Relationships are difficult to keep alive. Many relationships die along the way but have a capacity to endure the deadness through the years. We are not taught how to be in a relationship, or how to maintain one, nor are we taught about the obstacles along the way. Our model for marriage is from the observation of our parents who may have been as blind to the complexity of a successful relationship as we are.
Couples seek treatment for reasons having nothing to do with what the real problems are in the relationship. They seek help involving conflicts over money, children, lack of communication or sex. But these ‘issues’ are not the source of problems but only the arenas where the unconscious issues are symbolically played out.
What we fail to understand is that love is a very complex experience which is fraught with destructive possibilities. Love is an act of the imagination and as such is subject to distortions. There are many forms of immature loving that are unhealthy compromises which successfully avoid intimacy rather than embracing it.
In the beginning of a relationship, love is UNambivalent. We see our beloved in an idealized manner. In time, usually by the beginning of the second year, the reality of the other person begins to emerge and there arises the possibility of disappointment and resentment. This, in turn, leads to blaming the partner. We are not taught that mature love is ambivalent love. We have difficulty loving and not loving the same person.
There are built-in problems that all relationships must address, understand and deal with, if the relationship is to flourish. Exceptionally few couples have any understanding of these phenomena.
Replication is the most significant psychological challenge facing most couples that are in need of treatment & counseling. Most relationships have replication as an underlying force. This problem is a primary cause of relationship failure because it is an unconscious drive. We pick our partner not because they are attractive or funny or whatever. We pick our partner because we are unconsciously attracted to the person we ‘see’ as being the one who will enable us to resolve unfulfilled childhood needs. Thus, the popular notion that women marry someone similar to their dad, and men marry someone similar to their mom.
Unfortunately, there is truth to this idea. It is not that they have to look or act like the parent, rather, more subtly it will be their emotional style, how they ‘handle’ their feelings, how they relate emotionally. The unconscious fantasy is if we can find a partner similar to the parent, and change that partner then it will then have changed the ‘experience’ as a child. This is impossible and therefore doomed to failure which increases the disappointment and resentment within the relationship. Partners do not realize they are trying to correct their past by changing their present. IT NEVER WORKS!
With loving comes dependency. With dependency comes a fear of losing the person we have become dependent upon. Thus we begin to filter and censor what we reveal to our partner for fear of being rejected or worse, abandoned. Thus the relationship takes on an artificial ‘flavor’ and distancing begins.
Triangulation is another potential problem for relationships. This is the involvement of a third person whether through a sexually intimate affair, emotionally intimate affair or just with someone else who takes significant time away from a partner. Triangles are common because they are the context in which we learned to love and be loved. This is the triangle of mother-father-self and it can produce challenges that need professional couples counseling to resolve.
We seek others outside the relationship for a variety of reasons: acting out anger and/or revenge, fear of being controlled, fear of engulfment, or simply attempts to dilute the intimacy of the relationship to a more tolerable degree.
Although we seek intimacy in our lives, we cannot tolerate the level we say we seek. Truly a contradiction! Intimacy is the gradual and progressive sharing of the deeper parts of the self with a partner. The nature of this unfolding is regressive. That is, as we open to another we access our history, our history of past relationships, eventually back to the early relationship with our parents. Thus, the source of confusion, distortion and conflict as our unmet needs of childhood flow into the relationship with our partner. This process is labeled transference.
Transference is an unconscious process where we place upon our partner the hopes, expectations and assumptions we had with our parents. We assume our partner, in very fundamental ways, will respond similarly to our parent—whether accepting or rejecting, loving or withholding, judgmental or affirming. If our partners do not behave as we expect, we will misperceive their action or intention in order to confirm our assumptions.
These issues are only a few of the problems that arise in relationships. The struggles for power and control within relationships are ongoing and are played out from the bedroom to the kitchen. The external pressures of life erode the quality of all relationships, and an ongoing commitment to rejuvenation is necessary to keep the relationship alive, thus the periodic need for couples therapy & counseling.
Couples entering therapy must do so with the idea that they each are 50% responsible for the problems in the relationship. The work of therapy is to uncover the unresolved and unmet needs from their families of origin and see how these are being enacted within the relationship. Where transference issues are recognized, they must be modified. Couples therapy is an ongoing process to explore family of origin issues and to understand and resolve the blocks each partner has put up to avoid true loving intimacy. Look not to those married the longest but to those who remain open and loving and intimate. Couples therapy is a process for a couple to develop or re-cultivate that loving state.