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What does it mean to “Be Relational” in Important Relationships? Tips from a Relational Therapist

Being “relational” in our significant relationships can seem super confusing. What does that even mean, to be “relational?” Most of us have probably never even heard that word. Let alone consider whether we knew how to connect or communicate in ways that might be more effective or satisfying. The thing is, the fact that we don’t even really know what the word means proves the point that most of us have not been related to in a way that truly makes us feel understood, seen, and heard. At The Holding Space, we specialize in Relational Therapy in Los Angeles, CA. We offer a safe environment where you can explore and enhance your relational skills with the help of a relational therapist.

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Transforming Responses: A Journey from Adaptive Child to Wise Adult

Terry Real, an expert on Couples Therapy, talks about how when we are in conflict with our partner, we lose all sight of wanting to connect, use helpful communication tools, or even empathize with our partner. He says when we are in this state of mind it is called our “Adaptive Child”. This is the part of us that is a “child in grown-up clothes”. He states that this is the part of us that is actually on board a lot of the time when we are relating to others and is often what we perceive as our “personality.” The thing about the Adaptive Child is that they are usually a survivor. They are a part of us that protects our own interests and doesn’t really want to connect with or understand our partner. This part of us has self-preservation at its core and is thus not “relational” at all. It is sure of being right, or being a victim, or being angry. It is the part that figured out how to get by when something felt off in our earliest childhood experiences.

This is why it can be so hard to use the tools you have gained in therapy when you are feeling stimulated by a partner, close family member, or friend. It takes a lot of practice to talk to this Adaptive Child and help them to allow the “Wise Adult” to come on board. It is imperative to practice being “relational “ when things are not conflicted or stimulating the part of us that reacts from our most primitive parts. The Adaptive Child is ruled by the trauma responses of Fight, Flight, Freeze, or as Terry Real added, Fix. These are all responses that do not include connecting to the other person, but rather controlling the situation.

Nurturing Relational Awareness: A Relational Therapist's Perspective

So how do you define being “relational” with someone? When we are relating to someone from a Wise Adult part of ourselves, we are usually less defensive. We have access to our curiosity about the other person's point of view and we cannot personalize it when the other person disagrees with us. We don’t feel compelled to please or manipulate to keep the person close. Rather we are able to both feel connected to them AND see them as separate and different from us. When we are being relational with someone, we can make sense of why they might behave the way they are behaving because we can see that they are having their own inner process.

Embracing both Right and Wrong in Relationships

So how do you get there? How do you practice? Well, you begin by being willing to be wrong and be right. Most of the time in relationships both people are right and both are wrong. We often see the other person through the lens of our own experience and have to get good at checking out our projections. That might sound like using this awesome phrase (Terry Real again) “The story I tell myself is...” We often come to our loved ones with a finger pointed and tell them all the things they “need” to do or understand in order to get it right with us. But we rarely stop to consider that our narrative is often an old story from our past that we are projecting onto our partner.

When we say “The story I tell myself is that you didn’t take out the garbage because you don’t respect me and how hard I work and then I feel so mad at you for being so selfish.” When you acknowledge that this is a story you are telling yourself, it leaves space for the other person to better understand you and to also not feel defensive and upset. If you say “You NEVER take out the garbage because you are selfish and disrespectful”... well that takes on a whole new level of confrontation and will surely bring out the other person's Adaptive Child, who wants to preserve them at all costs and is no longer available to have a meaningful conversation let alone repair a rupture.

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Fostering Understanding through Communication

Another thing we can do is acknowledge how the other person is feeling WHILE ALSO understanding that we don’t have to agree with it. We do not have to agree in order to get closer. I may not agree that the reason I don’t take out the garbage is because I am selfish, BUT I can try to understand why the other person might feel that way. We can say somersetting like “I didn’t realize that you felt so disrespected. That must feel terrible. I don’t want you to feel that way.” This helps to disarm the other person who is probably expecting some kind of push back, This leaves space for everyone to feel more calm and understood. You DO NOT have agree with their assessment, but you can help them to know that you get why they would feel that way.

Better yet, if there is some part of you that can see you were being selfish, you can acknowledge that as well... “you know, I have really gotten used to you taking out the garbage and I hate doing it, so you are probably right that I don’t offer and just let you do it. I guess that is selfish.” It is truly amazing what owning our stuff can do in terms of letting go of defensiveness and avoiding the other person cutting off.

Strategies from a Relational Therapist for Healthy Relationship Dynamics

Finally, it is very common to have different styles of attachment in a relationship. A very common pairing is the “Pursuer/Avoider” pair. Often in this dynamic one or the other person is trying to get the other to be more like them. The avoider can’t understand why the pursuer won’t give them space and the pursuer can’t understand why the avoider won’t come closer. This is a tricky situation if both people are letting the “Adaptive Child” part of them run the show. If that is the case both people become self-focused and cannot see how they are impacting the other.

To be relational in this kind of relationship, there needs to be an acknowledgment that there are different needs and styles of connecting at play. Each person needs to respect the other's style while also respecting their own. This might include the person who is more avoidant expressing their feelings more openly. While acknowledging that they need more space when they feel overwhelmed. They know this can be hard for their partner and let them know that they will come back around to them after they have had a little time to feel less flooded. The pursuer may need to be more willing to give their partner space while also expressing the need for physical or emotional expressions of care and love. This helps them feel calmer and not abandoned by their partner during a conflict.

Recognizing your Impact through Communication

The big takeaway work and word in being more relational is “Impact.” I impact you and you impact me. When we can understand and own our impact on another person, we can begin to think about how we are relating to them more thoughtfully and compassionately. This is not being Co-dependent. We don’t have to turn ourselves into a pretzel to please the other person. What we want to do though is keep in mind how we make them feel and how we can be more artful in our approach to communicating with them.

The art of communicating our own needs while holding in mind the other person is hard to do without practice and intention. So hopefully some of these tips will help you to begin to practice being more relational in the day-to-day so that when conflict inevitably arises, you already have the tools at the forefront of your mind!

Work with a Relational Therapist through Relational Therapy in Los Angeles, CA Today!

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Experience the transformative power of Relational Therapy in Los Angeles, CA at The Holding Space. Our relational therapists specialize in creating a safe, compassionate environment where you can explore your relational patterns and learn new ways to connect with others. Whether you're seeking to improve your relationships with family, friends, or partners, our team is here to guide you. Take the first step toward healthier connections and emotional well-being. Schedule a session with us today and embark on a journey of growth and understanding.

  1. Reach out for a free consultation.

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Other Therapy Services Offered by The Holding Space in Los Angeles, CA

At The Holding Space, we provide more than just Relational Therapy in Los Angeles, CA. We offer a range of therapy services to help people manage their mental health and well-being. Our skilled therapists focus on areas like Anxiety treatment, Couples Therapy, Depression treatment, Addiction Therapy, Art Therapy, Brainspotting Therapy, and LGBTQ+ Affirmative Therapy. We also talk about common issues like relationships, family, parenting, codependency, illness, and trauma. Whether you're seeking help for relational issues or any other aspect of your life, our Los Angeles-based practice is here for you. Reach out today to explore the support we offer and take the first step toward a happier life with better connections.

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