What Is Your Core Conflictual Relationship Theme?

Uncovering the Meaning Behind Your Relationship Patterns

Most of us pick up specific patterns of relating to others early in life. We may find ourselves facing similar dilemmas with different friends, or similar conflicts across multiple romantic relationships. However, we aren’t always able to detect these similarities as the patterns are developing.

Think of how, as children, we couldn’t look in the mirror and notice our height increasing. That’s because growth is spread out in little bits over a long period of time. Since we can’t detect those little bits in real time, we measure ourselves. Similarly, our relationship patterns develop in little bits over a long period of time. It can take the loss of a friend or a particularly difficult breakup to prompt us to reflect and “measure” the situation.

One way to gain a deeper understanding of our relationship patterns would be to identify our core conflictual relationship theme. Our core conflictual relationship theme describes the role of our unconscious desires in eliciting certain responses from others, and then our response to those responses.

The core conflictual relationship theme was developed by psychologist Lester Luborsky (1977) both as an idea and as a therapeutic intervention. He sought to provide a tool for examining our unconscious desires in psychotherapy. The core conflictual relationship theme was designed to help us identify patterns in our relationship narratives in hopes of changing those narratives and experiencing greater relationship health and fulfillment.

Core conflictual relationship themes are identified when enough content from our relationship narratives begins to resemble a pattern that fits into the following framework: A person’s wish (wish), how another person reacted (response of other, RO), and how we reacted to that reaction (response of self, RS).

Relationship Themes Begin Early In Life

Core conflictual relationship themes are formed early in life. What follows is an example of both how core conflictual relationship themes are formed in early childhood, as well as how they manifest in adulthood.

Think of a child whose younger sibling repeatedly attracts more attention from their caregiver. The child’s desire is for more attention (wish), the caregiver’s response is rejection (RO), and the child’s response to that response is mistrust (RS). As an adult, this person may find herself experiencing persistent worries that others will be preferred to her, which may involve a pattern of mistrusting partners, leading to repeated relationship troubles.

In this example, the child wasn’t able to detect the development of this reflexive mistrust in real time. It wasn’t until much later in life that she found herself questioning why she wound up in similar predicaments over and over again.

Although there is no simple measuring instrument with which to identify our core conflictual relationship theme, such as a ruler with height, we can come to identify these patterns with the help of an outside observer. Therapists who are trained to pay attention to our narrative content will be able to collect data from these narratives and assist us in recognizing similarities and patterns we may not have been able to recognize on our own.

Here’s another example of how a core conflictual relationship theme might develop in early childhood and manifest in adulthood.

Imagine a child whose caregiver frequently responds to emotional expressions with statements such as, “Oh, it’s not that bad,” “I’ll give you something to cry about,” or who outright ignores the child. The child’s desire is for recognition (wish), the caregiver’s response is dismissal or unavailability (RO), and the child’s response to that response is withdrawal (RS). As an adult, this person may find himself avoiding intimacy in friendships and close relationships, as he lacks the expectation that his feelings will be validated and doesn’t want to experience disappointment. This is similar to the avoidant attachment category in attachment theory.

In this example, the child wasn’t able to detect the gradual development of this avoidant response to opportunities for intimacy in real time. It wasn’t until much later in life that he found himself being told that he is distant and emotionally unavailable by more than one person.

The concept of repetition compulsion may enhance our understanding of the core conflictual relationship theme. Explored by Sigmund Freud in 1920, repetition compulsion is the psychological and behavioral phenomenon in which a person repeats an event over and over again. Often, these are the most bothersome or painful events or circumstances from our past.

We Repeat Themes In Our Lives

Relationship choice is a common way in which repetition compulsion expresses itself. This makes sense! In the previous examples, key development needs went unmet in childhood. As adults, we might seek out relationships that resemble dynamics with our caregiver as an attempt to rewrite our own history and meet those same needs. I think of this as an adaptive response embedded in our unconscious, even if we require some assistance in breaking from the loop.

Repetition compulsion is a form of self-soothing. Think of a child who frequently returns to her favorite stuffed animal or blanket for comfort. This is healthy and normal. Problems arise when we are recreating circumstances that resulted in a negative emotional outcome in hopes of achieving a different, more positive emotional outcome. Re-enter the core conflictual relationship theme – the relationship patterns and habits we come to notice in adulthood reflecting our unfulfilled desires.

Because our unmet developmental needs often go unnoticed, and there is no way to easily detect the development of relationship patterns in real time, therapy can be a good place to step back and take stock of our personal history with relationships.

One benefit of therapy is coming into closer contact with our true desires. This often involves exploring the reasons why we lost contact with them to begin with. It can help to have support when the inevitable emotional challenges emerge in this process. New relational experiences in therapy lead to developing new narratives, and new narratives lead to developing healthier relationships outside of therapy.

The core conflictual relationship theme is only one of many tools that can help us gain a deeper understanding of our relationship patterns. If you’ve ever found yourself questioning what you are bringing into relationships that might contribute to similar outcomes, then it might be the right tool for you!

Reach out to learn more about attachment styles.

Written by Luke Romano, M.Phil.Ed., M.S.Ed.

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Freud, S. (2015.) Beyond the pleasure principle. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.

Luborsky, L. (1977). Measuring a pervasive psychic structure in psychotherapy: The Core Conflictual Relationship Theme. In N. Freedman & S. Grand (Eds.), Communicative structures and psychic structures (pp. 367-395). New York: Plenum Press


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