Have you ever wondered why some relationships just click and others drive us nuts?
Does your partner ever get under your skin for reasons you can’t quite understand? Do your friends tick you off without meaning to? Do certain people’s comments hurt you (even though you’re sure they didn’t mean it)? You chalk it up to just how it is or how different relationship dynamics play out, but relationships among people are more complicated than that.
When you find yourself really bothered by something someone says or does, it’s a great opportunity to explore the deeper reasons why—to see what’s going on under the surface.
As it turns out, your partner pissing you off by being on the phone, failing to replace the toilet paper roll, or making a joke at your expense isn’t about them being a “jerk.” It’s about the whole history of interactions that came long before they were even in the picture.
This realization may feel scary at first. We all want to believe we’re always in control of our feelings and emotions, no matter the situation, but we’re fooling ourselves. The reality is a significant portion of our personality—our likes, dislikes, beliefs, feelings, and reactions—are set long before we’re even aware of it. Much of this makeup, or our “matrix,” is formed when we’re very young.
So how does our matrix affect our relationship dynamics? How does it play into our romantic relationships and friendships? Does it really all come back to our relationship with our parents? Most importantly, can we change relationship dynamics?
How Our Early Experiences Affect Our Relationship Dynamics
Our past experiences have a direct and complex effect on our present relationships. When we’re babies, our interactions with our parents shape and “wire” our brains. We depend on our parents for our very survival; when we’re infants, our mother is our entire world. This shapes us in many profound ways and lays the foundation of our matrix early on. This includes our beliefs about ourselves and our place within the world.
If we don’t decide to examine, explore, and change these beliefs, they will dictate our lives and behavior, including our relationship dynamics. If you’ve ever noticed your partner’s behavior ticks you off because it reminds you of your mother or father, this is an example of your matrix influencing your perception.
So, why can’t we just shut this off? None of us likes to believe that our feelings and beliefs might be beyond our control, right? Well, sometimes, the memories and pieces of our makeup are unconscious. They’re so deeply buried in our core we don’t even realize they’re happening.
Has someone ever just bothered you for seemingly no reason? Maybe you look back later and think, “what was that all about?” or “I don’t know why, but she just bugs me.”
Interactions with others may trigger a series of feelings and emotions for reasons we can’t even understand. We may get hurt, angry, or sad because of the behavior of our partner or friends, but we do not completely understand why these feelings come up. Why do they piss us off so much? This is especially puzzling when little actions of others bother us but don’t seem to bother anyone else.
These early-instilled beliefs, conscious and unconscious, affect our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and actions. They even affect who we choose to pursue a relationship with.
You may find yourself inexplicably drawn to the “bad boy” or “good girl-next-door” for reasons that aren’t so clear. Or you may find yourself in an echo chamber of friends with similar beliefs, backgrounds, and tastes. Occasionally you meet a stranger that you just hit it off with—you click with certain people for reasons you can’t even explain.
These relationships among people are examples of how your matrix plays a part in how you interact with others, how close you allow them to get, how comfortable you are expressing your feelings, and how you feel about intimacy.
So, does this mean we’re all doomed to feel irritated with our partners for unconscious reasons? Or we’re only going to get along with people who remind us (or don’t) of our parents? No! Of course not.
We can’t do anything to change our past, but we certainly have control over the here and now. Not a single person had a perfect childhood (and if you think you did, you’re fooling yourself!) But how exciting is it that, as adults, we can continue to fill in those gaps, grow, and evolve into our fullest potential? By identifying these lessons from our past, we can use them to form better, more dynamic relationships and deeper connections.
This early matrix encoded in our neural circuitry works almost entirely within our implicit memory, which means it is outside of our conscious awareness. Implicit memories are stored sensations and feelings, which aren’t attached to an explicit event or memory in time. Early memories are formed before we have language, logical thought, or explicit recall (Siegel 2012a). Chances are you don’t remember exact incidents when your parent picked you up in your crib and reassured you as you cried or how often your diapers were changed, what you wore, how your mother smelled, the color of your bedroom, or what lullaby your father sang to you. It is only within the middle of our second year that we start to develop explicit memory where we remember specific incidents and details.
Why does all this matter? Because while implicit memories from the past are stored outside of our awareness, they arise in the present moment, and are masked by what we think we are experiencing in the current moment. Our matrix shapes our present experiences from the implicit foundation. When we are angry, panicking, or feeling deeply hurt, our present feelings often stem from our implicit memories, and we assume the present situation is causing our reaction.
When strong implicit memories are triggered, unbeknownst to us, childhood pain and fear comes raging to the surface. This may happen when you sense your partner isn’t there for you, for instance, and you don’t have a clue that you just activated a pain pocket from your matrix through an implicit memory. You think your charged emotional reaction is all due to your partner’s insensitivity, and while that is a trigger, the bulk of the charge is coming from the past.
—The Heart of the Fight
To identify and examine the root of our feelings, in this case, our frustration or anger, we must look closer to figure out what’s triggered our reaction. Our partner may have done something insensitive or just plain crummy. Our feelings are validly hurt by their actions, but it’s important to recognize the hurt is often stemming from several places (not one insensitive misstep).
Express What You REALLY Want
We all know we want certain qualities in a relationship, but we may not understand why we want our partner or friends to act a certain way (and why it frustrates us so much when they don’t.) For example, many of us feel frustrated when we can’t seem to get our partner’s attention when they “phub” us in favor of their smartphones. Granted, there’s a lot to be said for putting down your phone and truly engaging, but do you ever ponder why it bothers you so much when someone brings out their phone at the dinner table?
When we’re interacting with someone else, we’re asking for their attention. We’re basically saying, “hey see me!” We want them to see us honestly, in the here and now. It’s a universal yearning many people share—to be seen, to connect, and to engage.
When our partner instead opts for their phone screen, our yearning isn’t being met. Consequently, we feel hurt. Now, it’s not up to them to meet all our yearnings. We are responsible for our own emotions and feelings. But we can certainly explore where our frustrations are coming from so we can speak up and say, “Hey, I feel ignored, and it’s hurting me. Put the phone down!”
As infants, we have a powerful desire to see and be seen. From those early moments, our survival depended on getting attention (in this case, from our mothers.) When we didn’t get attention, we were triggered to cry and make our presence known. After all, we relied on our mother for food, safety, and existence.
Studies show that babies read emotion by looking at their mothers’ faces. When a mother is non-reactive, the baby cries even if the mother is there. We want acknowledgment, not simply a presence on the other side of the dinner table. We want to be seen! We want our existence known! We want our partner to look up from the screen and into our eyes!
No wonder it gets under our skin when our partner scrolls through social media instead of engaging with us over the dinner table. By examining how these feelings started, we can better express our likes and dislikes. We can express our frustrations and ask that our partner acknowledge us and tell us they’re seeing us. We can ask that they listen to us and meet our yearning to be seen and heard. Often, a simple realization and request are all it takes.
When we examine the origin of our feelings, beliefs, and make up—our matrix—we start to understand ourselves more completely. We can engage in all our relationships among people more clearly and improve our dynamics with all those we interact with.
For more on improving your relationship dynamics, visit the Wright Foundation website. Join us for a weekend where we’ll explore these topics in-depth and help you build connections with others seeking to strengthen their relationships and maximize their potential. We also want to announce the availability of many of our courses for download. Don’t miss out on the special introductory price for many of our courses and lectures.