Issue 31 – January 2008
THE THEORY OF BONDING PATTERNS
The Selves and Relationship
We are giving a very short version of our theoretical structure. This material is available in detailed form in our books, CDs and Video Series. In this article we are attempting to give you a more sweeping view of where we have come from. Someone who worked with us in the late 1970’s or 1980’s cannot help but have a very limited idea of what we are doing today. We do not enjoy stagnation and neither does our unconscious. When some new idea emerged or methodology changed then we let it change. Sometimes we weren’t even aware of a change, it evolved so naturally. It is confusing to many people to watch this happen. For us, it is very exciting to see the work evolve and to bring everyone along as a part of this process.
We met in 1972 and we were married in 1977. This article is not about our personal life. We raised five children between us and the personal work we were doing with each other helped us enormously in understanding our parental role. These were also the years when Sidra was the Executive Director of Hamburger Home, a residential treatment center for adolescent girls and Hal was the Director of the Center for the Healing Arts. Our professional lives were completely separate, but our work together and the evolution of our thinking were central aspects of our lives.
Those five years of work clarified our relationship and made marriage possible. We were using Voice Dialogue in our respective practices and Hal had started to do some teaching of the process at the Center. It was becoming increasingly clear to us that in relationship the selves were constantly interacting with the selves of the other person.
With our marriage, however, some of the interactions between us were turning quite sour. Old patterns suddenly emerged but with a new partner – a partner who was totally different from the previous one. We called one another by the names of our former spouses . We found ourselves judging each other – often for the same qualities that had attracted us to one another in the first place. We literally became other people – judgmental, closed, and humorless. Underneath it all there was a vague feeling of betrayal, helplessness and desperation.
What was happening? Was marriage necessarily the end of love? There had to be a way of understanding these painfully divisive interactions, of bringing them under some kind of control. We wanted our relationship back. We knew that the selves we had worked with over the previous years had something to do with this. It was obvious to us that a set of selves had taken charge of our relationship. There was no more “us”, there was no more connection, and the vulnerable children that were a part of our relationship from the very beginning were nowhere to be found.
This was the start of a remarkable three months of a new kind of exploration. We looked at the selves that had taken over our relationship and tried to figure out what was really going on. We wrote down and diagrammed out every negative interaction that we had. We did this over and over and over again until a pattern began to emerge. We began to see how these negative interactions followed a basically simple pattern that repeated itself.
Hal would get angry with Sidra and suddenly he was no longer Hal, he was a cold judgmental father talking to her. She became a victim/defensive daughter and argued back. Then, in the blink of an eye, she became a judgmental mother – withdrawn, critical and cold – and although Hal became a hurt and vulnerable son to this cruel mother, still his judgmental father attacked. There were always four selves (or sets of selves) involved. We replayed this scenario over and over again but now we were beginning to see the pattern. We looked for all the selves involved in these interactions. Some were more apparent than others. But they were always all there.
We named this pattern a “bonding pattern” in recognition that it was basically a set of parent/child interactions. We also felt that this was a way to honor it as a normal way of relating as contrasted to a pathological one. In those years, we looked at these patterns as basically an interaction between power selves and disempowered selves. As time went on, our views of this have clarified and the parent/child nature of the interaction has become ever more apparent and we have come to see the bonding pattern as the basic default pattern in all relationships.
We discovered other constants in these interactions. All bonding patterns grew out of the negation or disowning of vulnerability. This took many forms, but it was always present. When our interactions became negative we could always trace back to a time when we lost contact with our core vulnerability (or what we called our Inner Child). Something had happened to hurt it, to frighten it off and we had ignored this, instead we had reacted in a more seemingly adult fashion. We had basically disowned our vulnerable child. If we could hold on to the child, (or to our vulnerability) and took care of this directly, these negative patterns lost their power; they didn’t need to play themselves out.
The other constant we discovered was a truism that we had recognized from our early dealings with selves. Whatever you judge is a disowned self of your own. In these negative interactions, or bonding patterns, our judgments would flare up and assume center stage. We looked carefully at this. Gradually it became clear to us that as we reacted to each other negatively we were, in fact, being given pictures of our own disowned selves. If we recognized this, we could use it as a teaching in our own relationship – and we could help others see this in theirs.
This was almost painful to realize. We had hoped we were beyond this. Besides, our judgments were so much fun. It was such a wonderful feeling to pin the other up against the wall with brilliant and self-righteous criticisms. It was so wonderful to be unquestionably right.
If, however, our judgments are reflections of our disowned selves, then where’s the fun? How can one feel righteous in the middle of a “righteous dance” in full knowledge of the fact that you are basically attacking your own disowned self or selves?
We had some wild and (in retrospect) funny interchanges as we closed in on the bonding pattern theory. One evening we were still arguing over a particular bonding pattern at 11:00 PM and Sidra finally said that she was exhausted and going to bed. Hal continued to work on the pattern, simmering in the heat of his judgments and furious at Sidra’s comment that he wasn’t in his Aware Ego. After about 10 minutes Hal stormed into the bedroom and with great grace and dignity yelled at her: “I am too in an Aware Ego.” We both laughed and that was the end of that one. Such is the snake-like path of the co-exploration of consciousness.
Our excitement at this time was enormous. What was emerging was something quite new. It was something that worked for us in everyday life. It was a simple, precise and elegant way of looking at relationships that had a sense of a mathematical certainty and balance. Later we came to think of it as a kind of technology of relationship.
Our excitement about all of this was magnified as we realized that the theory of bonding patterns gave us a very creative (and non-pathologizing) way to look at the transference. The same principles were operating. The only difference is that we refer to it as transference if we get paid and bonding patterns if we don’t. We’ve come to call this “The Psychology of the Transference”.
There was immediate gratification from our discovery of bonding patterns. We felt better. Feelings of love and intimacy returned. Of course, we had to accustom ourselves to the loss of self-righteousness (that deliciously seductive feeling) but we were a lot happier with each other.
There’s something wonderfully freeing about escaping from a negative bonding pattern. And it totally changed the nature of working with couples, making it a joy rather than a nightmare. Teaching people about the bonding patterns and then working with the selves created a wonderful path to change and we used it ourselves with increasing effectiveness.
It was much later that we began to attend to the positive bonding patterns and to realize how often these set the stage for the appearance of negative ones.