The Complexities of Relationships
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Edmond Oreilly MA MSc BACP Senior Accred.
31st July, 2013
“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.
Those who wish to sing always find a song.
At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.” Plato
Relationships are complex and enormously difficult. It is a miracle that so many seem to work. Two people meet and fall in love and pursue the dream of continuing happiness, sometimes for a week, sometimes for fifty years or until death; each carries conscious and unconscious hopes of emotional fulfilment; of being loved unconditionally forever; of being understood; of sexual gratification. During the initial stages of the relationship romantic dreams fill the mind. There is often mutual idealisation, a focus on the positive and a turning of a blind eye to limitations in the relationship, to faults in the other. There tends to be an element of fantasy in the newly hatched world of young love; the promise of magical gratification of one’s need to give and receive what one believes to be uncontaminated pure love may dominate the relationship. The dawning of the reality of the huge complexity, and difficulties in the relationship are often very difficult to cope with. The failure of one’s partner and one’s own failure to realise the promise of a magical fulfilment may be very painful. As a result of this conflict, a sense of loss and even betrayal may take hold. If the relationship is to last there has to be an acceptance of the self and of the other in the partnership. The process of discovery of self and other and how to relate may be a life-long commitment. As we know, not everyone gets to the point of compromise that makes life possible.
Most of us believe that a long term relationship is the best bet to ensure the stability and dignity of the relational needs of adults and their potential children. The vast majority of those entering committed relationships desperately want them to work. It is often very difficult to understand why some seem to work while others fail. Are there particular ingredients in a successful relationship that are absent in those that do not work? Or do the same ingredients work in one situation but not in another? Human relationships are enormously complex and operate on different levels. They operate on a private but also on a public level; human attraction has an obvious but also a hidden dimension.
The forces that attract one human being to another are very powerful, and the desire to make the relationship work are profoundly meant - yet many relationships break down. There is no simple explanation for this phenomena, but we can think about the changes that have taken place in our social world and also consider the difficulties and complexities that we all face in our private and public relationships.
Sociologists and Psychologists attempt to explain the increase in the divorce rate and apparent breakdown in couple relationships. They draw attention to the increasing development of the isolated nuclear family and the consequent absence of the support of the extended family. They highlight the changing economic role of women and the consequent need to adapt to the necessary changes in the role of both men and women in the home. Both men and women may have increasingly high expectations that a committed relationship should be fulfilling. The stigma of separation and divorce seems no longer to be such a barrier to ending an unsatisfactory relationship.
In our contemporary world of geographical and social mobility there are increasing opportunities to meet and fall in love with another who is not drawn from the same social grouping. Given that each partner brings to the relationship the depth of their cultural experiences, with all its richness but also its differences, there is the potential for conflict. Both people have to confront the cultural values and beliefs that they have brought to each other from their familial relationships. Each culture socialises its young in its norms and attitudes that regulate their lives. These then are taken for granted, slipping into the unconscious mind of the individual, without the need to fully examine the implications of holding particular views and so following a particular way of living. Cultural and class views may differ on authority, marriage, education, male and female roles, the way to bring up children, the relationship with the extended family, sex, politics, religion, etc.
It is likely that intimate and detailed discussions on many aspects of their shared life will have taken place between partners who come from both similar and different cultural and class backgrounds before a final commitment is made. Indeed many, if not all, couples will be more or less aware of difference - in fact, difference may be one of the features that attracted them to each other in the first place. It may also be the case that difficult, contentious issues will have been skilfully avoided. Fear of abandonment, or rejection by one’s loved one tends to inhibit communication around difficult issues. It is possible that partners sail into a relationship on a cloud of love, hope and generosity, only to discover large unexamined areas in each other. The feeling may be that there are differences but then love conquers all. Or does it?
The Hidden demands in relationships
“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even if he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, so shall he descend to your roots and shake them in your clinging to the earth.”
The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
As we know, relationships operate on both a conscious and an unconscious level. Some of our assumptions about what life should offer, what one should expect to give and receive, our dreams and hopes, are known and shared by both ourselves and our partner. There are, however, whole areas of our lives that we do not know about; we may only become aware of these areas when we have a crisis either in our public or our private relationship.
The sharing of life with another on a conscious level is likely to be testing at the best of times, but unconscious needs and drives that are not met by the relationship may give rise to extreme conflict. Just how significant this conflict is and how well individuals can manage seems to depend on their personal experience of care, on the quality of their life from infancy. When both people have been consistently the object of care and love since infancy, when there has been respect for their autonomy and tolerance of their individuality and tolerance of difference in others, it is very likely that the challenges of partnership will be successfully met. It is unlikely that the unconscious hidden world will produce any big surprises. When difficulties do arise in the relationship of emotionally healthy partners there is likely to be sufficient respect for and acceptance of the individuality of the other to allow the difference to be explored and a compromise worked out without the destruction of the partnership.
Some partners are faced with what feels like insurmountable difficulties in their relationship without necessarily understanding why. Potential conflict is an ever-present factor in all relationships even the apparently most suited. Whether potential conflict erupts into actual destructive conflict depends on how well each partner is prepared to work with and empathise with each other’s position. The vast majority of people work very hard to make their relationship successful. Unfortunately, conflicts over relatively minor issues may arise and grow in importance. When minor issues erupt into verbal and physical violence they are frequently, if not always, underpinned by hidden frustrations, disappointments and anger. As the real explanation for the explosion of anger is hidden, unconscious, it takes the individual by surprise and is often followed by remorse and a desire to make recompense. The cruelty is that people who love each other can continuously assault each other, snipe at each other and ultimately destroy their relationship without fully understanding why.
The explanation for our difficulties in adult life may be found in our infant/child relationships
We are born with a very powerful drive to bond, to form relationships with those who care for our infant/child self. During our infancy and childhood we identify with the most significant people in our lives; we take them into our minds and they become a part of the self. This whole process is such a natural part of our young dependent lives that we simply adjust to the demands of those that we are dependent on. When the relationship between infant and carer is mutually respectful and loving the infant/child is provided with a foundation for an emotionally healthy future. If, however, the carer is suffering from the damages of her own experience of life she may project her experience and the infant’s adjustment may give a very distorted view of self and others.
These early relationships determine our sense of self; whether we believe that we are loveable, whether we can love and evoke love in another. They determine our capacity to be intimate with another without feeling trapped or engulfed. Our capacity to be compassionate to be tolerant and forgiving and empathetic is learned during these early years.
It is likely that the majority of us were provided with a loving but imperfect environment in which to develop. As the human is such a rich mixture of the fragile and resilient it is likely that most of us carry scars from our childhood which we wrestle with in our adult relationships. If we are unable to come to terms with the effects of the more damaging early relationships we may unknowingly bring these internalised relationships to our partner’s bed.
It is widely accepted that the insecurities and wounds of childhood continue into our adult relationships. This point of view is based on the work has been done on attachment in childhood and the profound impact of insecure attachment on human growth.
The carer who is unable to support the child in a time of stress, who is not able to be in touch with their child’s feelings, is likely to produce an insecure adult; an adult who minimises the importance of their own needs, one who is likely to be out of touch with the normal longing for love, care and support. An adult who may not be able to acknowledge feelings of anger, sadness and disappointment at their neglect. Their capacity to empathise may be profoundly damaged.
A parent who is inconsistent in their caring of their infant, one moment loving at another moment dismissive and rejecting, is likely to produce an adult who is inconsistent in their relating. They are likely to unknowingly reproduce the inconsistencies of their childhood experience. At one point they may be very loving but dependent and clingy, while at another angrily independent punitive and distant.
A parent who seeks to compensate for emotional difficulties in their own life may seek to live through their child. In practical terms this may mean an engulfing involvement in the life of the child. The child is over protected and over directed. The child is persuaded to follow a path in their schooling, in their choice of free activity, in their friendship group that is of the parent’s choosing. The parent may use emotional blackmail to ensure their focus and loyalty. The child may have to fight for their survival as an autonomous individual. The adult emerging from this kind of parenting may have huge fears of being engulfed by an intimate other. He may have problems in forming and committing to relationships. The unconscious fear of being taken over may indeed be too powerful. There may be resentment and rage at the way their capacity to naturally be their own person has been eroded. There may be a sadness that he has not been loved for himself. These powerful but negative feelings are likely to get in the way of the development of their adult relationships.
We have all observed infants/children clinging to their mother as if its life depended on her presence. This is hardly surprising, as in fact the infant instinctively knows that its emotional and physical life does actually depend on her. What is remarkable is that, whether the mother is loving or rejecting, the longing born out of this dependence persists. The need for approval of the parent, whether transparent or hidden, seems to last through life. Many of us spend our lives working on and processing this early relationship and indeed revisit it in our adult relationship. Several observers of adult relationships suggest that both males and females marry their mother. This may because they seek to recreate the phantasied paradise of the breast, that imagined perfect world of unconditional love. On the other hand, when the carer was not loving, they revisit the scene of infantile rejection in their adult relationships, replaying the relationship repeatedly. The hope is that this time everything will be alright.
How can Therapy Help?
Perhaps finding the courage to contact a therapist and make an appointment is the most productive part of the therapeutic process. It suggest that there is an awareness that something is wrong, that work needs to be done to find out what are the issues. It further suggests a willingness to reflect on oneself and on the relationship which is the essential staring point.
Some people may be apprehensive about going to talk to a stranger, in the presence of their partner, about their most private thoughts, fears and concerns. Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of consulting a therapist is overcoming the taboo that attaches to seeking psychological support. For partners to seek counselling is to admit to themselves and to others that their relationship is not working. This admission may evoke shame, guilt, a sense of personal failure and humiliation. That partners overcome their ambivalence about seeking help is testament to their courage and determination to make their relationship work.
It is the job of the therapist to work with the couple to develop insight into the source of their mutual difficulties. This work inevitably involves a detailed exploration of the life history of each and of their relationship from meeting to present time. The life history of both individuals is of course central to their present relationship. This exploration begins with infancy and childhood and the intimate relationships of that period. It is during this period that the basis for adult relationships is established.
Clients seeking therapy may often begin with the question, “how long will this take?". There is no straight answer to this question. So much depends on what the presenting issues are, what the hidden issues are and what the couple want to achieve. Some couples find what they were seeking in five or six sessions while others may take a year or more. As the work develops couples often find that hidden unforeseen issues arise which may take longer to resolve.
Some couples may want to end their relationship amicably, without the bitterness and anger that can accompany the break-up of a relationship. This is generally uncommon; the majority of couples want desperately to save their relationship. It is the role of the therapist to work towards this end. With open and transparent communication the meaning behind conflict can be discovered and understood. By offering a safe, supportive non - judgmental place for each it becomes possible to ventilate feelings of frustration, sexual and non-sexual disappointment, anger. It also becomes possible to explore feelings of abandonment, loneliness and isolation within the relationship. Being given the freedom, the permission, to share these feelings is often very revealing to both partners and generally evokes empathy for their mutual plight. As the source of so many difficulties are hidden it is hardly surprising that there is frequently a lack of full appreciation of the other’s position, which can manifest as difficult feelings. These feelings may be expressed in open verbal or physical abuse or in more hidden ways, such as passive aggression. Those who are fearful of open conflict may express their feelings by cold withdrawal of affection, emotional support or engaged sex.
When therapy works an awareness of how each is responding to the other begins to develop. It becomes possible to reflect on the relationship and to develop an understanding of the source of the difficulties. This understanding provides the context in which it becomes possible to begin to repair the damage that has visited the relationship. The work provides a better understanding of what the relationship is based on, what they expect from each other and from the relationship. An appreciation develops of the fact that the tension in the relationship comes from within each as well as from the overt behaviour of the other. This may help each partner to see the other more objectively, to manage their ambivalence and aggression in a more empathetic and less destructive way and to recognise when and why they are projecting.
Relationships are enormously complex requiring compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and a desire to seek the happiness of the other. Love is a mixture of loving the self in the other, loving the other because they make oneself happy, and the finding of pleasure in the other’s happiness.
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