Featured Image by Madhana Gopal from Pixabay
It is another typical evening for Sarah and Mark. They have been together for a few years and, like any couple, have their fair share of disagreements. This time, it is about something seemingly trivial—an argument over whose turn it is to do the dishes and when they should be done, in the evening, right after dinner, or the next morning. As the tension escalated, their voices grow louder, and they find themselves slipping into familiar patterns of communication that are anything but constructive.
Sarah’s frustration grows, and she feels a strong urge to prove her point. She raises her voice, her tone becoming accusatory and confrontational. In her mind, she is fighting for what she believes to be the best or right way. After all, she deserves respect and not to be treated like a maid. She should be able to expect that an equal partner doesn’t need to be told to do the dishes. Meanwhile, Mark, feeling attacked and defensive, adopts a posture of withdrawal. He retreats into silence, shutting down any attempt at further conversation.
When Sarah and Mark engage in a heated argument, they both find themselves reacting from a place of defensiveness and emotional reactivity. In that moment, their Wise Adult selves seem to vanish, replaced by what Terry Real refers to as the “Adaptive Child.”
As a relationship coach, I often observe couples like Sarah and Mark caught in a repetitive dance of triggered responses. Understanding their unique relationship dynamic and what happens when one or both partners get activated is crucial for creating lasting change.
During conflicts, our autonomic nervous system can be triggered into fight or flight mode, causing our prefrontal cortex to go offline and our primitive brain, the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, to take over. In these moments, it’s easy to forget that our partner is not our enemy and that we need our Wise Adult selves to respond calmly and find effective solutions.
Trauma, which can take various forms, influences how we react in our adult relationships. When we hear trauma, we often think of the PTSD that a war veteran lives with. However, it’s also important to recognize that trauma doesn’t necessarily require a single significant event; it can also stem from ongoing emotional neglect or abuse, such as being raised by an emotionally disconnected parent or feeling suffocated by an overprotective one.
Because parents are human beings and can only parent as well as they have either been parented themselves or have overcome the limitations of the previous generation, many people have experienced some form of trauma. Becoming aware of your wounds is not about judging and blaming your parents but understanding how the past still affects your adult relationships.
Terry Real’s concept of the Inner Child, Wise Adult, and Adaptive Child offers a helpful framework for understanding our different parts. Just as in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, we recognize that we all have protective parts that developed to help us navigate the world. However, these parts can become problematic when they dominate our interactions with our partners.
The Wise Adult represents our non-triggered, conscious self. When operating from this part, our prefrontal cortex remains online, enabling us to remember that our partner is someone we love and to consider what is best for both of us. We become skilled at listening to our partner’s feelings and needs while effectively expressing our own. As a result, collaboration, compromise, and problem-solving become possible.
Terry Real speaks of “fight, flight and fix” as the three automatic knee-jerk responses that indicate that our Wise Adult is not in the driver’s seat. Fixing “is not the same as a mature, considered wish to work on the relationship” (Terry Real, Us, page 15). It often comes from an anxious, driven need to fix the partner’s emotional state. It can be challenging to see your partner sad or upset, but fixing is not the solution. You will likely end up resenting your partner for making you responsible for their emotional well-being. You are also holding both of you from operating from your Wise Adult Selves.
The Adaptive Child, as Terry Real describes it, is the compensating part that develops in response to our childhood experiences. This concept aligns with the IFS model’s understanding of protectors, who aim to safeguard us from harm. But while these responses were adaptive as children, they can be maladaptive in our adult relationships.
Our wise adult self is nuanced, realistic, forgiving and flexible, while the adaptive child self thinks in black & white categories and is perfectionistic, relentless and rigid. The adaptive child is also harsh, hard, certain and tight. Our wise adult, on the other hand, is warm, yielding, humble and relaxed. Sometimes we are so used to this protective way of being that we regard the extreme qualities of the Adaptive Child as virtues. But that defensiveness is in the way of living genuinely intimate and trusting relationships. If we cannot be gentle, accepting and loving with ourselves, we cannot be soft, accepting and loving with others. So we need the flexibility and emotional maturity of the Wise Adult in our relationships.
As in the IFS model, we approach the protective parts with respect and gentleness, recognizing their valuable intentions. Similarly, Real also stresses that we “must always be respectful of the exquisite intelligence of the Adaptive Child” (Real, Us, page 14). Again, self-compassion and understanding pave the way for healing and transformation.
We all agree that relationships take work, not occasionally but all the time. The relational work happens daily, or even on a minute-to-minute basis, as we check what part of us is showing up in our interactions with our partners.
To reduce triggered moments and minimize frustrating arguments, we can follow a simple three-step process:
- Ask yourself, “Which part of me am I in now?”
By recognizing signs of defensiveness, control, or a desire to be right, we can identify when our Wise Adult is not at the helm. Likewise, if we feel the urge to fight, withdraw, or quickly fix our partner’s emotions, we know we’ve strayed from our Wise Adult.
Reconnecting with our Wise Adult requires deliberate action. Communicating to our partner that we don’t feel fully resourced in our Adult Self can be a powerful initial step. Taking a timeout to regain composure and regulate our emotions might also be necessary.
Return to the conversation once you can listen and communicate from your heart again. When you remember that you love the other person, you can have a warm conversation in which each of you takes responsibility for their feelings, words and actions and can negotiate compromises successfully. One tool you can use is the Feedback Wheel.
Adapted from an Image by Madhana Gopal from Pixabay
The Adaptive Child often responds automatically in predictable ways. Some of us become pushers or pursuers who seek control and reassurance. Others retreat literally or internally by putting up walls of avoidance. Some adaptive children adopt a grandiose, superior position and talk down to our partner. Others operate from shame and inferiority, extreme pleaser or victim mode. These patterns reflect our unique attachment styles, shaped by past experiences of abandonment or intrusion.
“In reaction mode, our Adaptive children tend to do the opposite of what we ourselves experienced.” (Real, Us, 69) If we have felt abandoned as children, we tend to have a more anxious attachment style and be more intrusive with our partner, pursuing them actively for connection. If we have experienced intrusive parenting, we are more likely to have an avoidant attachment style and put up walls.
Remember, transforming the way we show up in relationships takes practice. It’s an ongoing commitment to self-awareness and relational growth. Regular individual or couples sessions can provide valuable support and guidance on recognizing and changing these relational patterns.
As you embark on this journey, keep in mind that the work of creating healthier connections is both challenging and rewarding. Embrace the process, and you’ll discover its profound impact on your relationship. The path to a more fulfilling and harmonious relationship begins with understanding ourselves and our patterns. Then, with commitment and self-awareness, we can create lasting change and build the love and connection we desire.
Together, we can cultivate a more conscious and fulfilling way of interacting for you and your partner. So, consider reaching out for individual sessions or couples counselling to learn more about recognizing and changing your relational patterns. I always start with a complimentary Zoom consultation, so we can meet and see if we are a good fit.
Belief Change & Relationship Coaching