Some time ago I addressed the topic of relationships and the influence those relationships can have on an individual. In this post, the scientific information that supports this theory of relationships is addressed; but first, a refresher of the last discussion on relationships.
Relationships helps us the most when we approach them in such a way that we are simply willing to be there with and for the person without always calculating what we are going to get out of the relationship. When we approach our relationships with this kind of openness, it allows us to be open to the ways that the relationship can help us grow and develop as people.
If we are always looking for something that we want from the relationship, we potentially shut the door on the helpful things the relationship could be providing us.
But when we enter into our relationships with this openness it leaves us incredibly vulnerable. We never quite know if the person we enter into a relationship with is sane and trustworthy or a liar, emotionally needy, controlling, unstable, etc.
Nonetheless, if we approach our relationships with the latter attitude, we may become the ones who are controlling and manipulative or we can become so detached from relationships that we no longer pursue them; so, in approaching our relationships with the latter attitude — people are liars, emotionally needy, unstable, controlling, or something like that, we miss out on finding out how a relationship can help us grow.
Our relationships provide us the opportunity to develop skills we may have missed out on developing in childhood and our relationships can help us develop new skills that help us overcome fears that have developed over our lifetime.
Time for Science!
It is Harville Hendrix, based on the work of family therapist Murray Bowen, who popularized the idea that all of us suffer from psychological injuries that happen during different stages of our development and that we remain stuck in that stage of development in which the injury was most serious. This injury, according to Hendrix, influences us to choose partners who have similar psychological injuries when we marry.
Dr. Robert Winch theorized that we are attracted to and marry people whose psychological needs complement our own needs. For example, one person may be very rational and select as a mate, someone who is very emotional, or one person may have a need to be very controlling and the person they pick as a mate may not need that much control.
Winch makes clear that this tendency of people to be paired up with someone that complements their needs is neither positive nor negative, its just a situation that exists in human nature. You can read about his theory in this 1965 issue of Science and Mechanics.[Link]
So even in relationships that deal with mating, we subconsciously choose someone based on what their connection to us gives us.
So what am I supposed to believe here, what does this mean to me??
How we see ourselves, or our concept of our self is largely based on the social connections we make with those around us (family and friends). We adopt a role or character and set out to make sure everything around us plays into the role we have adopted for ourselves.
For example, the person with low self-esteem who sees their self as unworthy of being liked will at times abuse certain relationships in the effort that the abuse will make the other person reject them so the person with low self-esteem can repeat this self-truth that they are unworthy and therefore re-establish the role that they are unworthy.
The person with narcissism may never be able to see their faults, since in their minds, everything about them is perfect. Anything that seriously contradicts the role they have adopted of themselves produces heavy-duty defense mechanisms against the person who dares to do that.
So we recognize ourselves or the characters we’ve adopted, via the relationships we have with other things and people: a movie, a socioeconomic class, a group of friends, a sangha, an ethnicity, an article … technically we can see ourselves in almost anything we put our imaginations to.
But what happens when the things that surround us only reflect negatively on the role we have taken for ourselves?
A young girl who is always being called difficult by her family for her requests, when those requests in another family would be embraced. How does that affect how she sees herself, her role? She may begin to see herself as a difficult person and stop making requests or she could make more requests making things more difficult for herself and her family — playing into the role that has been thrust on her.
The one thing that remains is that she may begin to think her character is a difficult one.
Another girl may be called ugly and organize her life to reflect that statement about her character. But say one day the girl who thought she was difficult, because of her family’s evaluation of her character, got an affirmation that said she was not being difficult and that her family was not correct in their evaluation, how does that change the girl’s evaluation of her character?
Most likely she would feel better about herself, “I have the right to have my wants/needs met,” and she might have a bit more confidence in her abilities to evaluate her character separately from the way her family evaluates her character,”You may be my family but that doesn’t mean you are right about everything.”
We are programmed to believe what is said about us from the people we love because we trust them. This natural component of human nature is part of what keeps people in abusive relationships. So I’ll state this again, “We are programmed to believe what is said about us from the people we love because we trust them.”
And depending on how long a person has been around a particular set of influences determines how easy or hard it is to change unique tendencies or habits that make up the character or role that someone is playing.
A person can do self-work to rid themselves of harmful habits and/or do self-work to instill useful skills. The field of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) does just this. The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists website says CBT “emphasizes the important role of thinking in how we feel and what we do.” The website also says that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors.
Although, I could be misinterpreting the sentence, the website also says that external things, like people, situations, and events, do not cause our feelings only our thoughts.( However that doesn’t seem to take into account how we form feelings about ourselves in the first place, are we thinking we are like this or are we shown we are like this and then think it? And also the recent discover of mirror neurons in the human brain may slightly debunk this idea since these neurons may invoke intuitive reactions that may or may not have a thought associated with it.)
A person’s character or role is supported by the people the person is around whether by choice or by circumstance.
Psychologist Edwin R. Guthrie, tells the tale of an experiment initiated on a shy and inept woman by a small group of men who attended the same college as her. The men agreed to establish the woman as a social favorite. They did this by inviting the woman to college affairs that were considered important and making sure that she would always have dancing partners. By agreement the men treated the woman as if she were the “reigning favorite.”
By the end of the year, the woman had developed an “easy going manner and a confident assumption that she was popular.” These habits continued after the men had ceased to make efforts on her behalf. The men, in addition to everyone else, had also begun to accept the woman as a popular and confident person.
By circumstance this woman had been surrounded by people who reflected to her that her role (character) was that of a popular and confident woman and in response to seeing/feeling this role thrust upon her, she became that role or character.
This is a positive story about how relationships help us form our roles but as I stated earlier this mechanism is neither positive nor negative, its just a situation that exists in human nature.
Depending on how ingrained the habits or tendencies are in a person, it can take repeated exposure to certain types of relationships and self-work done by the person before they are able to sidetrack their old habits into new habits (this is true for positive and negative habits).
So what am I really saying?
All of our relationships help to develop us; so, it is important that we a) cultivate good relationships and b) be open to what those relationships bring us without trying to control them. It is through these relationships that we learn about ourself and our vulnerable “selves.”
Through our vulnerable selves we learn how we must grow (or sometimes how we must not grow). This is the power of our human relationships.