A dysfunctional relationship is a relationship that is destructive instead of constructive. In a dysfunctional relationship two people agree to meet each other’s needs in what can take a self-destructive shape.
If, for example, one of the two feels inadequate and the other unable to take care of themselves they make an emotional agreement that if the other person makes them feel good and worthy, they in return will take care of them. This way the relationship becomes transactional and creates dependence in between the protagonists, and the relationship will never feel really secure to both of the partners.
Mostly these kind of relations happen between a person with narcissist characteristics and a person with co-dependant characteristics.
It is very likely that if you experience these dynamics as an adult you experienced dysfunctional relationships as a child, independent of how much your family of origin thinks of them as healthy.
This is for sure a classic dynamic that appears in an alcoholic home, or a home in which a person suffers from what in mainstream terms would be called a mental disorder.
Relationships are part of our development. The most fundamental formation happens during the time in uterus until up to the 3rd year of life. When we start out our lives we are unable to meet our own needs, and are totally dependent on other people. By having our physical and emotional needs met in this early period, the curiosity of how to meet those needs our selves can rise later in life – it is a natural progression towards empowerment and an autonomous expansion. However if any sort of traumatic experiences occurs during this early period of life, we speak of developmental trauma.
Developmental trauma is essentially a trauma that inhibits this natural progression and development in a certain area of life. If you look at yourself as if you were a garden, it would mean, that while some plants have been watered and taken care of on a regular basis, and so grew, other plants were neglected, didn’t get care and stopped growing. So in the garden of ‘you’ there would be seedlings, young plants and mature trees.
How exactly does this happen, and why is this important to understand for healthy adult relationships?
The first important relationship every human being experiences is the one with their mother. Dysfunctional relationships in adult life are the result of developmental trauma revolving around the symbiotic, separation and individuation experience by the child and its mother. Until about 5 months of age the child is aware of the mother but there is no sense of individuality. The infant and the mother are in total symbiosis,. They are one. This phase is followed by the Separation–individuation phase – Here separation refers to the development of limits and the differentiation between the infant and the mother. During this earliest phase of separation and individuation you recognize yourself as separate from your mother or caregiver, and you experience the desire for that person to meet your needs. This is a very delicate period.
It is mostly trauma experienced in this period that leads to dysfunctional relationships in adult life. This can be caused in many ways. For example by having to separate too early from the symbiotic phase or by trying to separate from a mother who feels threatened by our individuality and inhibits this process. This last example can happen when a mother feels invalidated by the child starting to say NO (mostly around age of 2) and shames it for doing so, maybe even withdrawing her love. Saying no is the child’s way to establish boundaries and detach from the mother. By being shamed for doing so, the child learns that exploring individuation is dangerous and suppresses the desire for autonomy. In this case a trauma around the sense of autonomy is created. In this case the child learns that it is impossible to have autonomy and have connection with others at the same time. This leads to developmental delay in the shape of attachment disorders and the inability to meet your own needs as an adult.
You are stuck in the phase of wanting (covert or overt) the other to take care of you. This unmet child need makes you navigate into dysfunctional relationships. Because the desire for autonomy is repressed, the desire for closeness can become clingy, combined with a strong aversion of being alone and separation anxiety. All together you are not able anymore to experience yourself as capable to take care of your own needs. So you search for a relationship where you can get your needs met in a transactional way.
There are many scenarios on how developmental trauma can occur and create difficulties in adult relationships. Most of them are a result of a delay caused in the development of individuation, directly affecting your capacity for autonomy and connection.
How to heal?
We have to accept where we are right now in our development in this particular topic of our life, and we must meet ourselves there. We have to realise the dysfunctional character of our relationships and we have to understand which needs we are attempting to meet by the unhealthy dynamic we are handling right now. If we create enough consciousness around that pattern, we can now find a more constructive way to get this real need met.
We have to meet our needs!
Therapy in itself creates healing through the secure connection established by the therapist. By that secure connection, individuation and connection trauma can begin to heal, causing a restart of the delayed aspects towards developing maturity.
When you start to consciously meet your ‘immature’ needs, that need will mature and the aspect of self that is developmentally delayed can then begin to develop. In this way, you will make progressively healthier and more autonomous choices in meeting your needs.
Therapies working in a somatosensory way like body psychotherapy are the most effective way to treat developmental trauma. The most significant developmental trauma occurs before we have a thinking brain, so the body stores the memories of the trauma somatically, meaning in the body.
If you never experienced a healthy relationship, how are you supposed to know what it looks like? You can’t know it! You just can try to learn. With a healthy sense of self, a good set of boundaries, knowledge of your own value and by developing the ability to connect truly to people, you will gravitate towards healthy relationships.