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The Dance of Selves in Relationship

by John Kent(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 167 - February 2010


When we are in a relationship an interesting question arises: which parts of us are involved with which parts of our partner? Perhaps we have some parts that want to be in the relationship whilst others are trying to sabotage it. As a result it can sometimes be very difficult to maintain the connection between us. This article will explore why opposites often attract and why we tend to repeat the same patterns of interaction with different partners. It will also address judgment and the roots of conflict and set out a blueprint for healthy partnering.

A couple

Life would be so easy if we were always of one mind. The reality is that we are all made up of many minds or selves. We can recognize this in such statements as: "A part of me really feels very attracted to him/her. Another part of me thinks I should be careful not to get too involved." These selves develop as we grow up in our particular family and society. They have us behave in ways that keep us safe and get our needs met. For example we might develop a part of us that has us be nice to other people, always putting their needs first (a Pleaser self); or one that has us work hard and be successful (a Pusher self). These protecting selves become our default ways of behaving in life – who we think 'we are'.

Why Opposites Often Attract

In order to be identified with these protector selves, we have to hide away or disown their opposites. To be nice to other people all the time, we have to bury the part of us that would put our needs first (an Entitled self); or to be a hard working, successful person we have to bury the part of us that would kick back and do nothing (an Easy Going self). Although these selves are buried, they have not gone away. When we fall in love we see some of them on display in the other person and find them very attractive. Our partner complements us and together we feel whole and complete.

older couple

Judgement and the Roots of Conflict

Relationship is in fact a dance of these different selves between two people. This dance can be exciting, mesmerising and exhilarating when everything is going well. We are swept off our feet, high as a kite, on cloud nine. The Child selves in us feel nourished and nurtured by our partner as if by a caring parent. We can be silly, cuddly, sweet and adoring. Our partner is there for us and we can rest trustingly into each other's arms.

This idyllic state can last for some time, but sooner or later the stresses and strains of life will intervene. Sickness, financial problems, the arrival of a baby, work issues, tiredness and other everyday events can cause us to feel vulnerable. The Child selves in us don't feel so safe. If we are unaware of this or don't feel comfortable sharing our vulnerabilities with our partner, things can turn sour.

In this situation, the selves that protect us come strongly back into play. Through the eyes of these selves we look at our partner and find them lacking. Those aspects of their personality that so attracted us don't seem so cute and endearing after all. Instead of admiring their sense of entitlement we judge them as 'selfish'! Instead of marvelling at their ability to chill and relax, they now appear 'lazy'! Whether spoken or silent, these judgements and counter judgements from our partner's protecting selves – "You just let people walk all over you!", "You are a workaholic!" – are very painful, and can leave the Child selves feeling bruised, battered and wanting out. The caring, loving parent our partner represented has turned into a withdrawn or judgemental one, and the promise of someone who will love, care and honour us seems broken.

Recurring Patterns in Relationships

Maybe we make up or maybe we walk out and end the relationship. One thing is sure: if we don't learn the lessons inherent in such conflicts, we are doomed to repeat them again and again – either with the same partner or with a new one.

So What are the Lessons?

First is to acknowledge that the selves that we end up judging in our partner are in fact our own buried selves. An old Chinese proverb says that when we point the finger of judgement, blame or condemnation at another person, there are three fingers pointing back to us. We have to learn how to embrace these buried aspects of our personality and find the gift they can bring us.

The questions to ask are, "What is it that I am judging in my partner that is actually a buried part of myself? What benefit would it be to me if I could bring a little bit of this buried self into my life?" For example, if we can embrace our buried Entitled self, we will be able to set boundaries clearly and say no to the demands of others when appropriate. If we can embrace our own buried Easy Going self, then we will find time to relax and not be so driven.

Second is to acknowledge when we are feeling vulnerable, and take more conscious care of our vulnerable Child selves instead of expecting our partner to do it for us. No one can take care of us all the time. Such an unrealistic expectation, abdicating our own responsibility for ourselves, will inevitably end in tears.

The questions here are, "Where and why am I feeling vulnerable? What can I do to take care of my vulnerability?" This might mean sharing with our partner how we are really feeling, or maybe taking time out to be quiet and on our own. Getting conscious about this is a big part of creating a successful relationship.

Healthy Partnering

Having become clear about which parts of us are reacting to our partner, the next step is to communicate this clearly. For example: "A part of me is happy to take care of everything around the house. Another part of me is angry and thinks it's unfair and that you should pull your weight." Or, "A young, vulnerable part of me feels unnoticed when I get home tired from work and you are on the phone to your friends for so long." When we can talk with awareness of the different selves like this we avoid the trap of making each other all good or all bad.

It is important to set time aside in our busy schedules to have these conversations, a time where we can step back from the demands of daily life, sit down and really connect with each other. This is the time to share what the different parts of us think and feel about such things as finances, who does what around the house, home projects, major purchases, grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, the laundry, etc. If they are not addressed, these mundane things can easily become the ammunition we fire at our partner when we get into conflicts: "And another thing! You always leave your clothes lying around and never put the top back on the toothpaste!!"

close couple

Case Study

Margaret and Jeremy had both been married before. Margaret had three children from her first marriage and Jeremy was finding his role as stepfather very stressful – especially with her eldest son, 12 year old Nigel. He was missing his birth father and had become very rebellious. He confronted Jeremy at every turn and took every opportunity to be contradictory and disobedient.

Jeremy was an easy going, path-of-least-resistance kind of guy, liberal in his attitude and non-confrontational. Margaret, on the other hand, was organized and structured. She set clear rules for the household and made sure that they were followed. When Jeremy and Margaret first met and fell in love, these opposite ways of being weren't a problem for them. Margaret adored the way Jeremy could just kick back and roll with whatever life threw at him. And Jeremy admired the way Margaret could plan and get things done.

This was fine until Nigel's behaviour began to impact their relationship. The more Nigel goaded and taunted him, the more inadequate and vulnerable Jeremy felt. Margaret was also feeling vulnerable. She worried that her son was spiralling out of control and accused Jeremy of letting Nigel 'walk all over him'. This stung Jeremy and he hit back, branding her a 'control freak'. They decided to do a Voice Dialogue session around this increasingly aggravating issue to try and understand which parts of them were engaging with each other.

The facilitator first spoke to Margaret's Controller self. This energy had developed when Margaret was young to help her take care of her five younger siblings. Her father had been a high-ranking naval officer and her mother had found it difficult to cope when he was away at sea for long periods. The Controller said it took its values from her father – discipline, structure and obedience. It had developed to bring order to a family that would otherwise have been scarily chaotic for Margaret. Jeremy's relaxed attitude to life was anathema to this part of Margaret.

Next Jeremy's Non-Confrontational self was invited to speak. It explained that Jeremy was the youngest in his family. It had developed to shield Jeremy from his father who repeatedly told him he was not good enough and would never amount to anything. It helped him handle this negativity by having him switch off, zone out and just go with the flow. "Whatever!" was its mantra. Margaret's organized and disciplined self was threatening to its way of protecting Jeremy. This part definitely did not think it was Jeremy's responsibility to control Margaret's son!

Having heard from these powerful, protecting selves, the facilitator then helped Margaret and Jeremy access their more buried selves – her disowned Non-Confrontational self and his disowned Controller self. They were each encouraged to take a little of their disowned energy onboard and see how this might influence the dynamic between themselves and with Nigel.

As they acknowledged and embraced the different selves, they became less judgmental and were able to co-create new approaches. Margaret decided to be less controlling of Nigel's behaviour and Jeremy was able to set and enforce clearer boundaries. As a consequence, Nigel calmed down and the family became more harmonious.


Relationships are the context in which we can learn about our selves, grow and develop as individuals. Conflicts in relationships will never go away. There will always be lessons to be learned about our buried selves and about our vulnerabilities.

Awareness of the many selves involved in the dance of relationship is the bedrock of healthy partnering. The more we are able to acknowledge and embrace the different selves that emerge within relationships, the richer and more fulfilling life becomes.


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About John Kent

John Kent BA LTCL was born in London, and has lived and worked as a communication trainer, seminar leader and facilitator in Europe, South Africa, SE Asia, South America and USA. He has over 30 years experience in developing and delivering intensive seminars that help participants improve both intra-personal and interpersonal communication. He has worked with corporate, academic, medical and scientific organizations as well as many private clients.

John has studied Voice Dialogue with its creators, Drs Hal and Sidra Stone in the USA and Europe. From 1991 to1995 he co-founded the Voice Dialogue Centre of Tucson, Arizona and taught Voice Dialogue in San Francisco.

He is now based in London where as the director of Voice Dialogue UK he conducts workshops and facilitates private sessions with individuals and couples.

For more information about Voice Dialogue or to contact John about his workshops and private consultations go to: John may be contacted on Tel: 07941 141377;

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