4 Unconscious Relationship Habits
The first time I read about the concept of conscious relationships I felt a mixture of hope and despair. For one, it allowed me to believe that it was possible to have a relationship that is healthy, safe, and even supports growth and inspires creativity. On the other hand, the state of my current relationships was so far from the definition of “conscious” that I felt a wave of shame wash over me.
Learning I was the definition of “unconscious” when it came to love felt like a punch in the gut. It was also a wake up call to begin untangling unhealthy patterns and to begin imagining what love could look like if I took responsibility for how I was showing up in my relationships.
I am going to be summarizing some of the information presented in Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment by Dr. Gay Hendricks and Dr. Kathlyn Hendricks. They outline 9 traps of unconscious loving before they get into their steps towards co-commitment which they describe as the following:
“A co-committed relationship is one in which two or more people support each other in being whole, complete individuals. The commitment is to go all the way, to letting the relationship be the catalyst for the individuals to express their full potential and creativity. In a co-committed relationship between two people, each takes 100 percent responsibility for his or her life and for the results each creates.”
Disclaimer: I don’t think it is realistic to expect to be in a fully conscious relationship all of the time. We are human, after all. We are inherently imperfect and we all have bad days, bad weeks, and even bad years. Although I’ve found the ideas around conscious relationships and unconscious patterns helpful, it is not a way of thinking that works for everyone (my partner included). So as always, take what serves you and leave the rest.
You let destructive behaviour slide
The first two traps described in Conscious Loving have to do with allowing destructive behaviour to take place in the relationship. This may mean that we let our partner get away with destructive behaviour or that we seek out relationships where our partners will allow our destructive behaviour to slide.
For many years, I chose partners who would tolerate, and at times, encourage, my drinking habits. I was binge drinking every weekend and it was not uncommon for this to play into conflict in the relationship. I didn’t want a partner who would challenge me and I somehow (unconsciously) was adept at choosing partners who would accept this part of me, despite how unhealthy the relationships were as a whole.
The way out of this unconscious trap can’t come from a place of self-righteousness or a belief that we know our partners better than they know themselves. It needs to be gentle, humble, and loving. In the words of Erich Fromm in his book The Art of Loving:
“I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me.”
Holding our partners (and ourselves) accountable in a way that is compassionate seems more akin to an art form than a straightforward skill. On one level we want someone to love and accept us for who we are, but we may also want someone to push us to take responsibility for our own health and well-being.
Patterns formed in childhood are on repeat
If we grew up in homes where our needs were not consistently met by our caregivers, we may not know how to be close to others in a way that feels safe. These experiences in childhood can result in patterns of behaviour for meeting our needs (usually unsuccessfully) that we carry with us well into adulthood.
For me, this looked like dating men who were emotionally unavailable (a pattern that I don’t think is all that uncommon). Their withdrawal and silence were intoxicating to me. It was like the challenge of getting them to notice me — to love me — drove me into a bit of trance. This happened over and over again. The more unavailable, the more I wanted them.
I’ve found getting out of this trap requires a lot of love both for ourselves and our partners. We can’t will and guilt ourselves out of this one. Often these patterns are deeply rooted in fear, such as a fear of abandonment or being unlovable. If we can have patience and care for the “little” version of ourselves and our partners, it can help us notice when these patterns arise with a sense of ease and compassion.
You are always fighting or you don’t fight at all
The first part of this one may seem obvious: if you are always fighting, there is probably an unconscious trap at play here. The other, however, surprised me. I always put the couples who doted, “we never fight,” on a pedestal, wow, I thought, they are so much more mature than I am.
My relationships were always riddled with conflict. Part of me despised conflict and wished that I could find peace in my relationships. Yet, strangely, it felt like love. My partner fighting with me meant that they were still in it with me. The drama and intensity felt like home and without it, I would find myself becoming bored and disconnected.
As Gay and Kathlyn say:
“If one or both persons as conflict addicts, there is no space for intimacy and co-commitment to unfold. Conflict addicts spend their time and energy preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from uproar.”
On the other hand, never fighting may be indicative of an avoidance of conflict which may mean there are things in the relationship that are being left unsaid:
“The opposite is also part of this pattern: you avoid conflict by sidestepping it, minimizing it, or refusing to consider negative feelings.”
This makes me think of a beautiful essay that was read on the Modern Love podcast called “What the Silence Said”. I never understood how not fighting could be indicative that there is anything wrong. Laura Pritchett’s beautiful essay helped me to understand.
Your relationship perpetuates your dependence
I have to say I think in the world of popular psychology about relationships we overuse the term “co-dependent.” Gail and Kathlyn, however, define true independence and I think it is worth exploring:
“Most people think of independence as being able to stand alone successfully, but true independence is something else entirely. It is the ability to stand alone and have close relationships. It is not hard at all to withdraw to a cave or a monastery to be independent. True independence requires that you be able to relate closely to others while maintaining your sense of self.”
The challenge here is learning how to be completely ourselves while in union with another person. For some of us, this may come relatively easily. For those of us with an avoidant or anxious attachment style, or difficulties arising from a myriad of other relational challenges, this may be a task that will take a lot of conscious effort.
I also think it is important to recognize that it is okay to need other people. Perhaps where this need becomes problematic, and what Gail and Kathlyn are referring to, is when we need someone to make us feel complete or whole.
In the wise words of Dr. Sue Johnson:
“Emotional dependency is not immature or pathological; it is our greatest strength.”
This is a list of only half of the unconscious traps that Gay and Kathlyn outline in their book Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. If you are interested in reading about the rest and accompanying examples from their work with couples, you might find reading the book to be worthwhile.
These words by Gay and Kathlyn remind us that dealing with the shadow parts of our relationship—no matter how unpleasant and painful they may be to face—are a natural part of human relationships:
“A close relationship is a powerful light force, and like any strong light it casts a large shadow. When you stand in the light of a close relationship, you must learn to deal with the shadow.”
In the exploration of conscious relationships, I think it is important to remember that no matter where we are on our journey, we are still worthy of love. These ideas of love can give us ideals to work towards, but if we aren’t able to find contentment in our half-conscious relationships, we may be setting ourselves up for disappointment. It does not mean we are flawed if we find ourselves trapped in these unconscious habits from time to time—if anything—it just makes us a little bit more human.