Relationship issues: After a number of unhappy relationships
Relationship issues include a wide range of topics. In this article I will focus on people who have had a number of unhappy relationships which prompted them to seek psychotherapy. I will summarise patterns of behaviours which are prominent in their interaction with their partners and one way of making sense of such behaviours. I will also briefly present how such patterns can be worked through in psychotherapy and counselling sessions.
Patterns of engagement with important people
Regardless of whether the person is mono or poly-amorous, one element of a good relationship can be defined as a flexible negotiation of closeness and distance based on mutual trust and honesty. The comfortable proportion between closeness and distance varies from a person to person. So long as these proportions roughly match among the partners in a relationship, they tend to be reasonably satisfied. When there is a big mismatch, the relationship is often short-lived or be endured without much happiness.
Talking about closeness and distance, it is not only the desired proportion of these two which is individually different. People have patterned ways of how they make a transit from one to the other. In other words, we have a unique way of taking leave and coming back
For some people, closeness with their partner(s) over a long period of time means safety, security and strength of the relationships. Some may unconsciously look for enmeshment for self-sustenance and, if done excessively, others might find it difficult to satisfy such needs. If the requests were repeated too often and/or too vigorously, it can push people away. Unfortunately this withdrawal can heighten the state of alert further. On leave-taking, this person may express strong desire to maintain proximity. Sense of being pushed away may make the experience of reunion bitter and the other partner(s) may find this confusing or difficult to handle. This unproductive spiral has potential to continue unless one of the parties breaks away.
Then what about people who like to maintain a certain distance for a prolonged period of time? For these people, distance may mean safety and security. It gives them a sense of autonomy; it prevents infringement of their personal space and time by other partner(s). If somebody reaches out to this kind of person, this can be perceived as threat. Under such a threat, they intuitively withdraw because distance secures safety. Taking a leave therefore could be a relief because it creates space to breathe. Reunion is often treated with caution which may ultimately become obligation. Again this can result in either dysfunctional circle or a painful ending.
Either of the poles of preferences – closeness or distance – is bad or good in itself. In fact, we all need both to function well. Closeness in relationships can bring caring, warmth, deeper understanding and rest. Distance allows a person to venture out and to test one’s ability in the world. Both are vital to live well. They are often complementary. It is the flexibility to negotiate the proportion between these two which is important. Things become problematic when either of these tendencies becomes fixed.
Working through in talking therapy
You can see that the pursuing or withdrawing behaviour is accompanied by evaluation of the environment and the underlying feelings. How a person experiences and responds to closeness or distance is influenced by the person’s habitual ways of feeling and thinking. Habits vary from a person to person.
A psychotherapy and counselling session is a place where the general conceptualisation, which I described above, recedes into the background and the uniqueness of the individual comes under the spotlight. Each person has a different story to tell about their unhappy relationships. These real stories contain variations and additions to the core patterns. They sometimes disguise the core patterns quite successfully. One of the tasks of good psychotherapy is to clarify how you have come to manage your closeness and distance in the way you do in important relationships. I think it is useful to know this in order to avoid repeating painful ending experiences.
It is helpful to know what carries your behaviour, i.e. what kind of unconscious feelings and thinking support your wish for enmeshment or distancing. These are often the driving force, or energy, of your behaviour which you employ to get enmeshed or to take distance. During the process of getting down to the bottom of your psychological world, you sometimes face uncomfortable feelings which you might have been trying to bury. Or to put in a different way, these feelings were buried precisely because they are uncomfortable to feel. Your sessions provide safe opportunities to recognise the presence of such feelings, to make sense of them and to re-position yourself so that you can hold such feelings in an authentic way.
Apart from many other things, a good psychotherapist facilitates such an exploration with you. This in turn will contribute to subsequent change in you.
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About Mari Yamamoto
I have been offering psychotherapy and counselling over the past ten and a half years in Ealing W5. I am a psychotherapist registered with the UKCP. I hold a Masters degree in integrative psychotherapy and the emphasis of my work are relationships. Away from my private practice in Ealing, I also work at the King's College Hospital in London.