What do we really want from our partners?
We often, albeit unconsciously, look to our current relationships to fulfil our deepest unfulfilled needs and longings, to plug the gaps in our psyches, and to heal where we have been wounded. In psychoanalysis, this is called ‘transference’.
We unconsciously want from our intimate others what we were deprived in the past, often by our family of origin. We repeat the story but are secretly hoping for a different outcome.
This sets an impossible task for our partners. After all, the weight of our unmourned hopes and lost childhood are too huge to be carried by any one person, or any relationship.
Transference also makes us see the world through a distorted lens. According to Carl Jung, when we are in transference, we project what is in our inner world to the outer world. if we have low self-esteem, or if we carry toxic shame from childhood, we might project our harsh internal criticism onto our partner. For example, we ‘mind-read’, misinterpret their words and actions, and say things like: 'I know what you think', 'I can tell you must think I am a terrible person'.
Although unmanaged transference could bring problems in a relationship, transference is not in itself 'bad'. Rather than criticising ourselves, we could look at our actions as a quest for love: it is our inner child trying to get their needs met, our innermost desire to heal and become whole are out searching for what might help. Our efforts and attempts might be clumsy, but the intention is virtuous. If anything, we ought to have deep admiration and respect for the creative strategies we have come up with to heal and to become whole.
In Kohut (1984)’s framework, there are three major types of early relational needs that influence the developing self: mirroring, idealising, and twin-ship. They make up the three types of transference that we experience in our present-day relationships.
Our hunger for 'mirroring'
As babies, we cannot yet recognise our significance and our place in the world. Before we had any idea of who we were, we need others to ‘mirror’ our existence, to feel real, accepted and therefore valuable in the world. That is also the time in which we form a self-concept based on how we are treated. We see ourselves in terms of how we appear to others, and we are easily influenced. For example, if we had hypercritical parents, we are likely to internalise the idea that we were inadequate.
'The gleam in the mother’s eye' is a phrase used by Kohut to describe our first mirror experience when our parents reflect joy in us and what we do. Mirroring is essential for the development of our self-esteem and sense of safety in the world.
If we did not have an adequate mirroring experience as a child, we could end up becoming ‘mirror hungry’. As we feel closeness in an intimate relationship, and have a glimpse of the hope that there is someone to, at long last, see us, care for us, and love us as we are, our need for mirroring then gets re-evoked, and we regress into a child-like state to try and get our needs met in our adult relationship. As a result, we experience an insatiable compulsion to demand empathic resonance, reassurance and loving responses from our partner.
Some manifestations of mirror hunger are feeling that our partners are never doing enough, saying enough or celebrating us enough. If we hinge our self-value on our partner’s responses, when they are not around, we might feel like we have lost a piece of ourselves. We might become extremely sensitised to the slightest changes in their voice, utterance and actions, and see everything they say or do as either a warm welcome or a brutal rejection. We then seek more and more time, attention, and reassurance through clingy, demanding behaviours.
Our need to idealise
Our second significant childhood need is to have someone reliable to count on. To feel safe in the world, a child ought to be able to see someone - usually our early caregivers - as 'all-powerful, omniscient and perfect' (p.50, Jacoby, 1984).
In an optimal situation, we would first idealise our parents as the 'Superman/Superwoman' of our lives, and then through a process of gradual discovery, we find out that they are not perfect. In this process, we also realise our own strength. Though not painless, the dropping of our initial idealisation should be gradual, natural, and not traumatising.
While in reality, no parent is perfect and not a ‘superhero’, it is traumatising to see our parents’ limitations too much, too early, and too soon. If we had vulnerable parents, parents with physical or mental illnesses, or caregivers with limited resources, we might not get our idealising need met. And if our early idealising needs were met, we would have a healthy sense of ideas, not feel too big or too small in the world, be guided by a set of internal values, and can self-soothe and regulate emotions.
Lacking someone reliable and consistent to lean on in childhood, we might have to idealise a romantic partner for an extended period. In the trench of idealising transference, we see ourselves as small and dependent and project our power outward. On the flip side, we seek perfection from our partner, and when we have a glimpse of their limitations, we become disproportionately disappointed, frustrated and lost. We might also flip into 'black and white thinking', and feel the relationship is, therefore 'no good', and experience the compulsion to be rid of them. Too much idealising also prevents us from seeing our partner as who they are, but as a set of projected images and ideas.
Our hunger for twin-ship
Also known as ‘alter-ego’ transference, twin-ship transference concerns our belongingness and participation in the world. Our need to feel connected to similar others could be met in an intimate relationship, friendship, or community, brought about by a similarity in interests and talents, and the sense of being understood by someone like oneself (White and Weiner, 1986, p.103).
Emotionally intense people often differ from their peers in ways other than emotional capacity, but also intellectual, physical, artistic or sensory attributes. In developmental psychology, the term asynchrony describes the developmental characteristics of groups of children; where their mental, physical, emotional, and social abilities may all develop at different paces. From a young age, rarely finding someone with whom they can relate or who makes them feel understood leads to deeply internalised loneliness. Many intense adults spend their lives trying to find connections that have the intellectual, emotional and spiritual depth and breadth that meet them where they are at.
When we bring an overwhelming need for twin-ship into our intimate relationship, we may feel alone and sad, even when we are engaged with another. We may feel disproportionately sensitive when our partner does not 'get us', or when they fail to match us in the intensity or rigour that we demand. We may set unrealistic expectations when it comes to closeness and distance, or too easily make individual differences and benign disagreement a source of conflict. It can be increasingly despairing if we struggle to find fulfilling connections in the world, or when again and again we realise 'the One' is not what we had expected. Being disappointed enough, we might revert to isolation and counter-dependence to avoid future hurt.
If we manage to allow the conflicts and disappointments to burn through our unfulfilled dreams, childhood lack and fantasies, we will reach the joy of seeing reality. It is by being able to scream 'I am so let down by you sometimes!' that we can allow true love to flow. It is by knowing our anger and disappointment are real, and then we can trust that our love is also real. We are in a partnership with a full human being, based on an honest reality, rather than a child-like fantasy. Such is the foundation of a mature, authentic partnership.
We can compassionately hold their good and bad together in our heart, without flipping into black-or-white thinking. We might still like, or dislike certain things, but their limits cease to become a threat. We do not need them to be perfect, as they do not reflect on us, represent us, or limit us.
We could finally meet our partner as they are, not under the filter or how well they could meet our needs, and without projections and false expectations.
We would be able to hop off the cycles of co-dependency and symbiotic relationships and move towards independence, self-containment, and freedom.
Then, we would have taken a giant leap towards a soul-fulfilling partnership with a fellow journeyman.
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About Imi Pui Yin Lo
Imi is an award-winning mental health professional, a psychotherapist, art therapist and author of emotional intensity and sensitivity (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018). She specialises in emotional intensity, sensitivity, giftedness, childhood trauma, complex PTSD and borderline personality traits. She is the founder of Eggshell Therapy and Coaching.