To Get Close, You Must Undo Dysfunctional Bonding Patterns
What is a bonding pattern? It’s essentially the way that a couple relate to each other. In terms of the well-known and popular theory of transactional analysis (TA), a bonding pattern might be seen in exchanges (“transactions”) between the two members of a couple which look more like the exchanges between a parent and child.
In TA terms this would be regarded as a parent-child transaction. Of course, there are plenty of occasions when it’s appropriate for a couple to relate to each other in ways that are reminiscent of a mother or father relating to a child: we all need comfort and reassurance occasionally. Problems start when two people become locked into a fixed and inappropriate way of relating.
For one thing, the more like a parent your partner behaves, the less you will want to have sex with them. Even on a practical level, apart from a co-dependent masochist, who would wish to have sex with somebody who was bossing them around like a parent treating a wayward child?
And most man will get tired of being a naive woman’s “daddy”, cheering her up and reassuring her, in the face of her anxiety and self-doubt.
And any man who walks through the door at the end of a hard day at work to be greeted by a barrage of instructions that would be more appropriate between a mother and child will rapidly get turned off. These things are not appropriate in any sexual relationship, let alone a long term one.
Equally, a woman who is treated like a child by an overbearing and arrogant partner isn’t going to feel much attraction to him sexually. And so on.
You can probably identify within your own relationship the transactions between you and your partner (this simply means the things you say and the way you act) that can lead to the crossed parent-child transactions, the inappropriate responses, and inevitably the unhelpful emotional reactions.
But whatever you call these inappropriate transactions, they get in the way of a real relationship as adult equals, and they destroy your sex life. In order to consistently treat each other both physically and psychologically as adults, there needs to be a process of undoing these unhelpful bonding patterns. The best relationships come from a meeting of the clear, clean strong archetypes of a man and a woman, without historical shadows triggering each of them into a place of conflict. (Read about the human shadow here, and why it can destroy relationships. You can hear more in this podcast about the shadow, too.)
Undo Parental Transference
Bonding patterns are all about parental transference. This isn’t psychobabble, it is simply common sense. Of course no adult likes to be treated like a child, and whenever this happens within a relationship trouble starts.
But it’s all too easy for us to fall back into the roles of mother and father to our partners, prompted very often by their behaviour which reminds us of those incredibly powerful and long-lasting roles that we learnt during our family upbringing.
So how, then, do we get ourselves out of the place where we see our wife as our mother and our husband as our father? (By the way, these bonding patterns apply to unmarried couples and couples living together just as much as they do to married couples.)
Well, first of all, you do not have to completely abandon these roles, for there are places within a relationship where they are entirely appropriate. This could include when you are comforting or advising your partner, or when they feel vulnerable or ill, for example.
Nonetheless, mature or and adult men and women must learn to make the transition from parental roles to adult roles, and they must do this with a sense of their own power and emotional maturity.
When a couple are interacting in a way that both of them feel might be more appropriate to the interaction between child and parent, it’s possible for one or both of them to intervene using their adult mature personality.
What this might mean in practice depends on the circumstances. If, for example, a man arrives home after a hard day at work and wants to be comforted by his partner, then, yes of course she can do this. However, she may choose to do it for a limited time using her adult discretion to decide when it would be appropriate to shift the emotional states by saying something like “and now you can hear about my day.”
A great place to start undoing parental transference is with simple physical affection — the sensuous feeling of skin to skin. It’s a constant amazement to me how simple bodily contact, that is to say, naked bodily contact, can get us beyond the emotional blocks and neuroses that affect our interactions in everyday life.
Since naked skin to skin contact is a powerful sexual signal, it can be a powerful way of releasing the inhibitions that afflict our intimate sexual relationships. It’s also very easy to make the transition between nonsexual touch and sexual touch.
All you have to do is to make the touch into a sexual or potentially sexual stimulus: so, for example, that might mean taking your partner into the bedroom and embracing and comforting them, but also taking pleasure in the intimate physical exchange yourself.
As your embrace moves from the nonsexual to the sexual parts of the body, you will both gradually slip into a place of sensuality which reflects the adult-adult relationship between you. (A meeting of adult King and adult Queen, in archetypal terms. The whole concept of shadow and archetypes is explained here. You can read about these archetypes here. Read more about the shadow here.)
The point I’m getting at here is that by starting with nonsexual touch and transitioning into sexual touch, you can unscramble the roles of mother/father and lover/lover.
A good way to increase the distance between parent-child transactions and a lover-lover relationship is to consciously start in a position that could be adopted between parent and child: for example, a woman can start by cradling her partner’s head on her breasts and gradually turn this into a lover/lover relationship.
As the lovers allow themselves to become fully aware of the potentially sexual nature of the embrace, they can follow wherever it may take them.
We discussed earlier the phenomenon of turning yourself off: so it’s important that as you do this you do not turn yourself off or revert to a parent-child transaction.
Instead allow yourself to be turned on, to move from the embrace of parent and child to the sexual embrace of two lovers. If you are a woman doing this to your partner, you might like to slip your hand gently under his shirt and start caressing his chess.
From there, it’s only a short step downwards to undoing his trousers and caressing his stomach. And from there it’s an even shorter step down to caressing his penis. Do you begin to see how this sort of exercise can take you from a parental place to an adult lover’s place? You’re not denying any aspect of your relationship with each other, whether this is parent-child or adult-adult.
We are so programmed to slip easily into a critical, judgemental place, and it is this, perhaps, which turns people off each other faster than anything.
I would suggest one of the major causes of erectile dysfunction is hostility to a partner: you can read more about this here. Rather, you’re delineating the boundary between the parental aspect of your relationship and the adult sexual aspect of your relationship.
It is helpful at times to identify anything within your relationship that might be adding to the parent-child dynamic. There’s a certain charm for some women in the boyish irresponsibility that they see in their partner; however, that boyish charm can quickly become irritating if he’s incapable of finding his socks or doing his own washing.
Needless to say of course, men who fall into this category will often have good reason to criticise their female partners for acting like a housewife and mommy, telling them where to put their shoes or how to clean up or how to do jobs.
It’s amazing how women can emasculate men, and equally startling how men can infantilise women without even really trying.
This can be particularly true of the people who are married: marriage itself, as we discussed earlier, can infantilise people by putting them back in the relationships they occupied in their own families as children.
If you feel that your relationship is claustrophobic, and that the only time when you have the freedom to behave as an adult is when you get out of the house, then you definitely need to look at issues of parental transference between the two of you. Monogamy will not be likely to survive healthily when the two individuals are in a co-dependent relationship.