Exploring Relational Blueprints
Whatever you think you need from another you already contain within you. If you would commit to authentically finding that first, the whole basis of the relationship may shift from scarcity to abundance.Educare Unlearning Institute: ‘Where to Start’
Note: I’m indebted to Belinda Gore’s teachings on the Enneagram with Object Relations theory for the technical content in this post.
As a highly relational sort of person and as a realist, I approach all relationship theory with openness, and from the altitudes of “tools are needed” and “does this help?”
The Enneagram and Object Relations actually does. It explained things for me that Attachment Theory never got to. For instance, why precisely I have felt an overpowering need to withdraw in familial/group dynamics, and why there has been an undertone of frustration in that.
As with everything we have been doing unconsciously, our patterns of relating are humbling to come to terms with.
Take heart, friends. It’s totally worth it.
Relationships are not supposed to be easy
A little about my relational perspective:
I ascribe to the Hendrix school of thought that our romantic partnerships can be the holding environments for essential healing work.
I expect prolonged and intimate relationships (not the engine splutter variety) to be challenging. However, I also see them as being pregnant with potential, under-utilized centers of renewal. Rather than, say, arbitrary blips and peaks on the heart monitor line between birth and death.
This bleak-hopeful narrative of mine lends itself to roll-your-sleeves-up grit when it comes to relating. I believe that any relationship worth having does not expire on site of changed feelings or rumbling discontent. To me, that’s often when the real relating begins.
One similarly dark-natured comrade, Alain De Botton, speaks at length of this ‘true hard work of relationships‘ in his books and other teachings. I refer you to those if you are new to this frame of reference. Such themes can be helpful for dislodging shame, negativity or lily-livered-ness in our approach to relational challenges.
Realism aside, when it comes to romantic relating, there comes a time when to let a relationship go. Being able to recognise, and act on, that is as important as being able to work at things.
Although relating has elements that are beyond our influence, there is much we can do to manage our experience of relationships. We can start, always, by seeing things clearly. This is where relationship theory makes a difference.
What I am noticing lately in my own life and in my coaching practice is how blueprint patterns of relating resurface time and time again, and contribute to repeated tastes of unwanted emotional experiences.
Put another way, we engage in a set of behaviors that are antithetical to our desired emotional states.
We do not relate cleanly. Rather, we bring in baggage inherent in the developmental process.
These blueprints are most evident when relating to our primary relational objects (‘Primary Objects’ in Objects Relations Theory). Think lover, partner, family, work, food.
These Primary Objects conjure our most primitive patterns of relating because they are depositaries of outsourced needs for nurture/warmth, safety/protection, and belonging.
[Consider, for a moment, how effortlessly your needs are met by the other in relationships early on. This is the joy and purity of relating to those who are not yet archetypically significant to us. ]
Until we internalize basic needs, an associated feeling tone with these objects dominates our experience of them.
Object Relations theory
Foundational to Object Relations theory is the concept that personality develops only in relation to something else. This something else is called ‘the other’. At an early stage, we discover that there are others who can meet our needs and reduce non-pleasure, or provide pleasure. These are our ‘Primary Objects’.
Primary Objects in Object Relations theory
The three Primary Objects are the Nurturing Figure, the Protecting Figure, and what psychologist and coach Belinda Gore calls the Belonging Figure. Primary Objects are based on archetypes (or universal prototypes) that are fundamental to our ability to mentally organize our experience.
It doesn’t matter who actually performed the Mother or Father role for us early on. It is the qualities that are significant.
Mother – nurturing, soothing, sustenance.
Father – protecting, finding security, power and authority.
Family/belonging – provides inclusion, being in the world, traditions, culture.
[Who in your early life fulfilled the Mother, Father and Family archetype for you? And which person or group fulfills each of these archetypes in your life now? These be good questions to ask.]
As big hairy adults, we no longer require our objects to satisfy our needs for nurture, safety and belonging. For instance, I believe that I have (for the most part) successfully internalized these needs.
However, I still see periods where my pattern of relating is alive and animated. That pattern (or blueprint) is the Primary Object plus the Dominant Affect.
Dominant Affects in Object Relations theory
An ‘Affect’ refers to the underlying experience of feeling, emotion or mood. Theory tells us that we come in with three Dominant Affects that are the feeling tone beneath the Primary Objects in our lives: Attachment, Frustration, and Rejection.
Regardless of personality type, all humans engage with and respond to all three of these emotional states. But there is one that characterizes our relationship with the Primary Object, such that a whole lot of identity is bound up in that relationship.
Desire to maintain a comfortable and stable relationship with people or things that we are identified with. When we are resonating with the Affect of Attachment, we have found someone or something that meets our needs and we want to figure out how to sustain that attachment.
Our needs and wants are not being met and we feel dissatisfied or impatient, as though someone or something is interfering with our getting what we want, or keeping us from getting as much as we want, whenever we want it.
Refusal to recognize or accept something, or to actively deny or push it away (attacking, demeaning or abusing, or passively, as in ignoring).
(Paradoxical) Patterns of Relating
Finally, there are three patterns of interaction or relationship (identified by neo Freudian psychologist Karen Horney): Withdrawing, Moving Against and Moving Towards/With.
These strategies are formed in response to the Affect-Object relationship, as a way to try to secure the externalized source of nurture/warm, safety/security, and inclusion/belonging. However, they are also what may block our experience of the source, which is why I am calling them paradoxical.
|Nurturing Object||Protective Object||Belonging Object|
|Attachment||Move Away||Move Towards||Withdraw|
|Frustration||Move Away||Move Towards||Withdraw|
|Rejection||Move Away||Move Towards||Withdraw|
What you see above is nine different styles of relating.
[If you do not immediately recognize yourself in one of nine styles, please don’t worry about it. Just use this article as a starting place for your exploration.]
Challenges associated with object relations
Note that everyone can have Object Relations issues with all three of the Primary Objects.
However, people who are dominant in one of the Move Away (sometimes called ‘Assertive’) types have a foundational Object Relations issue with the Nurturing figure, characterized by the Dominant Affect linking them with that figure.
Those who are dominant in one of the Dutiful (Move Towards) types have a foundational Object Relations issue with the Protecting figure, characterized by the Dominant Affect linking them with that figure.
And individuals who are dominant in one of the Withdrawn types have a foundational Object Relations issue with the Family figures, characterized by the Dominant Affect linking them with those Figures.
|Nurturing – Fundamental issues with giving and receiving nurturing. Often there is difficulty being vulnerable.|
|Protective – Fundamental issues with needing clarity and guidance that will keep them safe. There is a tendency to want to clarify agreements and follow (or rebel|
against) the rules.
|Belonging – Fundamental issues with showing up in the physical world, because there is an unconscious feeling of deficiency. Fully showing up could create a risk of losing a tentative connection with themselves or life force.|
These patterns also lend themselves to a collection of beliefs and ways of being in relationship. Ways that with awareness, we can gently begin to tug at.
When confronted by these realities, there are a couple of options:
Relinquish all claims on the external environment. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Although, thankfully, we’ll never be as dependent on external objects for nurture and warmth, safety and protection and belonging as we were, realistically the blueprint will show itself on occasion. Why? We humans seem to want to externalize our needs sometimes. Which is why I prefer option 2.
Attempt to bring more awareness to our Object Relation patterns. That’s the reason I’ve written this article. Simply being able to observe the Dominant Affect in real-time offers potential for an unobstructed relational experience.
Here are some ways that you can work with this theory, without even definitively knowing your ‘style’:
Teach yourself to recognize Attachment, Frustration, and Rejection in your body. Why in our sensations, and not in thinking? Our bodies offer us the fastest form of intelligence. This is why bringing conscious awareness to sensations is so valuable. People report that attachment feels warm, cosy, tingling. Frustration feels contracted, finickity, tightly wound. Rejection feels heavy, hollow, like the blood is being drained out of us. Notice your own physical cues for these states.
Learn to recognize when you are Withdrawing, Moving Towards and Moving Away. This will help you to see when you are doing your strategy. I know that when I withdraw (my Dominant Affect), there is the accompanying sense of overwhelm. It is the experience of going into my cave, and I do not communicate about that. Moving Away may feel more like a surge in energy and momentum. Moving Towards feels anxiety-ridden and grasping. Check it out for yourself.
We are not doomed by our Dominant Affects, nor by our strategies. All three Affects eventually transmute to one: Love.
However, it may require some effort on all our parts.
If you would like some coaching around a relationship challenge/issue, I’d love to support you. Please book a discovery call.