The Heaven and Hell of Relationships
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Clare Suart BA, Dip Ed, MBACP
31st July, 2013
Relationships have the allure of Heaven but sadly, often become Hell. This doesn't mean that the relationship is wrong, just that there are issues that need addressing in order to restore and deepen the Love.
Why do these issues arise?
When we are with someone that we love and who loves us, we generally feel safe, heard and understood for who we feel we really are. As a result, several things might happen:
We probably feel safe enough to fully relax, unconsciously allowing other aspects of ourselves to emerge. Aspects that are not necessarily 'bad' but that we know others find difficult, so we normally hide or control them. Like 'Rachel' (all clients mentioned are fictional), who was normally quite quiet and shy with people; when feeling 'safe' with Adam, she relaxed and became stronger in her views. Adam was understandably quite surprised by the change, but she hadn't realised her behaviour was different. In sessions she was able to explore these changes in herself, and then share that with Adam. This enabled him to understand what had happened and enabled him to enjoy her energy and enthusiasm.
In intimate situations, we can begin to unconsciously replay our past experiences, particularly those from our childhood. This is because they are familiar, situations we are most comfortable with even if just consciously - it's just what we don't want! Like 'David', who searched for someone to love him because he'd felt so unloved by his parents; sadly, every partner he fell in love with was also detached towards him, just as his parents had been! He was unconsciously repeating his experience, because that's what he was most comfortable with – 'being comfortable' surely is what we're after, isn't it? In therapy he was able to build a relationship in which he experienced and became comfortable with being understood, something he'd never known before. Having had that experience he instinctively looked for a similar sort of relationship in a partner. He found that he was no longer attracted to the type of person he used to be drawn to, becoming aware that he was now unconsciously drawn to those who could give him a close, more mutually loving, relationship.
Similarly, we might unconsciously project our own needs onto our partner – for example when we try to do too much for them, sometimes to the point where we are pushed away, when in fact it's us who needs the help! This happened with 'Claudine', who was always trying to make her partner's life easier (or so she thought): keeping the house immaculate, cooking delicious food, washing and ironing, as well as working full-time. Her partner felt suffocated and spent less and less time at home. Claudine became panicky and couldn't understand what she was doing 'wrong'. In therapy she gradually came to realise that she spent all of her time and energy on her partner, and nothing on herself! She came to realise that she was the one who needed to be loved and cared, something she'd never experienced, as even in her childhood she'd had to look after her younger siblings so that her mother could go out to work. Slowly Claudine was able to have more fun in her life which encouraged her partner to spend more time with her.
We may unconsciously expect our partner to fulfil all our needs! We give up making our own decisions, defer to whatever our partner wants, and even sometimes, get annoyed about the decisions they then make. We may do this because it makes our partner feel 'needed', or because it stops them becoming irritable. It can also be because we are 'frightened' of making the 'wrong' decision, don't know what we want, or feel generally unsure. Ann had been quite organised before she met Wayne, but gradually quietened down and increasingly did what he suggested. They did less and less of what she wanted, so she focused on her work and their plans for the future, trusting that that would bring her fulfilment. She came to therapy because she was seriously depressed, weeping a lot and couldn't go to work. Gradually she realised that feeling ridiculed and belittled when very young had prevented her from gaining confidence in her own ability to make healthy decisions, so she'd relinquished this responsibility to her partner. She was soon able to go back to work, slowly making changes with her partner that brought her more happiness and fulfilment.
Sometimes relationships can make us panic big time: 'What if or when it ends? I can't face it!'; 'Everything's wonderful! Why am I panicking?'. 'Julie' couldn't make it out. She really liked Jeff, and said this was different from how she'd felt with others - yet she was panicking! She always questioned him, alternating between not trusting him and then feeling ashamed about this 'neediness' that might overwhelm and frighten him away. In therapy she began exploring what might be behind these feelings. Realising that they were her issues, she was gradually able to manage them, allowing Jeff and herself to get closer.
Notice that all these issues arise unconsciously and have nothing to do with whether or how much we love our partner, or how much they love us; they are the tests and challenges that often arise in response to the instinctive drive for greater intimacy. There is nothing to be ashamed of – they are simply 'stepping stones' to a deeper, more satisfying relationship.
Even when it appears quite obvious to us that the problem is our partner's - 'It's all their fault' - there's almost certainly something for us to learn about ourselves, particularly if the issue is 'eating us up'. This doesn't mean that we are 'guilty', or that we are entirely responsible for the issue, but it suggests that if we learn 'that something' about ourselves, we'll gain greater choice over how we manage our lives and relationships.
However, this is where the question 'How much do we really love our partner?' is crucial. How important is this relationship to us? How much do we want to keep our partner in our lives? Is it sufficient to motivate us to address these issues - issues that often demand that we engage with painful aspects of ourselves? If they weren't painful or difficult, we would have dealt with them long ago! It isn't easy, but none of us are perfect and 'problem'-free.
All relationships change with time; new aspects of ourselves or our partner can emerge and challenge us to integrate them for a deeper more satisfying relationship. At times like this it generally helps to have support.
Sadly, some relationships do not last - they fitted us for a time, but maybe no longer. This can be very painful so it's often helpful to have support whilst working out what sort of future you want and need, if only to avoid an unconscious rebound.
Nothing is irrevocably fixed. Scientific research is now proving the benefits of psychotherapy as neuroscience is finding evidence that our brains are malleable and changeable; that our neurones can develop new pathways - and indeed, they need to change to stay alive! Good therapy is where we feel we can be heard, acknowledged, understood and accepted for who we feel we really are. We need to feel in such a safe place to be able to face down those apparently terrifying paper-dragons (our fears), thus unconsciously building the new neural pathways and so healing ourselves. This healing enables us to explore our needs and aspirations, allowing us to instinctively seek a more satisfying and fulfilling life: by working through the Hell we can get back to the Heaven.
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