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Can the Relationship Change? Psychological Perspectives on How we Develop: Part II


In Part I of this series we explored developmental theories to answer a commonly asked question in one-to-one therapy, “Can I Change?”  In relationship therapy, I often hear “Can the relationship change?” Spoiler alert: the answer is ‘yes’. However, the ability of the relationship to change depends upon the ability, willingness, and work of the individuals in the relationship.  In this article, we explore the therapeutic theories around how our development impacts our relationships and their ability to develop.

We carry into our romantic relationships all the parts of ourselves: our biology, personality, learned rules and expectations (social/cultural).  Yet early relationships with caretakers may impact what we believe about relationships, ourselves, and how others will treat us. These early experiences create an internal map or blueprint for which we will later use to understand and navigate the world.  When something familiar in relationships arises for us, the neural circuits of our blueprint are activated and we might experience thoughts, feelings, and even physical sensations that are familiar.

Our behaviour at these times is like the end of the circuit and the thing others see about us.  In other words, they see the bulb light up, but not the circuitry behind it. The circuits impact whether and how we trust and bond with others.  They affect our ability to listen, reflect, praise, thank, and share. They might also limit how well we understand and cope both our own and another’s emotions.  

Therapy often helps us gain a better sense of the circuitry, the ‘what’ and ‘why’ we feel, think, and behave the way we do.  In doing so, we can identify, interrupt and change our old behaviours, not only of how we view ourselves, but in how we relate to others.

That old adage of one choosing a partner that reminds us of our parent, or that parent we wanted, isn’t that far-fetched if one follows Dr. Hendrix and Dr. LaKelly Hunt’s theory of Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT).  According to these theorists, we unconsciously seek an idealised, familiar love relationship in our partners.  This ‘ideal’ would help us resolve where we didn’t feel support, love, bonding with our caretakers. Our partners, however, are unable to fulfill our unconscious needs.  Thus, we begin to feel frustrated and dissatisfied that are partner isn’t giving us what we need. Conflict ensues. Imago Relationship Therapy aims to help each person in the relationship identify in the present those unconscious, earlier developmental needs that were never met, and to be able to express the feelings and needs around these.  In doing so, both the individuals and the relationship move beyond the stuck place of unsaid, unfulfilled expectations from each other. The partners in IRT heal from earlier childhood wounds and unfulfilled needs, and become more ‘whole’. The circuit is identified, seen by both, and new circuits and new behaviours emerge to help meet needs and resolve conflicts.

More specifically,  Dr. Sue Johnson feels it is our fear of abandonment that drives conflict in relationships.  It is past problems of attaching and bonding with our caretakers in infancy that creates relationship issues.  In particular, one or more members of the relationship may have an insecure style of attachment and fears abandonment.  In Dr. Johnson’s emotionally focussed therapy, emotions we feel in the relationship are used to help us become more familiar with our needs and wants from another person.  This therapy aims to help bring to the forefront positive attachment experiences and for each partner to express and facilitate needs and wants of experience of bonding and relationship.

Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson proposed that relationships, like childhood, have stages of development over time.  Bader and Pearson envisioned individuals in relationship need to re-identify a separate sense of self.  The development of a relationship, they propose, begins with bonding. Over time, the individuals differentiate from one another and begin to practice independence and develop self esteem.  With this differentiation and independence in place, the individuals ultimately move away from one another before returning (rapproachment) to one another and the relationship. The end of the stages is a synergy between the individuals and a stronger relationship. According to Bader and Pearson, problems arise when the people in the relationship are in different stages.  Moreover, one or more partners that cannot differentiate results in a relationship that cannot continue through the stages to reach synergy.

Two additional relationship therapists, Aron & Aron, look at the formation of a relationship as an innate attempt to grow and develop.  Much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these are not conscious attempts, but instead represent our human need to develop even as adults.  Building relationships as adults results in the pulling together and sharing of sparse resources. Aron & Aron developed the IOS Scale to demonstrate to what degree we incorporate our sense of self into another.  The more enmeshed the circles, the more one’s ‘other’ is included.



This is somewhat in contrast to Dr. Johnson’s view that differentiation is necessary for reaching synergy in relationships.  I prefer to think of the relationship as ultimately moving to a place where the individuals are both differentiated, but also a part of the relationship.




What these theories seem to have in common is that relationships are often formed with the hope that we will feel a fulfillment and in connection with another person, and generally feel better about ourselves.  We hope to bond with someone, to be supported, and secure trust and understanding. The reality, however, is that our past experiences mean that we not only view, but also experience, the world differently from one another.  Our blueprints and circuits are different and often hidden so that our words of “I don’t understand why/how you….” are quite apt. And our experiences impact our ability to communication so that there ‘can’ be understanding.

Relationship therapists, working with what comes into the session, seek to help unveil each partner’s circuits and what triggers them, with dialogue skills that build trust and support.  Hopefully, the individuals and the relationship will build new circuits to support what was missing, i.e. helping to support differentiation, but at the same time, helping to provide unmet needs.  

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