The Psychology Of Relationships
As human beings we are deeply relational and social creatures. When we are born we are totally dependent on the care and interaction of our parents or caregivers to provide what we need in terms of food, warmth, protection and stimulation.
However, our early dependency needs go beyond this material level. We also need our caregivers to stimulate our brains so that we develop pathways for attachment and emotional regulation. The infant is an active part of this relationship with the parents and learns how to contact and impact other people.
Together with our parents we develop emotional stability, a sense of identity, the use of language and a shared “story” or narrative about how we see ourselves and the world. Without interaction with other human beings we would not be able to grow into who we truly are.
To fulfill those ongoing needs we have an in-built drive towards relationships. Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis theory, termed our drive towards relationship a “hunger for relationship”.
The same concept is also central to a British branch of psychoanalysis called objects relations theory. We crave relationships to stimulate us, and to give us security, closeness, physical contact and sex.
The most intense way to be in relationship is called intimacy, a process where both partners are fully present and open to one another. Intimacy requires spontaneity and mindfulness.
It means that we have to let down our guard and really listen to the other person and feel our own desire to be listened to. But intimacy doesn’t always have to be sexual or even loving.
People can be intimately angry with each other as long as they are straight and open with each other and they are communicating their anger from a position of respect for self and other. Another way to describe intimacy would be to think of the Buddhist principle of mindfulness, of being fully present and open to what is here and now.
Intimacy is incredibly rewarding, but it can also be experienced as threatening and overwhelming – it depends on your childhood experience of attachment and being in relationship.
Most of us learn to shield ourselves against a repeat of not-so-good experiences by building a certain personality style, a main defensive pattern, which we would call a “life script”, together with other bigger or smaller patterns which allow us to get on in the world of people and to keep us safe.
It’s also important to mention here that children will experience the loss of relationship with their care givers – even if only briefly – as a major threat to their survival. A child will adapt in some way to this threat, either by being more compliant on the outside or by managing things differently on the inside, i.e. by cutting off from their own needs or vulnerabilities.
We may still do this as adults to manage our experiences of relationship. This means we are probably feeling safer, but that we are also limiting our ability to be present and enjoy our self and others fully. In some instances this means that we are actually denying ourselves what we would wish for most, such as finding someone who truly loves us and desires us for who we are.
All of these patterns can limit our openness and enjoyment of people and relationship. When we “work through” things as adults we become more open to the present and more able to allow people into our hearts; more able to give or share ourselves with someone else.
Berne also talked about two other “hungers”, one for recognition and another one for structure. Our hunger for recognition leads us to crave being seen as who we really are, to be respected and recognized as competent, intelligent, special etc.
Our hunger for structure refers to the fact that our brains are built to create structure out of chaos. We organize our perceptions into patterns which we can give names to, and which we can manipulate in our imagination or real life.
We also create structure in our relationships by behaving in the same ways or by building a “life script” (see psychology section on scripts).
The three hungers are related. If we lack one of them, we often compensate with one or both of the other two if we can.
Not enough relationship may lead us to strive for more and more professional or economic recognition, or we might compensate for lack of relationships by over-structuring our lives, making sure we keep busy with all sorts of things so we don’t feel anything or, in particular, don’t feel lonely.
If you are interested in more theory on this, have a look at the other psychology pages.
If you want some idea of how these principles could fit into your life or relationship, have a look at Relationship hunger and you.