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Understanding Bonding Patterns - Introduction


While you are in one you can’t see it.....

How understanding the way patterns work helps you get out of them faster   

One of the more complex aspects of inner self work are what Hal and Sidra Stone describe as ‘bonding patterns’. In ordinary terms the negative version is what you and I would call 'a bad fight'. The opposite is a couple in a positive bonding pattern who may go for years and never have a fight even when they need to, to clear the air. Let's look at an example.

A negative bonding pattern

Jill arrives home and makes a comment as she comes through the door. "This house is a mess!" Her partner Jack has just finished a long day fixing Jill's car and is feeling rather good about how much he has achieved. He has been looking forward to her return and giving her a big hug and a loving kiss then telling her about the car and accepting her appreciation. This means he’s in a vulnerable state with few boundaries. To Jack, her comments sound like a ‘critical parent’. He feels judged and blamed for not having moved all the car parts and tools out of the kitchen before she arrived home and that triggers his underlying vulnerability. Jack tells himself  "If the house is a mess it’s my fault."  He  reacts by feeling more like a guilty son/child.

Of course, what he thinks he hears may not be what Jill meant, but once Jack is triggered his unbalanced core beliefs take over and he tells himself "She doesn’t appreciate me, I’m being rejected and it’s my fault." In any case, his reaction (‘guilty un-appreciated child’) is quickly replaced as he loops into one of his own one-above ‘parent’  selves. This self  takes over and directs stronger blame, anger and criticism towards Jill (and also help him stop feeling guilty and therefore less vulnerable).

Jack hits back, "I've just spent all day fixing your car and that's the thanks I get from you!". Attacking Jill like this makes him feel more like a strong parent again. His critical father's attack self helps protect his vulnerable ‘child’ so he feels better. It’s a natural process and we all do it.  

Initially Jack’s ‘angry father’ energy is a little more powerful than Jill’s original ‘critical parent’.  Jill's inner critic beats her up and tells her how ungrateful she was when Jack had been working all day on her car. This pulls her down into the guilty child position:.

Jill bursts into tears "Oh Jack that was so selfish of me. I am a rotten person. What can I do to make it up to you?"

But Jill can't stay in vulnerability. So it’s the turn of one of Jill’s even stronger ‘parent’ one-above selves to join in and to protect her. Her judgemental parent self might tell Jill she must fight back against Jack's bullying control (this helps to stop her feeling guilty).

Example:   "Every time I try to talk to you, about a simple problem you make it seem like  it's my fault. I hate you!"

This makes her seem to Jack more like a powerful parent and he reacts to her "I hate you" by feeling like an unloved child. Her selves were only doing this to protect her ‘vulnerable child’ but since they are so strong the effect is to throw Jack back into the weaker child position ...... and you know what his protector selves are going to do about that!

Notice when Jack is in a ‘child’ or one-below energy state that feels like ‘poor me - I’m unloved’ this is the same time as Jill is in the opposite energy state of ‘blaming critical parent’. The flip side is when the two change over so Jack becomes 'judging father' and Jill is 'guilty child'. Repeating this again and again, sets the stage for a long term enmeshed relationship made up of almost continual bondings with occasional breaks when Jack and Jill tell themselves 'we are having a good day". In fact it may be that they may have only moved into a short term positive bonding pattern as explained in Understanding and Drawing Bonding patterns.

Don't waste time analysing one individual pattern or trying to resolve that individual 'solution' - there cannot be one

Once negative bonding is established it gains more energy with each round. But understanding bonding patterns and getting out of them takes more than analysing the details of the pattern as we have done in the example above. It is humanly impossible to 'solve' or 'resolve' any one individual bonding pattern so spending time on this is futile. Analysing details from one pattern (the story above for example) is wasting time.

What does help is to notice the ways in which every pattern the same person does is the same, only the details change. Jill did one pattern with Jack, before breakfast and another one afterwards, got to work and did one with her boss, three with customers, a couple more with colleagues, another with the bus driver on the way home was ready for the one we came in on above, as she walked through the door. Meanwhile, since Jill went off this morning, Jack has had several on the phone with his ex-wife and his teenage daughter, one with Jill's car when it wouldn't start, one with the dog and another with his computer. It didn't help that Jack wasn't ready for another one when Jill walked through the door because the pattern was ready and it was waiting for him to get back into it.

Underlying vulnerability - the issue at the heart of every pattern

The only value in analysing one particular negative bonding pattern, is if it helps Jack and Jill's see that the common factor is about each person's underlying vulnerability and see that this is what drives all their patterns. For both of them, all today's patterns have been focused around blaming or being blamed, a point of deep vulnerability for both Jack and Jill.  In future patterns the same vulnerability will re-appear again and again. This is explained on a separate page about recognising  underlying vulnerability, its affect on the vulnerable child and the selves and how we get enmeshed in bonding patterns driven by it.

Why is it so hard to see a pattern while we are "in it"?

Bonding patterns are often characterised by an incredibly high level of 'not seeing' or 'not noticing' on both sides, yet identifying  the underlying vulnerability is essential if you are to understand a bonding pattern. If you can stay in awareness long enough to see the primary self driving the pattern (and separate from it) then see your own underlying vulnerability (and your partner's too) you can get yourself out of the pattern. However, if your primary self and the other person’s primary self are both identifying with the "me" in each of us it is very hard to get even a clue that we are in the pattern let alone see it clearly.   

This is not easy, even experienced facilitators have trouble seeing their own patterns while they are in them. There is little visual evidence that would help identification. Often if anything is visible it is seen only through the eyes of the primary self which means it may be severely distorted. Primary selves have a habit of stopping us seeing our own vulnerability at any time, they just do it more in a bonding pattern.

Part of the difficulty  in  understanding these patterns is that each bonding pattern involves one of your strongest primary selves interacting in a powerful way with someone else’s primary self to the exclusion of most other selves and adult awareness.  You seldom get into a bonding pattern except when a primary self thinks it "is" you. A self in this position has a powerful sense of knowing that what it sees as true and real, must be true and cannot be questioned.

Bonding patterns are  better explained graphically

This is getting a bit complicated for words alone so to help here, most classic voice dialogue facilitators use a diagram to illustrate the pattern in a more visual form. The diagram is based on one that Hal and Sidra Stone have used for many years. The more I understand bonding patterns the more I find it helps to illustrate them in this way. The more patterns I draw, the more I come to understand that all my patterns are the same. All this is explained on a second page. Understanding and Drawing Bonding patterns  A third page Getting out of Bonding Patterns  suggests ways of using these diagrams to help you get into awareness and out of a bonding pattern (as well as some other ways to get out of or stop a  pattern).

See also Negative Bonding patterns - case studies

Getting out of bonding patterns

It's worth reminding yourself at this point that in the entire history of civilisation (over the past 80,000 odd years) no two human beings have ever been able to talk themselves into a 'soft landing' by staying in this kind of negative exchange until they solve it. The longer the patterns continues the worse they get. Rather than lessening the vulnerability, the closing stages of each pattern are characterised by the strongest of all the selves on one side 'winning the day' leaving the other person feeling devastated because they have no self to match it.

However, once you learn to tune in to the warnings from your body you can do something to stop the overheating early in the life of the pattern. There are ways your aware ego or inner parents can halt whatever your primary self is doing or saying to keep the fight going. What can you do? See Getting out of Bonding Patterns

Long term negative bonding - enmeshment

Couples who spend years together lurching from one negative bonding pattern to the next, become so enmeshed that they no longer know how to escape and become trapped in the on-going cycle. Enmeshed couples are easy to identify. One or both partners complain loudly and at length to friends, family, councillors and anyone else who will listen, about how terrible things are in the relationship. However even after years like this they stay stuck in continual negative bonding. Enmeshment is like being caught in an emotional net from which there seems to be no escape. Understanding negative bonding plus awareness of the inner selves as protectors of the inner child and the underlying vulnerability   are the starting points for ending enmeshment.

There is a more subtle side to enmeshment and that is when there is a hidden payoff for each partner which keeps them coming back for more. For some being in a long term negative bond is still better than being alone or abandoned. For others the joy of beating the partner down seems to help relieve their own pain coming from their childhood abuse. There is no doubt that some selves tell us we are less vulnerable each time we make someone else more vulnerable. Someone with selves like this may find it much harder to see the damaging nature of the bonding pattern they are stuck in until it is too late.

See also Negative Bonding patterns - case studies