Puzzle Pieces and Relationship Identity

Dr. Mark Kavanaugh, Ph.D.




Over the years I have had many clients, primarily women, who have come to see me in hope of getting help in improving thier relationships with thier partners (boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, etc.).


A small number of these individuals (though it does not always FEEL small) seemed to be stuck in a pattern of engaging in short-lived, intense, and highly negative relationships. By "negative" I mean that the relationships were not reciprical, they were neglectful, and in some instances, they were abusive. The peculiar thing was NOT the tragedy that they were involved in a negative relationship, it was the fact that this was one of MANY negative relationships they had been involved in over the years.


I found this to be confounding. As a therapist with a primary theory of Behaviorism and Learning Theory, it made no sense that individuals who experienced negative relationships would seek out more of the same. (If these negative experiences could be seen as "punishments" it should reduce the behavior of seeking them out...how many times do you need to touch a hot stove??).


I set out to do some research (reading and interviews) to see if I could get to the bottom of this peculiar situation. As I was teaching Developmental Psychology at the time, the theories and models of human change and development had a tremendous impact on my thinking. It was in these theories and models that I believe I found some answers.




Early on I came to the conclusion that this issue must have something to do with Identity. According to Erik Erikson our "Ego Identity" is the conscious sense of self that we develop through social interactions, and it is something that is continually changing as we encounter different people and situations.


My first premise is that we have what I call a "relationship identity" or "relationship personality" and that this is a "self" that we reserve specifically for interactions with people we have significant relationships with.  We may have a unique "relationship personality" for each person important enough to warrant one so we have many selves that we utilize to interact with others in different ways.


This aspect of our identity is unique to the self that we exhibit in these relationships and can often remain dormant and hidden until we are actually in those relationships.


As a "personality" it has traits, strengths, weaknesses, and modes of social interaction that are unique and separate from our others "types" of self that we might use at work, or with family, or out in public. This is a supremely "private" personality that we reserve only for the individuals we are in very close relationships with.




"Puzzle Pieces" is what I call the theory.  This theory does not focus so much on relationships at different ages through the lifespan, but on the development of relationships over timeÉthe development of the relationship itself.


The analogy of the Puzzle Pieces title refers to the theory that a person's relationship personality is made up of a number of different parts. Each part reflects specific developmental events in a person's life that have shaped their relationship personality. The completed personality can be thought of as having countours (much the way an unfinished jigsaw puzzle would have countours...and that only specific pieces are going to fit into those contours).


When we go into the world seeking "partners" we seek those who are a good "fit" to these "contours".


Each aspect of this personality takes shape over time as a result of our maturation and our experiences, thus, the theories of Developmental Psychology are particularly relevant.




I make some assumptions in this theory.


  1. I believe that we are constantly changing and managing many aspects of our identity and self throughout the lifespan.
  2. I beleive that our "relationship personality" is a vital and important aspect of our overall identity development, however, different individuals will satisfy this aspect of their growth in different ways.
  3. I believe that there is a part of us that senses when we are in the presence of a person who matches what our "relationship personality" is looking for.
  4. The contour of the "edge" of our relationship personality (puzzle piece analogy) is shaped by many forces and can be changed, however, the longer we have maintained the contour of particular pieces the more difficult they can be to change.




I owe much of what I have put together in this theory to a number of specific theories of human development and psychology put forth by some of the greatest names in the field.


Erik Erikson


Erikson's Psychosocial theory of human development is the base model for puzzle pieces. In itself, it is an excellent model for the understanding of how relationships develop.


Consider the following brief description of Erikson's theory as how a relationship may progress over time:


Stage 1 - Basic Trust vs. Mistrust

  • At the beginning of the relationship information is shared about other relationships, past history and assessments are made on each part as to how the relationship may progress

Stage 2 - Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

  • Each member of the relationship begins to experiment with exposing aspects of their true personality to the other.  Following the beginning phase of the relationship each begins to decide if the relationship fits in with all the other aspects of their autonomous selves

Stage 3 - Initiative vs. Guilt

  • Members of the relationship begin to take initiative in creating opportunities for further growth together.

Stage 4 - Industry vs. Inferiority

  • Each partner begins to get a feel for what they are good at in the relationship and seek to master those aspects of the relationship.  They are each trying to get good at being with each other.

Stage 5 - Identity vs. Role Confusion (or "Diffusion")

  • This could be a crisis point where each of the members needs to explore what the relationship is and where it is going.
  • Is this a committed relationship or just temporary?  Without a successful resolution to this the relationship can remain confused and "diffused" with no clear direction.

Stage 6 - Intimacy vs. Isolation

  • This is where true intimacy comes into play.  Once each partner has agreed on what the relationship is going to be and they have developed some shared goals they, for the first time, begin to understand each other's role in the relationship.
  • If this is not successful then the relationship may end and each individual may become more isolated.

Stage 7 - Generativity vs. Stagnation

  • With agreed upon goals the relationship can now begin to produce what it will in these individuals' lives.  This could be children it could be traveling, depending on the set goals of the individuals.
  • Without this the relationship can stagnate.

Stage 8 - Ego Integrity vs. Despair

  • Finally, with a life of its own, the life-long partnership of two individuals can flourish and become greater than simply a sum of the two individuals' personalities as they developed a shared identity which began it's formation during stage 6.


In the regular application of Erikson's theory we see that relationships come onto the stage of a person's development somewhere around stages 5 and 6.  So we see this theory acting in a theoryÉas we approach stages 5 and 6 in our lives and engage with others we go through a mini set of stages for those relationships.


Just as in Erikson's general theory we bring to life certain traits, expectations and skills, so do we bring certain traits, expectations and skills to each new relationship.


James Marcia


James Marcia looked deeper into this 5th stage of Erikson and has given us a way to describe the ways in which we go about defining our selves, including our RP. 


Marcia refers to the concept of Identity Status meaning that at any given time each of these puzzle pieces is in a specific state.  This lends support to the idea that our identity is a changeable aspect of our existence. Each state is described in terms of the process of Crisis and the decision of Commitment.


For clarity, Marcia defines Crisis  as the active process of "looking at the alternatives" related to choosing a specific identity.  The term Commitment is the process whereby we select a specific identity.


Marcia felt we could be in any one of four states relevant to a specific aspect of our identity.  At any time we may be in different states regarding different parts of our identity.


These states are as follows:


Achievement: individuals who have explored alternatives and have deliberately chosen a specific identity (both crisis and commitment)

Moratorium: individuals who are still examining different alternatives and have yet to find a satisfactory identity (only crisis)

Foreclosure: individuals whose identity is determined largely by adults, rather than from personal exploration of alternatives  (only commitment)

Diffusion:  individuals who are confused or often overwhelmed by the task of achieving an identity and are doing little to achieve one  (neither crisis nor commitment)


As we experience early relationship, we begin to formulate a template for what we are "looking for".  In essence this is a form of Marcia's Foreclosure.


We develop an early template of expectations for love relationships based on:

  • Early experiences
  • First loves and maturity
  • Repeated, predictably relationships


Robert Sternberg


Bob Sternberg has developed a model of love that I have been looking at as almost having prescriptive applications (being able to guide people on how to correct relationship that are not going well).


His "Triangular Theory of Love" states that a love relationship, and its various related types of relationships are composed of three dimensions: intimacy (knowledge of the person), commitment (agreed upon goals for the relationship) and Passion (a desire to be with the person).


The presence or absence of these indicate different kinds of relationships between people.


This diagram depicts this theory and some of the different kinds of "loves" that it can describe.





Triangular Theory of Love







As we approach forming relationships with significant others we present a number of aspects of our personaoity that are the result of the puzzle pieces of your relationship personality and socialization.


Rsearch has been done on what men and women think of if they are considering an ideal Partner.  Women and men have the same list except for the ones listed below that indicate a characteristic that men wish for and one that women wish for.

  • Kind and understanding
  • Exciting personality
  • Intelligent
  • Physically attractive (men)
  • Healthy
  • Easygoing
  • Creative
  • Wants children
  • Educated
  • Good earning potential (women)

So, both men and women seem to be seeking the same basic characteristics, but I believe attraction happens in other ways as well...sometimes to the point of negating some of the desires for these basic traits.

This attraction arises from the "need" we have to find a person to fit the contours of our relationship personality.


The sources of these pieces are from numerous places and this really is where the theory needs to grow and develop. Consider what we learn about our roles and as men and women in our own relationships based on the following experiences:

  • First Model Relationship
    • We can never discount the first relationships that we encounter in our lives...the relationship between our parents.
    • This piece of the puzzel shapes our expectations for our role in relationships before we are even able to discern if these roles are OK for us or not!
  • The Fairy Tale
    • Early childhood literature of the "Once upon a time..." genre tend to display relationships in a number of different ways:
      • Relationships and Love are central themes
      • Women are generally portrayed as being less powerful then men
      • Men are portrayed as heroic and powerful characters
      • Women often are in a position where they need to be rescued by the men
      • Evil can be defeated, but only with the man
      • Once evil is defeated the natural consequence is to get married and "Live Happily Ever After"
  • Early Media Relationship
    • Early childhood media (TV, movies, etc.) tend to display relationship as idylic. Problems are minimal and usually solved quickly and without lasting consequence. People also tend to be generally nice to each other.
    • While this might seem to be somewhat of a GOOD role model, it actually contributes more to the Fairy Tale Model and creates further unrealistic expectations for how to negotiate real relationships
  • Pre-teen Television and Movies
    • Although slightly different than the early childhood media, pre-teen media sends idylic expectations as well.
    • Pre-teens are attracted to shows that portray teens (not shows that show pre-teens, those are boring)
    • These shows focus nearly exclusively on exaggerated emotions and relationships...nearly every show will have a main plot or a subplot that focuses on relationships.
    • The message is that adolescence is all about relationships
    • Erikson said that adolescence was all about identity, and HE is right.

I'll take a moment here to clarify something. I have absolutely no problem with Fairy Tales and the Early Media for children and pre-teens. It is not these particular pieces that create the "problem" later on...they simply contribute to it when other things go wrong...it is in adolescence where we might see things go wrong.

  • Gender Socialization
    • Boys and girls are different
    • Boys socialize and compete for status through activity
    • Girls socialize and compete for status through emotional connections
    • A boy's sense of accomplishment in social relationships stems from his ability to "one-up" his friends...to be the best
    • A girl's sense of accomplishment in social relationships stems from her ability to "maintain the peace", "make sure everyone is happy", or "destroy the reputation of her competition"
  • First "real" Relationship
    • These first relationships are critical. By these I mean the relationships that begin to emerge during early adolescence. We see the first real "love" type relationships, and even though they tend to be immature, they care seen as "serious" by those involved.
    • It is well established that young girls are more emotionally mature than young boys...yet both are approaching relationships
    • Boys and girls have different goals associated with these early relationships...these differing goals often maintain themselves into adulthood.
    • Boys' approach to relationships is primarily centered around ACTIVITY and STATUS
    • Girls' approach to relationships is primarily centered around EMOTIONS and STATUS
    • Sexuality becomes a factor in the relationship
    • Sex is an ACTIVITY for boys and it is an EMOTION for girls

Let me give an example scenario. A girl falls for a boy and he falls for her. She is pretty and developing and he is popular. She enjoys the status of being with him and has images of "Prince Charming" in her mind while he enjoys the status of being with her and highly anticipates the activity that he would like to engage with her, his emerging sexuality.

Not all relationships are like this, but not all people develop these patterns of negative relationships.

To maintain their respective status each seeks to feel more ACTIVE and EMOTIONAL with the other. Sex can be seen as a way for each to meet this need. If they do have sex SHE will emerge from that situation confident that the relationship is emotionally matured...she is wrong. HE has engaged in sex with her as a form of ACTIVITY...when the activity is done, it is done.

The truth of this outcome can sometimes manifest right away as he moves emotionally away from her right after having sex, or it can be seen over time as he moves on to his next conquest.

If the relationship breaks off it is often violent and painful for her and less so for him. She is left feeling used and dirty after having shaped her personality to meet his needs.

Imagine the contours of her body being wrapped around him and he pulls away suddenly...she is left with a gaping wound in the shape of her relationship personality. Her entire sense of self has been wrapped around him and suddenly her status and emotions are in shambles. She is desperate...WHO CAN FILL THIS VOID?

  • Identity = Relationship
    • What can begin to emerge during this time is this: according to Erikson, adolescents are mostly concerned with the formulation of their Identity...and this remains true. However, the media and experience show the teen that relationships are important and a focus.
    • The girl in the story above has a good chance of creating a pattern of using relationships to DEFINE her self, not as a means of supplementing or enhancing herself.
    • A split in a relationship is not a regular crisis, it is an IDENTITY CRISIS (thus, much of the drama that we see)
    • As the child grows older she begins to develop a sense of identity that is based on some pretty poor piece
  • Adult Relationship Identity in patterns of Negative Relationships
    • So what do we see develop over time? Here are some characteristics of individual's Relationship Personality:
      • Identity = Relationships
      • The individual does not feel secure/comfortable/complete unless they are in a relationship
      • They are primarily attracted to immature men
      • Immature men tend to be dependent, emotionally unstable (close then far), and in need of a relationship
      • The woman feels "needed" in the relationship
      • He tends to be controlling because he "needs" her and lacks the emotional maturity to negotiate his relationships in other ways
      • He is still ACTIVITY based
      • She is still EMOTIONAL based
      • Sex takes on a utilitarian mode---he continues to have sex as activity while she continues to seek emotional connection through sex...both are delusional because she is not engaged in the activity and he is not emotional
      • Thoughts on ending the relationship on her part are equal to identity crisis and an affront to long held beleifs that she is the one responsible for holding relationships together
      • Relationships that break up are often seen as FAILURES on HER part regardless of the circumstances of the break up.
      • Even in recovery, many women will either maintain it was their fault, or completely demonize the men.





I believe that early experiences shape the contours of our relationship identity (or personality).  We are drawn to individuals that best meet these needs.  Some of them can be rational (I want someone who is financially secure) while others can be irrational (I need someone who depends on me for survival).  You can see that these contours could act to bring us to someone who meets our needs, but is not "right" for us.


By focusing on the developmental process of a relationship we can see that it changes over time and that change is part of a healthy, dynamic relationship.  If someone is fighting for things to "just stay as they are"Éthere is trouble there!


So, we come to relationships looking for a good fit to our relationship identity so we can match up with them and form a shared identity.  Some aspect of our personality (identity) remain in flux (Marcia's theory) while others may be foreclosed and very difficult to change.


Following Sternberg's theory, we wish for a balanced caring relationship that has a good helping of passion, commitment and intimacy.  If any of these are lacking, we can take measures to correct them.


Stability in our relationships come from our ability to continue to develop parts of our identity, including those that identify and define the relationship personality.  We do this by adding a "depth" to the triangle of Sternberg....we achice depth through personal growth.




If someone is deep in this negative pattern their first task is to remain single the next time they find themselves in that circumstance. They need to time to develop personal growth so that they can break this cycle.




My theory dictates that within a relationship each of the individuals needs to continue to sustain a personal growth path of learning and experiencing (within the limits of the commitment of the relationship).  This way the personality of the person is, in some ways, always in flux, or always changing.


A relationship then becomes dynamic as the process of forming Intimacy (knowledge of the person) is always needed because each is growing.


If one is growing and the other is notÉwell, they "grow apart" and we see the 50%+ divorce rate.


This making a relationship work is like hitting a moving target.


Certain traits are associated with happy and unhappy relationships in our society.  Each of these traits is indicated if two individuals are growing and developing while forming their emotional bond.




We hear all the time about what makes a relationship "happy" and that communication is key. This really is not enough information...because even couples with good communication will not be "happy" all the time.


Through our process of personal growth we have to recreate parts of our relationship personality...we have to achive the following mind set and belief system:


  • Relationships can be generally happy and free of major conflicts
  • Happily Ever After does not exist
  • The fact that Happily Ever After does not exist does not mean that the relationship is bad
  • It takes two to make a relationship work
  • It takes two to make a relationship fail
  • Failure in a relationship is not the same as failure in life/identity/self, etc.
  • Relationships do not take work, they take effort, and there is a difference
  • Relationships will experience problems, conflicts, and arguments...and properly handled, these will make those relationships stronger
  • Relationships require clear rules when it comes to dealing with problems
  • The essential processes of "Group Process" are in effect in a relationship between two people

So, what makes up a happy or unhappy relationship:

  • Unhappy
    • Spend too much time criticizing one another
    • Too defensive when one of their faults is identified
    • One or both show contempt for the other
    • Stonewalling---unwilling to communicate---"I'll change, but he/she needs to make the first move"
  • Happy
    • Found a successful way to deal with the four problems mentioned in the "unhappy" list
    • Men develop a skill for not immediately rejecting thier women's advice, but either accepted it or found something reasonable in it
    • Women have developed a skill to express their complaints and advice in a gentle, soothing way which is easier for men to take