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  • Elaine Benardout

Conditions and Connections in Relationships

By Elaine Rose Benardout, BA (Hons) Dip.Couns MBACP (Accred)

Published on 1st May, 2024

Counselling Directory

'I tend to place other people's needs first. It feels good to please people and I don't want to create conflict in being disagreeable anyway. But I don't feel very happy or content with myself.'

This may sound like a familiar dialogue we hear from clients. The idea of placing others' needs before our own to earn their approval and avoid disagreements.

Reflecting on common client issues, significant roots link to how they connect in relationships – with themselves and others. This can manifest in many forms including people pleasing, safety/avoidant behaviours, defensiveness, and difficulty with connections.

Yet being agreeable and not advocating for ourselves can lead to anxiety and other mental health problems. Engaging in behaviour not suited to our real needs can leave us feeling stressed, tired and experiencing other negative emotions.

Feeling a sense of belonging can be complex given our differing values, beliefs and societal expectations. Yet, connection is a fundamental human need.

The challenge lay in becoming conscious of what works for us in a relationship. What is realistic? What is acceptable to me? Where can I compromise? Can I change my expectations? Can I let go of my preconceptions?

John* came to therapy to try and make sense of what was going on for him. His behaviour was impacting his relationships and he found himself going along with what he thought was expected, rather than what he felt was right for him. As a result, John was increasingly frustrated and this was playing out in his relationship, in the form of resentment towards his partner.

It became apparent that whilst John was experiencing the relationship in the present, he was also living with past familiarity, which was guiding his behaviour. Whilst he felt comforted by his familiar ways of being, it was not necessarily a healthy or authentic way for him to be in his relationship now.

To understand John in his relationship, we reflected on his conditioned ways of being from his early years. It became clear that his emotional needs had not been sufficiently met. Early on, John had learned that conforming to others was the easiest way to be, in order to avoid conflict. In his younger world, communication gave way to confrontation. To compensate, he had learned to become invisible, to avoid negative parental attentions and their disproportionate anger.

Experiencing unsafety as a child, he sought reassurance and validation from others. Consequently, he learned to please people first, even at his own expense, resulting in him building up an unconscious level of resentment towards his current relationships.

His current partner was unaware that he was feeling discontented – it was the easier option for John to mask his own emotions and avoid lowering his guard or seeking attention. Indeed, he could present himself in the relationship as an easy-going and people-pleasing character. To be vulnerable was too risky and invited a connection he had yet to experience. Loneliness and lacking connection had become so ingrained that John wasn't aware of why he was feeling a sense of dissatisfaction.

In believing that in order to be liked, he put others' needs before his own and his needs were not prioritised or even sometimes recognised. John was losing himself in the process of living by the expectations of others and still feeling 'not good enough'. His relationships became superficial and distant.

With this pattern playing out, he was lacking fulfilment in his relationship. Inevitably he was unable to articulate to his partner what was going on. His ways of coping were no longer serving him as he increasingly felt alone and misunderstood.

In feeling responsible for his emotional state, John turned to therapy. His therapist allowed him to feel heard and understood, helping to create an environment for change. The therapeutic process enabled John to safely navigate his story by revisiting his early conditioning.

John gradually began to share what was going on, without the fear of judgement, conflict or consequence. In working with the therapist to understand the underlying causes of his feelings and behaviour, John was able to address his feelings and patterns of coping.

Eventually, he could consider different, healthier strategies. Whilst looking at more suitable conditions, he was helping to develop a better relationship with himself. For example, he could see that if he was not 'being strong' all the time, he could still be worthy; that his vulnerability was a strength in itself rather seeing it as a weakness.

Reappraising his conditions, John could think about how he wanted to be, creating a distance with rules governing his past beliefs. He no longer expected to receive disapproval from his family, nor defined his worthiness according to the conditions of his upbringing. He could now please himself before others and show his emotions, for example.

Therapeutic intervention worked cognitively – with his thoughts, and behaviourally – with his actions, allowing John to 're-parent' his younger self. He could talk to himself in a more positive and empathic way. Not feeling 'good enough' was replaced with a dialogue reminiscent of an understanding and kind parent. John learned to love and respect himself in a way not offered in his early years.

In becoming authentic with what we truly want from ourselves, we are nearer to inner contentment. John learned what a healthy relationship looks like, with both himself and others, and was able to find the contentment he so needed.

As therapists we accept and support the client, no matter what they say or do, placing no conditions on this acceptance.

*name has been changed.


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