Author’s Note: While this post often refers to romantic relationships, it is applicable to any kind of platonic or familial relationship as well.
Ever notice that it’s often in relationships that we can get frustrated with how we aren’t able to live out the spiritual disciplines we long to embody? The recipe of one broken human + another broken human always results in brokenness bumping up against each other, and oftentimes this isn’t pretty. In this post, I’ll explore how parts work helps us understand the ways our brokenness bumps up against each other and how we might invite God to restore all facets of us, especially the parts of us that come to life in relational disconnect and conflict.
Relationships are the spaces where we can feel most seen and known, and also most hurt and alone. This can be especially confusing if we experience both ends of this spectrum in one relationship with the same person.
From the beginning of my first internship rotation as a counseling student, I have worked with couples, helping them navigate the highs and lows of connection and disconnection. The different kinds of training I’ve received have all informed how I understand relationships, with one approach sticking out as the biggest game changer of them all: parts-work.
What I continued to see in and outside of my therapy office was that people might be able to find sweet connection points with each other, but certain blocks and disconnects would continue – even if people genuinely said this wasn’t what they wanted. It always fascinated me to see how two people could in one moment be safely connected as allies, and in another moment be postured against each other as enemies, using each other’s vulnerabilities to inflict pain.
What I was seeing play out in front of me was more than one relational dynamic. In the one relationship of two people sitting in front of me, there was a higher number of parts at play.
Here’s what I mean: think about a time when you were with a colleague, roommate, significant other, or friend, and you experienced them in a new way. Maybe you saw them under some sort of stress, reacting and overwhelmed with big emotions, or interacting with another person in their life. We’ll often use the phrase, “I’ve never seen that side of them before” to describe this. Using the framework of parts-work, another way to say this is, “I saw another part of them that I haven’t seen before.”
Across all of our relationships in life we see that there are different versions and modes that people go into, creating unique relational dynamics that are shaped by the various parts of two people that are interacting with each other.
And this is why I’ve seen this be a game changer: If we have clarity about which part of our own self is taking the lead in an interaction, along with clarity about which part of the other person is taking the lead, we can constructively navigate the relational dynamics that are at play, because we know which parts of us are interacting with each other. Without this kind of clarity, we’re left feeling disoriented like we were just knocked over by a wave, unsure of which side is up or what’s going on.
This is especially fascinating when considering the various perspectives that different parts of us hold and what can cause us to shift between different perspectives – with this in mind, it makes sense why one relationship can have so many different dynamics it cycles through at different times. Let’s explore this a little more…
Think about a situation that causes you stress – not so much stress that you might get overwhelmed right now, but enough stress that you can resonate with how it feels in your gut and impacts your headspace. As you’re thinking about this, be sure to keep the idea somewhat separate from the present moment, for some people it’s helpful to imagine watching a scenario on a movie screen or as though they’re a passenger on a train passing by. Consider how you interact with people around you when you are in a calm state, in contrast with how you interact with people around you when you’re in the anxious or stressed state you’re imaging.
If you’ve heard of polyvagal theory or a window of tolerance, these are ways to understand our different nervous system states and how that impacts our brain, body, and connection with others. When we are anxious or stressed, our sympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as a gas pedal, mobilizes our brain and body to navigate distress or danger. This happens whether the perceived danger or stress is physical or emotional – truly, brain scans have shown that the same reaction occurs inside of us regardless of whether we’re experiencing something emotionally or physically distressing.
In attachment focused approaches for couples therapy, this has been huge to scientifically validate the emotional distress and damage we can experience in relational disconnect. And beyond how this helps us appreciate the significance of emotional distress in relationships, and the power of connection and repairing emotional connection, it helps us locate which part of us is taking the lead in certain interactions.
Here’s what I mean: If my amygdala is going off like an alarm bell in my brain because I am emotionally distressed by feeling disconnected from my husband, the part of me that’s going to interact with him will not be a calm version of me with a grounded perspective. Instead, I’ll have stress hormones coursing through my veins, limited oxygen to the logical part of my brain, and likely a vulnerable part of me that’s feeling hurt will just want the distress of disconnection feel better.
In response to this, there will likely be a protective part of me, what we sometimes call having a guard up or being defensive in some way, that will be trying to protect me from feeling any more discomfort or distress emotionally. This means, it won’t be the lovey-dovey calm and connected me that’s interacting with my husband. Instead, it’s a part of me, a different perspective that’s embodied in a stressed nervous system state. And that’s just one half of the equation in a pair of two people…!
Another nervous system state that can take us over and impact our perspective is an overwhelmed state where we start to shut down. This can feel incredibly hurtful and hopeless for people if they experience this in their own self or their partner. It can feel like there’s no way to reach the person in front of them or get the response that they need, which can further cue a stress response internally and might even push them into overwhelm and shut down as well.
When trying to navigate the roadblocks and disconnections in relationships, if we can step back and identify what’s happening inside of each of us, we can have greater clarity about how this is impacting our perspective. If we slow down and get curious about this perspective (oftentimes after the fact when we’re more calm), we can understand the different pieces that are at play in our internal world, and the internal world of our significant other.
This helps us to have the choice to do things differently. If we are able to see that we protectively shut down or protectively try to push for connection from a partner that is shutting down, we can get in touch with the depth of our soul that is hurting and being protected by these reactions. If we do the slow and healing work of getting in touch with these vulnerable depths of us, we can choose how we want to care for them, and invite God to care for them, rather than getting stuck in cycles of reactionary protection that often results in increased distress and disconnect from others, God, and even our own self.
For today, I invite you to pause and think about the vulnerable and protective facets of yourself that might come into play in your own relational dynamics with another person, whether it’s a significant other, family member, coworker, or friend. Use the PDF below to explore and reflect on what’s happening inside.
*Please note, this post, nor any other by this author, is intended to substitute for professional mental health services. Seek support from a mental health professional if any processing or reflection causes overwhelming thoughts and emotions that feel more distressing than is tolerable or comfortable.