What to know about your 'relational template' and how it affects the way you treat your partner.
How we respond and react to our partner in our committed adult relationships is predominantly related to our childhood experiences with our parents or primary caregivers.
These early influences on our lives create an imprint of relationships, which we may or may not be aware of.
This imprint is like a relational template, which shapes our ideas and expectations of relationships and of how we and our partner should communicate and behave in our relationship.
Our mind and body are wired to relate to our partner according to this relational template.
Relational templates in couple relationships
In any relationship, we’ll share some beliefs with our partner about how relationships should work, but we never have the same relational templates. That’s because we have lived in different homes, had different families and had completely different experiences.
It’s important for us to remember this, as we often create a fantasy that we should have similar views, expectations and behaviours in relationships. Even though it would be convenient if this were the case, this simply can’t occur, as we’re two very different beings and our life experiences have left us with different relational imprints.
Below are just a few examples of life experiences that would differ from our partner’s experiences, creating differing parental responses and contributing to our different relational templates:
We can see how these experiences shape our mind, our relational wiring, how we absorb and process information and experiences, and how we feel about them.
These life experiences shape our ability to tolerate different viewpoints, and influence whether we listen well to our partner or find it difficult. They also influence what we react to and how, and what sets us off into fight-or-flight mode.
We all grow up in environments that are uniquely ours. Therefore, in our relationship we’ll always encounter differences that we’ll need to work through together. We all have different triggers and behave differently in fight-or-flight mode.
We all have different thoughts about conflict: who was right or wrong? Who was to blame? Who started it? And we all have a different understanding of why we fight with our partner. All these beliefs and behaviours define our default expectations, rules for safety and non-negotiables in our relationship.
Our relational template will determine how we react to our partner when our expectations of each other and our relationship differ. Sometimes we can talk through differences; other times we can’t. Sometimes we can feel frightened by our partner’s actions, words or behaviour.
Our relational templates are different, and the gap between them can be perceived as a threat.
Understanding our relational templates is critical if we want or need to reduce conflict and form a healthier relationship with our partner.
Why it’s important to understand your relational template
We all need to examine how our childhood experiences persist inside of us today, and how this impacts our relationship. Only when we make these connections, can we change the dynamic of our couple conflict. We, as individuals, can make our relationship better.
In the first one or two sessions with a new client or couple, I always seek some access to their relational template and wiring. I simply ask them about their relationship with their parents and what their parents’ relationship was like growing up.
By understanding how we’re relationally wired, we can learn how to avoid getting into the emotional boxing ring, and if we do happen to find ourselves there, we can exit faster with fewer body blows. When we understand this, we can then understand why we really fight with our partner. This is a game changer.
To do this, we’ll look at our experiences with parents or caregivers where we felt secure and protected, as well as experiences where we felt less safe or less protected. This will offer clues about our relational wiring and help us understand why and how we fight with our partner. This exercise isn’t about blaming or shaming anyone.
It’s not about accusing our parents or judging them for how we were raised. This is about objectively considering what happened in the past to understand how our relational wiring impacts our adult relationship today.
I’d love for everyone to see how normal it is to have couple conflict. The truth is that couple relationships are often messy and complicated.
During the dizzy joy of the honeymoon period, we often have no idea that we can end up locked in confusing and exhausting cycles of conflict. We have no idea that at the heart of these episodes is fear and a lack of safety.
But this is not new – this is from our childhood and was encoded way back then.
Safety and trust develop in childhood
We’re not born feeling safe. In fact, it’s the opposite. Just think of a newborn baby with no ability to dress itself, feed itself or even soothe itself. From the moment they’re born, they’re completely dependent on their parents for their survival. This enormous dependency means danger and threat is never far away. When we hear a hungry baby crying, it pulls at our heartstrings because their distress is so evident. They can’t go to the fridge and grab a snack.
They’re literally screaming for their lives, and their nervous system is registering danger and threat.
As a baby, our sense of safety develops when we’re with parents who protect, feed, soothe and nurture us. We learn to feel safe knowing our parents are with us, attending to things we simply can’t do yet.
As children, it is written deeply into our mammalian core that it’s our parents’ job to keep us safe. That’s why children instinctively seek their parents when they’re hurt or afraid.
When our parents protect us, meet our basic needs, comfort us and are available to us, we learn we can really trust them. These experiences calm our nervous system, and we feel safe.
When parents take care of our physical and emotional safety, we can have some scrapes, be soothed by them, recover and re-establish our feelings of being protected.
We will still experience fear and danger, but we know our parent will comfort us. When these experiences are repeated during our childhood, we learn to tolerate upsetting and distressing experiences. This is how we become more resilient, and all of these moments of comfort and soothing are encoded in our relational wiring.
It’s important to note that no parent can offer perfect protection and safety; we have all had some experiences where our parents were not physically or emotionally able to help us feel secure.
Parents are also human, and they can be out of line at times, or maybe even a little frightening. There will always be ruptures or difficulties in parent–child relationships, but what’s critical is how they’re repaired.
When our parent repeatedly sees that we’re slightly frightened or are feeling an absence of protection from them and they’re apologetic, this becomes an established pattern that we learn to rely on.
As they repeatedly re-establish trust with us, we’re more likely to develop distress tolerance, which we carry through to our adult relationships. This is how our relational wiring around safety and trust develops – through our parent–child relationships.
The theory of relational wiring
The importance of security and safety in childhood has been extensively studied across the world through a body of research and clinical work called attachment theory, and it forms the basis of our relational wiring.
This work, started by John Bowlby, examines the types of emotional bonds children form with their parents or primary caregivers. He described attachment as a special emotional relationship that involves an exchange of comfort, care and pleasure.
It’s easy to understand how a baby would see their parent or primary caregiver as an attachment figure. As babies, we normally don’t have many primary attachment figures – sometimes just one – with whom we share that exchange.
We’ve already talked about how vulnerable and dependent a baby truly is, so having an attachment figure who is focused on them increases their chance of survival.
Researchers were interested in the distress behaviours babies revealed when they were left alone by their parent (attachment figure) and were suddenly feeling vulnerable and unsafe. Any parent whose baby cries when they go to the toilet will know exactly how this feels.
What’s important to take away from this is that loss or the threat of loss is central to psychological distress.
Research: The Adult Attachment Interview
The Adult Attachment Interview was a protocol developed in 1985 using a semi-structured interview with participants to determine their mental representations of their childhood attachment experiences. The aim is to get a sense of their relational template.
It’s a complex interview, and requires training to conduct. In a nutshell, it focuses on two key areas:
1. Eliciting the subject’s memories and their relationship with their parent(s) in childhood, including how they coped.
2. The extent to which they evaluated or integrated those experiences as an adult today, and their current relationships with their parent(s).
The subjects were also assessed for the coherence of their narrative. This was done by assessing how truthful and consistent they were, whether there was too little or too much information provided, how relevant the material was, and finally whether they were clear in the interview.
This research was groundbreaking. It found that our adult attachment styles map onto our infant attachment styles. They weren’t always an exact fit, but there was typically a style that fitted more than others.
The names of the categories in childhood and adulthood are essentially the same, or very similar. Let me show you how.
If a child was securely attached, then as an adult they were likely to be securely attached. They became resilient adults.
If a child was insecurely attached then they were as an adult, too. There were three similar styles that corresponded to these.
1. An ambivalently attached child became a preoccupied adult – think of the clingy/angry style.
2. An avoidantly attached child created a fortress and continued to do so as an adult with a dismissing attachment style.
Essentially, what this reveals is that our minds were relationally wired by twelve to eighteen months of age, and this becomes our relational template in adulthood. This template carries our expectations and beliefs about relationships, how we believe we should or shouldn’t treat or be treated by our partner, and our capacity to tolerate distress, or not.
We have no idea that our attachment style plays out in our adult behaviour and relationships. We just think ‘this is me,’ and that dictates what we believe and how we behave. We don’t question why we behave in a sulky or childlike manner, nor do we see a problem with our blaming, critical or aloof behaviour. It’s just who we are, right? Well, no – it’s how we’ve always behaved according to our relational wiring, but it’s not who we are.
We all know someone who makes the same ‘mistakes’ in relationships, leaving friends scratching their heads, wondering when they’ll learn their lesson. We can even be that person! The reason we repeat relationship ‘mistakes’ is due to our relational template.
Let’s look at the adult attachment styles in more detail.
1. Secure adult attachment: resilient style
Adults with a secure attachment style –
2. Insecure adult attachment. Preoccupied adult attachment: clingy/angry style
Adults with a clingy/angry attachment style –
These adults become preoccupied with the relationship; they can’t find a comfortable way of being in it. Their parent was sometimes there for them and sometimes not, and this left a mark on them that affects how they behave as adults.
3. Dismissing adult attachment: fortress style
Partners with this attachment style are often dragged into couples therapy by their partner. They don’t like talking about their feelings, as they’re just not used to doing so. Characteristics of the adult fortress attachment style include –
4. Unresolved/disorganised adult attachment: no strategy style
Typical behaviours of the unresolved/disorganised adult attachment style include –
The good news
The good news for all of us is that these attachment styles aren’t fixed for life. The concept of earned secure attachment applies to people who have made sense of and created meaning from past experiences with their parents that led to insecure attachment.
With earned secure attachment, we accept these past experiences and escape the hold they have over our lives. This enables us to relate to our partner in a healthier way and remove the soul-destroying episodes of conflict from our relationship. It is an important component for decreasing couple conflict.
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Feature image: Getty