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Conscious and Unconscious Relating
Gary Brainerd
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Conscious Verses Unconscious Relating

For some, it may seem strange to refer to a "conscious" and/or "unconscious" style of relating, but it is important to understand the distinction.

"Unconscious" does not mean "in a coma" or "drunk" or "asleep".  Basically by "unconscious" I mean "automatic, out of habit, a knee-jerk style of responding."  In relationship therapy the term "unconscious behavior" usually refers to Old Brain styles of coping with stress or anxiety that were learned in childhood or teen years and which have become an almost automatic "first impulse" when faced with anxiety, pain, stress or anger in adult life. 

If you learn to pay attention to either what you actually do in life when you experience pain, frustration or high anxiety or to your initial "impulse", you will get some idea as to what your "unconscious" or automatic style of coping is. Or, if you are brave, ask your life partner, "What do I tend to automatically do when I experience pain or frustration?"

The term "conscious" refers to words or behaviors that are intentional, choiceful, thoughtful.  

Not all "conscious" behavior is intelligent or wise and not all "unconscious behavior" is harmful or unwise.  Sometimes your automatic responses may serve you and your partner well and sometimes you may "consciously, intentionally" behave or act in harmful or self-limiting ways.  While there is no guarantee that if you "look before you leap" or "think before you act", you will always do the right or wisest thing, in the Couple's Workstation, we recommend that for a while you work toward having a conscious, thoughtful, educated, intelligent, kind relationship and work hard at being less reactive, automatic, do-what-you-feel-like-doing "unconscious".

If you have not read "Three Brains and a Partner", you might want to do so right after you finish this article.  Another way to talk about this idea is to see that many relationships are run almost completely by the Old Brain (the more primitive parts of our brain) with very little New Brain activity.  In intimate, committed relationships, this is a big problem.  

Here is the "rule of thumb" we believe will be helpful for most couples. "If you react to pain or frustration in your committed love relationship 'unconsciously', you will very likely be behaving in a way that will activate your partner's Old Brain defense system."  Your partner's Old Brain will "think" you are or are just like the caretaker that hurt them as a child or teen and will urge your partner to respond in their old "unconscious" manner.  If your partner does, you will likely have an old hurt of yours revisited and what we call a Core Scene will emerge.  A Core Scene is a "fight" or spat where both partners are responding in old, out-dated, learned behaviors and unwittingly re-wounding each other.

The way you learned to cope with pain and frustration as a child will become your automatic, first choice impulse in dealing with relationship pain and frustration.  Some couples and even some therapists tend to interpret these immediate, responses as the authentic self.  This is indeed a mistake.  In the Seventy's, therapists were encouraging couples to "tell it like it is" and "let it all hang out"--encouraging individuals to "go with" their immediate thoughts and "say it like it is".  Unwittingly, they were encouraging people to act out their childhood defense patterns.  In relationships, this was deadly.

That's why we encourage you go through a period of thoughtful and intelligent analyses of yourself-in-relationship. Considering going through a time of working toward deeply understanding yourself and your partner and then, armed with this information and understanding, create an action plan and work on it to create the relationship you long for.  This will not be done "unconsciously" or "automatically" and please do not expect, demand or require that your partner spontaneously, automatically or perfectly give you what you want or that you do the same for him or her.  

Becoming Conscious

We humans have an interesting capacity to go through life will very little of what is called "self-awareness" - knowing in any given moment what we are doing and how we are doing it.  And, not surprisingly, it is very possible for us to not be aware that we are not aware.  Most of us think we are.  It is so easy to think we know what we are doing and how we are doing it and not really know at all.  We all have what is called "blind spots".  We all have thoughts and behaviors that are so automatic that they are like breathing itself, they just are and we can do them effortlessly and with little or no conscious thought about it.  Committed love relationships are full of these kind of "unconscious" thoughts and behaviors.  The task for couples is to make the "unconscious" conscious, see what is happening and take intentional, intelligent, small steps to move the relationship from a potentially re-wounding one to potentially healing one.

Some of this happens by just started to pay attention to what you are actually doing and saying.  We call this "growing eyes and ears".  

In the Couple's Workstation, a major path to self-awareness is the filling out the various forms when you get "triggered" or upset or have a fight with your partner.  The "Restructuring Frustrations Exercise" form is a key form and an essential part of this task.  It is a complex and somewhat lengthy form, but it can be done a little bit at a time.  We recommend that you complete one of these forms each week for five weeks, focusing on the most significant frustration of the week.  After that, we recommend that you fill out one of those forms whenever a significant or new frustration occurs.  By the end of five weeks, you will know a great deal about your self, your automatic thoughts and reactions, your childhood wounds and protections and what you need for growth and healing.  You will have an action plan for both you and your partner.  If your partner is doing the same thing, that's great; you will be well on your way.  If your partner is slower or faster or even unwilling at this point, you will still find yourself well along the way in your relationship journey.

Barriers or Blocks to Becoming Conscious

If you decide to invest yourself in this journey, you will discover that being conscious in a relationship is more difficult than one might think.  Here are four of the more common barriers or blocks and suggestions on how to get around them or overcome them.

The fear of being imperfect.  Many people express the concern that if they start looking inwardly too much, they will discover things that may not be nice or pleasant or particularly loveable about themselves.  Let me assure you that if you are like 99.9% of the population, your fear will come true!  Welcome to the club!  But the opposite will also likely be true.  You will also very likely discover courage, love and integrity within yourself that will make the “warts” well worth looking at.

This is one of the great paradoxes of life.  Often the happiest people, the most loveable people and the most interesting people are those who know and accept themselves, warts and all.  The person who knows he or she can sometimes be mean or critical and can acknowledge that will have more control of those mean or critical impulses than the persons who deny them or do not even see them.

Eventually, you will hopefully come to understand that the “difficult parts of us” are not the core self or a blueprint of the soul, but rather a protective adaptation from some early experience.

Wise couples will make it safe for their partner to acknowledge the “warts”, the mistakes, and the hurtful behaviors. Learning to say, “I know, when I get in a situation like that, I can get pretty cold and hurtful” is a great step toward becoming a conscious, rational, trustworthy partner.

“I just want to crash”.  This is an oft-repeated complaint of two-career couples.  There is a strong tendency for many to want to come home and relax and get away from stress.  When children are involved, that is “all the stress I want” in the evening.  Yet, when we are tired and needing to crash, we are most vulnerable to acting “unconsciously, automatically” in our relationship.  It can be very hard to consistently come home and “stay conscious” for even an additional half-hour.

The secret for many partners is to not give up “crash time” but to delay it.   Someone in one of my workshops told me about a football coach who at the end of each practice would line up his players and give this brief lecture.  “All right, men, the practice is over but you are not through for the evening.  When you get home tonight, you go and find you wife, hug her, ask her how her day went and listen.  You go and find your kids, hug them, tell them you love them and spend at least a few minute with them.  Then and only then do you crash!”  I would love to meet that coach someday.

If, after pulling up to the driveway of your home, you received an urgent call from the Office or a medical emergency from the folk back home, you would delay that impulse to crash and deal with the situation.  Most of us will need to re-educate ourselves so that we see the need to come home and STAY UP OR CONSCIOUS for at least the first half hour or so.

Habits are hard to break.  As you work toward becoming conscious or intentional and intelligent in your relationship, you will discover more and more how many “automatic habits” you have.  When you hear criticism, when you sense anxiety or anger in your partner, when you make a mistake, your Old Brain will want to take over and guide you in the old “tried and true” ways of coping.   The task of committed love is to become “counter instinctual”, and act contrary to these first impulses.

Here is where the “speed of going slowly” is important.  You are probably better off to work on one “habit” at a time until you train yourself into a better habit.  Work just a little each day.  Pick one or two of your Partner’s Non-Demand Behavior Change Requests and work just on them for a while.  Pick the easy ones first, so you can gain confidence in your ability to change habits.

We want to create some helping guides for “remembering” and “breaking old patterns”, so if you have difficulty, please write to us and we will seek to add your question or challenge to our Frequently Asked Questions area.  There are many practical techniques for helping persons remember and slowly change patterns or habits.

“Doing this work means I can’t be myself!”  If you had some early wounding about not being accepted or having to conform or not being able to be spontaneous, you might experience the idea of becoming aware, conscious, choiceful, careful about your words and behaviors a replication of sorts of this early wounding.  The very thought of having to become “conscious” may feel like “you are not OK the way you are.  To be acceptable you must change”.

This is a tough one.  When the work itself touches an old hurt, it is so easy to want to avoid it.  The general tenant that we believe if true for virtually all couples is “You will discover that you cannot give your partner what he or she needs the most without being in the arena where you could be re-wounded or hurt.”  This doesn’t mean you have to be actually re-wounded or hurt, but you will be putting yourself at risk.  In Heaven, I hope they pass out Distinguished Medals of honor for partners who are willing to face this risk because they love each other.

In seeking to work with this experience where the work itself triggers an old sensitivity, several distinctions are important to make.  First, it is important to see that the “conscious relationship” is something you are choosing to do; it is not, or should not be, being imposed on you.  Your partner’s “requests” for new behaviors will ideally not be demands or requirements or conditions for acceptance, but will be information as to what will be healing or helpful to them.  These should not be conditions for acceptance; otherwise you are back in the Power Struggle.

Secondly, it is important to understand that the “automatic” behaviors that become the focus of relationship change and growth are not related to the “core self” the essential “you”.  They are usually related to styles of coping or protecting that were wise and necessary as children, but are no longer helpful or functional in a relationship like marriage. 

Thirdly, “acceptance” does not imply there are no requests for growth or change.  Realistic acceptance implies allowing your partner into your inner, intimate life just as they are.  The need for change comes out of meeting each other’s needs, not as a requirement for acceptance.

This is not to say that there are no legitimate demands or requirements for being in a relationship.  Abuse, unfaithfulness, harmful behavior, etc. can become issues that require change for the relationship to continue.  But in the huge middle ground of non-requirement issues where most couples live, it is important to see the requests for change as true requests rather than demands.

If this issue is particularly relevant for you, you might want to go to the Help area to get additional aid.





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