Why your relationships aren’t working out: Internal Working Models

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Attachment - Mark Ettensohn, Psy. Sacramento Psychologist

Image credit: photoxpress.com

Imagine playing a game, but you don’t know the rules. After a few rounds, you may start to get a sense for how the game is played. In a game of Checkers, for instance, you’d quickly realize that pieces only move diagonally and that you need to protect your pieces by not leaving open spaces behind them. In a game of Bridge, you’d have a lot more trouble figuring things out.

Basically, your ability to discern what was happening would depend on how difficult it was to understand and anticipate the moves. In a very complex game with lots of confusing turns, it would take a very long time to figure things out. In the meantime, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy playing.

This is basically how children experience early relationships with their caregivers. We can imagine a relationship as a “game” that two people are playing according to certain “rules” that govern how and when things happen. As adults, we are able to discuss the rules with our partners, but we don’t have this ability when we are very young. Basically, we just figure things out through repetition, discerning the rules of the game through trial and error.

When relationships with caregivers are consistent, safe, warm, and dependable, children have a much easier time understanding what’s going on. This increases their excitement and enthusiasm for participating in the relationship. Being able to anticipate what will happen next builds trust and confidence. Children raised with these kinds of relationships often find it easier to take on increasingly difficult developmental tasks. They are playing a game that promotes well-being.

Children who experience relationships that are confusing, unpredictable, harsh, or punishing also try to understand the rules – but it’s like trying to understand a game of Bridge without any lessons. They feel lost, invisible, frustrated, and anxious. Children raised with these kinds of relationships have more difficulty with later developmental tasks. The game they are playing is inconsistent, frustrating, and full of disappointment.

Psychologists who study human attachment call the relationship rules we create as children internal working models. They are developed from the first moment of connection with a caregiver. Although we continue to tweak and fine-tune our internal working models throughout our lives, the basic rules are created when we are very young.

We have internal working models of others (what other players in the game are supposed to do) and working models of ourselves (what we are supposed to do). Our models cover everything from how we are supposed to act to how we are supposed to feel. They determine whether we see other players as trustworthy, kind, and “on our team.” They also cover whether we see ourselves as good, strong, and deserving of care (i.e. good at the game)

For instance, a child raised in a home with consistent relationship rules that promote trust, safety, and well-being rules will likely learn that things like help, care, and understanding are available and do not come with a high price. She will feel more confident and see people as basically good and the world as a welcoming place.

A child raised in a home with inconsistent or harsh relationship rules may learn that feeling bad goes unnoticed, that help comes with retaliation, and that love is only available if he acts a certain way. He may see other people as cold or invasive and the world as a place full of danger and disappointment.

What This Means for You and Your Child/Partner:

We all want our kids to have the best possible chance in life. Research continues to show that a child’s attachment experiences are fundamental in giving her the best shot at mental health.

Take time with your kids to help them make sense of their feelings. The way you respond to them will become the way they respond to themselves. Be available to them. Be consistent, positive, and patient. Help them create rules that empower them. Guide them toward developing a world-view in which they feel seen and safe, and in which they see others as dependable, caring, and trustworthy.

In other words, make the game they are playing fun, with rules that promote their well-being.

Similarly, remember that each of us has our own internal working models – rules we have made up over the course of our entire lives. Some of us benefitted from secure attachments and are playing a game that feels winnable. Some of us were not so lucky.

If you (or your partner) fall into the latter category, don’t despair! There is always the possibility of rebuilding internal working models. Understanding our attachment experiences (the rules we have made up) and how they have shaped our lives today (the game we are playing) is vital to making positive changes. Self-work, therapy, and communication are the best strategies.

Most importantly, be compassionate toward yourself when you find you are repeating frustrating or unhealthy relationship patterns. After all, compassion for yourself and for others is one the most beneficial rules you can learn.


A child may not know what direction he is going, but when he is attached to you, he doesn’t feel lost.”

– Gordon Neufeld

1 Comment

  1. Reblog: When the Rules Keep Changing | Aiden J. Sanders
    August 5, 2015

    […] Why Your Relationships Aren’t Working Out: Internal Working Models […]


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