system two people have between them. Often, I can see their system in the first 10 minutes of their first session with me.
For example, Thomas and Leann consulted with me because both were unhappy in their relationship. Married for five years, neither felt any emotional or sexual connection with the other. They had not made love in a year.
In their first Skype session with me, I asked each of them to summarize how they viewed the problems in the relationship.
"Thomas is angry with me a lot and often withdraws from me. He gives way more attention to others than he does to me. When I really need him, he is not there for me. When I try to talk with him about our disconnection, he gets very quiet or leaves the room. I hate that we can't talk about things."
"I have tried to be there for Leann, but it seems like she is a bottomless pit. I've had some big challenges this last year at work, and she has no caring or empathy towards me at all. She just wants me to listen to her, but she doesn't want to listen to me. When she wants to talk about our problems, it's always about what I'm doing wrong. I'm sick of this. I think maybe we shouldn't be together."
From my point of view, these two people have what I call a "Pull-Compliant/Resist" system. Here is what I see:
- I see two people who do not take responsibility for their own feelings, and instead make the other person responsible for them -- which leads both of them to feel like victims of the other's choices.
Both Leann and Thomas want very much to connect with each other, but because neither is connected with themselves, they are each behaving in ways that create distance rather than connection.
In my work with them, I first helped each of them to see that they were operating at a common level of woundedness -- which means a common level of self-abandonment. Both were contributing equally to the problems in the relationship, even though each believed the other was more at fault. For them to heal their relationship, they each needed to get their eyes off the other and on to themselves.
I then helped each of them see how they were abandoning themselves. Each of them were making the other responsible for their feelings rather than learning to compassionately manage their own painful feelings. I taught them the Inner Bonding process for learning to love and value themselves and take full responsibility for their own feelings.
Fortunately, both Thomas and Leann were open to learning about how to take loving care of themselves. As they each practiced taking care of their own feelings, their relationship gradually healed. As they each learned to connect with themselves and love themselves, they found they were able to connect with and share love with each other.
What Relationship System Do You Have?
I have found that couples who are having problems are generally operating from one of the following four systems:
- The "Pull-Compliant/Resist" system described above
- A "Pull-Pull' system, in which each person is actively blaming and guilting the other into giving them the love they are not giving to themselves.
- A "Resist-Resist" system, where each person is terrified of being controlled and is shut down much of the time to avoid giving themselves up.
- A "Pull-Compliance" system, in which one person is demanding and the other consistently gives in.
While these systems might look different on the outside, they result from the same core issue, which is that each person is abandoning themselves in various ways, making the other responsible for them, and then trying to control the other in various ways. Underneath all these systems there are deep unhealed fears of rejection and engulfment -- which are the result of the self-abandonment.
Each is abandoning themselves in some or all of the following ways:
- Judging themselves and then projecting their self-judgments on to the other person
- Not taking responsibility for their own feelings, and instead, focusing on what the other person is or isn't doing -- making the other person responsible for their feelings of safety and worth
- Turning to various addictive behaviors -- such as anger, lying, withdrawal, resistance, compliance -- in an attempt to control the other person and avoid their own feelings, and perhaps turning to substance and process addictions, using food, alcohol, drugs, nicotine, TV, sex and/or porn, gambling and so on to avoid their feelings.
All of these forms of self-abandonment lead to feeling badly about themselves, and then being needy of the compassion and caring they are not giving to themselves.
Happy couples operate from an entirely different system -- a loving system. In these relationships, each person takes responsibility for taking loving care of themselves so that they are able to be kind, caring, empathic and compassionate with each other. Because they are there for themselves, they are able to be there for each other. Because they have learned to value themselves rather than reject themselves, they value each other.
If you are having problems in your relationship, or you are in the process of seeking a loving relationship, I suggest you start with learning how to love yourself. This is what makes all the difference!
Margaret Paul, Ph.D. is a relationship expert, best-selling author, and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® self-healing process, recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette, and featured on Oprah. To begin learning how to love and connect with yourself so that you can connect with others, take advantage of our free Inner Bonding eCourse, receive Free Help, and take our 12-Week eCourse, "The Intimate Relationship Toolbox" - the first two weeks are free! Discover SelfQuest®, a transformational self-healing/conflict resolution computer program. Phone or Skype sessions with Dr. Margaret Paul.
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