When working with couples and individuals, I always ask people about their early life experiences and family of origin dynamics. Clients often think that I am mining for traumatic experiences and assure me they had a wonderful childhood with loving parents. “That’s wonderful,” I tell them and then I nudge them further for information. While my understanding any traumatic events is very important to our overall work, what I want most is to understand their relational patterns.

Relational patterns, as I define them, are the repeated and consistent ways in which we interact with and respond to people with whom we are in a relationship. This includes any and all relationships—from parent to spouse, to friend or client. These patterns develop in a manner much like that of language acquisition. Our parents, other caregivers, and/or siblings teach us directly how to relate to others (e.g., “Nice girls are humble and let other people take credit for their work.”) or we glean it through observation (e.g., “Every time mom looks upset, dad springs into action doing lots of things around the house and working really hard to make her laugh”). These relational patterns are created mostly unconsciously and usually become deeply held beliefs about the “right” and “wrong” way of interacting with others.

Because none of us are immune to the impact of our early life experiences or the culture at large we ALL bring patterns of relating into our adult lives. Most go unexamined and therefore repeat over and over again. Some are healthy and functional, such as treating everyone—from the janitor to the CEO—with the same level of respect. Others, such as continually finding yourself working for or dating people who believe it is their job to tear you down and then build you back up, result in ongoing frustration, disappointment, and confusion. It can be maddening, especially for those who have sought to remove themselves from unhealthy aspects of their family life and now continue to find themselves having the same negative interactions with others time and time again. The real kicker is that we tend to be attracted to people that represent the parent/caretaker with whom we had the most difficulties. We do not do this because we are gluttons for punishment. It occurs for several reasons:

  1. We are trying to resolve the issues with the person through another relationship. Unconsciously, you believe if you solve this puzzle, you will be able to get the love/care you desired but, did not get.
  2. You have internalized the multitude of cultural messages about what it means to be a man, women, friend, parent, spouse, successful business person, etc.
  3. It feels familiar. We are wired to seek homeostasis and that means we seek out what feels familiar, but what is familiar is not always positive.

Increasing your awareness of the patterns driving your interactions in turn increases your overall relational intelligence. Brain science shows us that we are wired to connect—it is critical to our survival. Relational intelligence is certainly important in creating fulfilling personal relationships, but it matters in your business as well. As technologies challenge human interaction and our economy becomes more service-orientated, building and maintaining quality relationships is the difference between a successful and failing business.

Understanding your relational patterns begins with an intentional exploration. It can be small: pick one person with whom you have a relationship and begin to pay attention to the issues that come up, how you respond to them, and the feelings that are evoked. It can be useful to journal or take notes, and attempt to make connections to your previous relationship experiences. Is it familiar to feelings you had in your early life? Does it remind you of anyone else? Do your reactions/behaviors resemble someone from your early life? It is usually easiest to start with lower stakes relationships (i.e., those in which the emotions involved are less intense than others). It can be very difficult to do this type of work on your own because these patterns are so embedded you cannot get far enough away from them to gain perspective. If you are struggling to understand your patterns, seek out the help of a trusted mentor or friend, or find a qualified psychotherapist who specializes in relationship dynamics. Regardless of your approach, invest some time in it. It is worth it.

Content provided by Women Belong member Kate Engler