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Relational Landscapes

August 18, 2022

As a therapist trained in family systems, I am always entangled in the relational world of the clients that I guide and support. My meditation on the word “relationship” has shifted my perspective on our ability to be inner healers through the ways we rely on socialization and our role in global sustainability. The following is an exploration of the relational landscapes that exist between everyone, everything, and everyplace.

Relationship to Self

The intrinsic relationship we maintain to ourselves is vital in predicting the healthiness of the relationships we enter in the world around us. Relationships existing within us include our self-concepts such as self-esteem, self-image, self-identities, and the various parts of ourselves. All these aspects of self help shape who we are, influence our behaviors, and make our decisions to act. The inner relationships of each person are just as dynamic as the outer relationships between partners and friends.

The internalized aspects of the individual often remain in the unconscious realm that is hidden away from most others. Therefore, it is essential for each one of us to put in the effort to explore our inner worlds so we can better understand our inevitable vulnerabilities and shortcomings. If we turn a blind eye to our shadows, then we are limiting our ability to engage wholeheartedly with all that we encounter in life.

Relationship to Others

The relationships we hold with those around us are at the forefront of our conscious awareness as we frequently encounter each other daily. We witness these “others” while in a household of relatives or roommates, waving to a neighbor, learning in a classroom, or going out for lunch with a coworker. The prominent type of relationship that children are embedded in during their first couple years of living is the kinship they maintain to their household family which typically includes parents and siblings. Nervous system regulation is first socialized through co-regulation between parent and infant. As the child matures and no longer relies on co-regulation for survival, the ability to self-regulate becomes foundational for engaging in healthy interpersonal relationships. If co-regulation was rarely or never experienced, the ability to self-regulate throughout the rest of life transitions becomes much more difficult and puts our future friendships and partnerships at risk for disrepair.

We tend to identify with our self-concepts based on how we’ve internalized our interactions with other people. We foster healthy interpersonal relationships through curious communication and compassion with the goal of building a trusted and transparent connection. As that bond strengthens, a friendship or partnership grows into an entity that is greater than the individuals themselves.

Relationship to Environment

The various ecosystems that surround and contextualize our life experiences are not commonly thought of in terms of our relationships. I’m defining “environment” as the constructed and natural systems and places where we reside, socialize, worship, learn, work, play, suffer, search for safety, and collectively heal. The relationships we hold to the aspects of our environment are key to our ability to self-regulate our emotions.

Supportive and safe spaces allow us the comfort to connect with ourselves and others while staying emotionally regulated. On the other hand, places that cue warning signs of danger based on past traumatic experiences will throw the body into dysregulation while overstressing the nervous system. Just as in our relationship to others, our relationship to our environment is a concept that is bigger than the individualized parts of the relationship.

Sociocultural Elements

Like our self-concepts, the sociocultural elements that engulf all relationships highlight their clever ability to remain hidden while emphasizing the need to acknowledge their existence. The negative elements are primarily the unconscious power dynamics embedded into the bones of society, and the positive elements are the collective efforts put forth to promote equality, tolerance, safety, wisdom, and well-being.

I hope that this journey into relational landscapes has inspired you to strive to become more aware and tolerant of your close internal and external relationships that are constantly entering and exiting a state of connection and rupture. I invite you to rethink your relational role within a sociocultural context the next time you’re entering a life transition, making a big life purchase, grocery shopping, conversing with family and peers or quietly passing a stranger on the street.

Mike Butera, MFT is a Staff Therapist at our Center City and University City Offices; he currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach him at mbutera@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 4346.