Issue 11 June 2004

From Default to Choice:

A Re-programming of Your Relationship “Software”

Hal Stone, Ph.D. & Sidra L. Stone, Ph.D.

There is more to each of us than we ever expected – we are richer and more complex – and our relationships can help us to see this. They can teach us about who we really are; they can help us to expand our choices and to live our lives more fully and with more excitement than we’d ever dreamed possible.

But this requires that we look at ourselves and at our relationships in a new way. It means that we no longer think of ourselves as unitary beings, but as being made up of many selves – like diamonds, we have many facets, each different, each brilliant and beautiful once we understand its meaning in our lives. When looked at in this new way, life becomes full of possibilities and relationship becomes a path to the realization of these possibilities.

Let us see how this works.

Our Selves

When we are born we are a mass of possible selves. But as we grow up in a certain family and in a certain place, some of these selves begin to dominate our personalities – we call them the primary selves – and others are pushed aside – we call them the disowned selves. Which selves become primary and which get disowned varies from person to person and depends upon a combination of their basic genetic makeup and the effects of the environment in which they grow up.

So some of us grow up more responsible and others are less responsible, some are perfectionistic and others are more relaxed, some care a great deal about what others think and others couldn’t care less, some work hard all the time and can’t seem to stop and others really know how to relax, some are self-critical and others criticize the rest of the world, some rely primarily on their thinking for gathering information and others on their feelings. The differences go on and on.

What is similar about all of these is that each of us has a set of these primary selves and – equal and opposite – a set of disowned selves. The primary selves are our current assets or who we are in the world, the disowned selves represent our untapped potential.

Our Relationships

Just as we have narrowed down the possibilities of who we are by developing a group of primary selves and disowning the rest, in relationship we narrow down our possibilities of interacting with others. When just a few selves take over and control the relationship – as they do for everyone from time to time – we have little choice in the way we relate and we behave automatically. We think of this as the “default setting” in relationship.

So the first change in the way you look at your relationships is to realize that relationships are between two groups of selves – not two people. When this default setting takes over, most people eventually feel trapped, and the trap feels unpleasantly familiar.

The nature of this trap varies from person to person. For example: (1) Mary feels as though she can’t use her brains, but John feels as though his brains are working just fine but he is emotionally paralyzed and he can’t feel any feelings or (2) Susie feels very competent and responsible for everybody, while Andy just feels more and more incompetent and not able to care for himself, much less anyone else.

But there is a basic pattern for this default setting and we call it a “bonding pattern.”

Bonding Patterns – The Default Setting in Relationship

The default setting in relationship is a natural one that is programmed into us at birth. We call this template a “bonding pattern”. It is the normal and natural way that the baby relates to its mother and the mother relates to the baby; it’s the way in which we give and receive nurturance. If the baby didn’t relate by taking nourishment from the mother and the mother didn’t feel good about giving nourishment to the baby – if there is no bonding – there is trouble. Without this parent/child bonding, the baby doesn’t thrive.

But, when we are no longer infants this default position for relationship remains and is no longer so useful. If we look carefully, we find that we are relating to others in the same parent/child fashion. The mother or father in us relates to the child self in another and, conversely, the child self in us relates to the mother or father in the other. This is still natural and normal – but for most people it is no longer rewarding. There are many ways in which this can show itself and we can’t look at them all here, but we can give you an example of this default setting – a classic bonding pattern.

Mary is a feeling person and has a tendency to become a caretaker. This caretaking self in her would “bond in” with John’s unspoken needs and take care of him. When her “default setting” takes over, she must take care of John and his unspoken feelings even if this means she does not take care of herself – she has no choice in the matter – a role she invariably assumes with men. As this happens, his default setting takes over and he becomes more and more rational in his behavior and distances more and more from his own feelings. He has no choice in the matter either – he becomes the thinker and planner in the relationship – and he is the responsible, stoic, well-organized father, a role he invariably assumes with women.

When we look at this bonding pattern, we can see that the mother part of Mary is taking care of the son part of John while the father part of John is taking care of the daughter part of Mary. Neither has any real choice in the matter, and neither can bring the fullness of themselves to the other. John can’t feel his feelings and Mary can’t use her brains.

Beyond the Bonding Patterns

Think of it as setting the preferences on your computer. You can still use the default settings, but you now have choice. You can change the details of the relationship – just the way you can change the preferences on your computer -so they suit you.

So if we go back to Mary, once she moves beyond the bonding pattern she has choice. She may still take care of John’s emotional needs, but she now can take her own emotional needs into consideration. She can also see that John carries a very important disowned self for her – the mind that she had totally forgotten about, the mind that she had disowned when she was a little girl. She can use her relationship to John to help her reclaim her mind rather than depending upon him to carry the thinking for both of them for the rest of their lives. She then has access to both her feelings and her thinking.

And John can have choice as well. He may still want to carry most of the responsibility for thinking things through, but he can begin to ask Mary to figure things out and to take some responsibility for the planning in their lives. He can learn about his feelings and begin to pay attention to them. He can use the relationship to Mary as a way to reclaim the feelings that he never knew he had, the feelings he disowned when he was a boy and he developed his mind as a primary self. Thus it is that relationship can become a powerful teacher for both of them.

The Possibilities

You can begin to see the amazing possibilities for growth (and healing) that open up for you when you look at your relationships in this way. We will be giving you more details about bonding patterns in the coming months. In the meantime, you can think about your own relationships and your own primary and disowned selves. We explore bonding patterns in depth in our videos, The Voice Dialogue Series.