How Relationships Heal
Our close relationships with other people are much more than the shared feelings and experiences that fulfill our needs. Relationships create who we are, in a profound sense, and contribute significantly to our health and wellbeing. They also provide us the best and most reliable means to heal our life’s wounds.
From conception you are in relationship, connected with others, receiving inputs that form who you are in every aspect. Connected directly with your mother in every way, you take in her moods, feelings, blood levels and life experiences, building your own personhood, and coming into the world not only with a genetic inheritance, but with nine months of experiences on many levels.
Research has shown how a baby and then a child develops its individual style, its way of relating to the world and to others, through its relationship with its primary carer, most often its mother, and with parents, siblings, etc. This childhood development is profound: it lays the foundation of feelings and beliefs for everything that happens throughout life.
“We look into each other’s eyes, we smile and gesture, touch and stroke each other, make soft, friendly sounds, breathe in each other. Through these ancient signs and signals, we come . . . to know each other and by knowing each other we come to know ourselves.”
Most recently, neuroscience has shown how eye contact and touch between baby and carer develops neural connections in the baby’s brain that mirror those of the carer, building a secure basis for growth. This inter-connectedness of brain activity continues throughout life, and is best demonstrated by lovers staring into each other’s eyes, raising their blood levels of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone.
For our first six years, various stages of development shape our character for life, according to how we go through them. All of these stages involve our relating with others and can be traversed by any of many paths. That is to say, there is no perfect childhood! We are each unique in our journey, and our resulting personality. What helps us change those personality aspects of ourselves that are no longer productive, is to understand our own unique journey and how it has formed us.
I have worked with many people holding misconceptions about their own psyches, their personalities, feeling and behaviours, sometimes judging and devaluing them. Usually they have not really known or understood their own story and how they have developed survival strategies that no longer help. From current life issues, the pathway can be found leading to those early developmental stages and the core beliefs formed in your traversing them. When this delving into the body and feelings is done with curiosity and mindfulness, and, most importantly, within the loving presence of another person holding space, healing is possible.
The major conclusion of many studies in psychology and psychotherapy has been that no matter what method, theory or belief guides therapy, the key factor in healing is the establishment of a warm and trusting relationship between the healer and the client. This is a personal thing, not an educated professional attitude and clinical approach.
But wait! You may also form this kind of relationship with a person in many different circumstances, bringing joy, upliftment and healing, without necessarily having a therapeutic focus. The other may be a lover, a friend, a teacher, a relative or even a guru! With them, you may have experiences that allow you to form different connections between your feelings, core beliefs, behaviours and thoughts. If these are related closely to your wounds, contradicting them and forming broader neural pathways, feelings and lived experiences, you may find you can regulate better what were strong disruptive feelings, lessening their intensity and diminishing their grip on your life.
Because healing is a subjective process, not something done to you by someone else, working alone through meditation, inquiry and contemplation may give you insights. But it’s that extra energy of love and acceptance and safety from a significant other, holding the very crucible of your being, that gives you the space to heal. This will happen only if you are also involved, centred, mindful and willing to open – for the responsibility is still your own, and cannot be taken on by another person.
 Mary Sykes Wylie, ‘Does Attachment Theory Really Matter?’ excerpted from ‘The Great Attachment Debate: How Important is Early Experience?’ in Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2011.