The Ghost of Holiday Past: How Family Time can Strengthen Your Relationships
The winter holidays are the time of year when most people reconnect with family. If you're in an intimate relationship, you may also be expected to spend time with your partner’s family. For some, this is a treasured time and something to look forward to; however, others dread this time of year because of how much it can bring up. No matter what your typical experience is during the holidays, this year you can turn it around and at least take away one important lesson: learning why you’re attracted to a particular type of person and what kinds of challenges may come up down the road in your relationships.
The introduction of Attachment Theory in the 1950’s offered a revolutionary shift in the perspective on how we form our relationships. The theory is based an experiment conducted where children were separated and then reunited with their caregivers. From the reactions observed in these children, researchers began to notice common ways of being in relationship. Studies have since shown that the relationship patterns shown in childhood were likely to continue into adulthood. In essence, our primary caregivers form an initial template for the relationships we create into adulthood.
To better understand how this works, let's consider the following example: Maria grew up with one parent who was controlling and critical, but when she was in distress this parent would become nurturing and compassionate. Her other parent was physically and emotionally distant, though would connect when Maria performed well in school. With these caregivers in her past, Maria will move forward unconsciously drawn to a partner because of what is familiar: a partner who can at times be distant, though has the capacity for connection and intimacy when needed. As time goes on, the positive experiences become a baseline expectation for their relationship. Eventually, when the partner does anything that resembles physical or emotional distance, Maria will either shift into emotional distress or experience the need to perform because that is how she eventually got love and affection. This unconscious process can seem counterproductive to forming healthy relationships.
Why would someone do this to themselves? Admittedly, the purpose of this process is that we are naturally drawn to people who will offer an opportunity to do it differently this time. Therein lies the gift of this situation. All of this can be used as useful information this season to strengthen your relationship with your partner. Spending time with family can directly show, in realtime, the environment your partner grew up with and what they became accustomed to for relationships.
The first step to making full use of this opportunity is to observe through noticing family dynamics from a place of objectivity. If you’re with your partner, then you can have the advantageous position of not being drawn in by history and instead notice the interactions between them and their family members. Who are they drawn to and spend more time with? Who do they seem challenged by and try to avoid? When do they seem the most at ease as seen by relaxed breathing, loose muscles, and engaged in conversation with reciprocity? When do they seem tense and guarded as seen through closed off arms, thin lips, and tight muscles? When you can recognize these cues in your partner, you can then learn how they anticipate and navigate their own relationship.
Going back to the example of Maria, should you find yourself in a relationship with someone like her, it would be helpful to observe her interactions with family. If you were to notice the aforementioned dynamics, then you would know that things go well in the relationship when you are nurturing and available, but when you behave in a manner that looks like you’re being distant, then Maria will react based on her history of relationships. At this point, Maria will either let you know she is in distress or will present as having "done a good job" so that she can draw out your acceptance.
Recognizing all of this will help you to navigate the relationship and know how to either reduce the relationship ruptures from being seen as distant or how to repair effectively once ruptures have happened. Perhaps you navigate leaving, staying in touch while away, and reunions differently based on knowing this about Maria. You can also know that when Maria is under distress, for whatever reason, she wants you close and nurturing.
All of these dynamics are happening within our own unique relationships to others on varying levels. Admittedly, it can be quite difficult to be aware of it when it is happening to us. That is why spending time with someone's family during the holiday can be valuable. It gives you the opportunity to have an objective perspective where you can see the process from the outside. From there, you can take your new learnings and have increased awareness of potential pitfalls and reliable ways to repair damage in our relationships. If this is the only thing you take away from time with your family, or someone else’s, then you have been given quite the gift.