Some Reflections on Relationships
Review: Julia Tyack
Why do nearly half of all marriages now end in divorce, often within a few years, and why are remarriages even less successful? Why is there so much confusion about love and what it means to love? The simple answer is that too few are taught, either in the home or in the wider community what mature love is, or how to provide it and nurture it. Earlier generations were often focused more on survival than on quality of life or on understanding dysfunctional patterns impacting their lives. They didn’t have the luxury of time or knowledge now available to our generation. We live in an enlightened age with numerous books, tapes, programs, support groups, relationship enrichment camps, conferences and seminars on any subject you like to name. Yet, even with all this wonderful knowledge, we have great difficulty applying it to our lives. The reason is that so much of our behaviour has been automatically programmed and operates at the subconscious level. Also, romantic love is glamorised and dramatized in novels, movies, ‘soapies’ and love songs, and dysfunctional relationships are often depicted as normal. Unhealthy co-dependency is extolled in such lyrics as: “Nothing you can say can tear me away from my guy; nothing you can do because I’m stuck like glue to my guy!”; “If you leave me now you’ll take away the very heart of me” or “I can’t live if living is without you” Soapies typically depict love as having everything to do with passion, intensity and conflict. Mature, functional relationships however, do not depend on endless emotional turmoil and can endure episodes of silence. They are not based on intensity of feelings but on genuine love, commitment, calm serenity, honesty and openness, mutual respect, trust and safety. A mature loving relationship provides a safe and secure environment for raising children.
The home is the primary training ground. From the cradle to the grave, we learn primarily by observation and participation. The needs of a newborn baby are very basic; air, breast milk and warmth. Affection and touch soon become essential for healthy growth and development, then language and love as the child develops mentally and socially. The child models itself on the parents, particularly the same sex parent, for better or for worse. Children learn by observing and practicing behaviors and family dynamics passed down from one generation to the next. While the fortunate child learns how to love both the self and the other, some experience love as pain, suffering, guilt, martyrdom, self-denial and sacrifice, being used or abused, from parents who were probably likewise love-deprived. Constant criticism, verbal or physical abuse, fighting, arguing and shouting, for example, becomes normative for the child. The child not only feels insecure and often guilty for causing the conflict, but also fails to learn mature constructive ways of resolving conflict. So the cycle repeats itself in the next generation. A child may detest what it sees at home and determine not to perpetuate the trait, but still be frustratingly enslaved by it. It is only in an intimate ongoing relationship that certain characteristics become evident or revealed, and especially those skeletons that we have carefully concealed even from ourselves. When the rubber hits the road, we naturally gravitate to the familiar or the comfortable, albeit often the dysfunctional. The important question, therefore, is how to recognize and break these dysfunctional generational cycles and reprogram ourselves for functional relationships. Most never try, but for those brave enough to honestly confront themselves, the difficult and lifelong process can be very rewarding and liberating.
The child develops its core values, its self-identity and self-esteem from the parents, especially from the primary nurturing parent, usually the mother. The child thus comes to see itself through the parent’s eyes as essentially valuable (or worthless) good (or evil/naughty) and capable (or hopeless). The parents are the small child’s higher power; the infallible and unquestioned source of knowledge and wisdom, and the vital source of their self worth (or self abhorrence). A perfectionist parent, or one with poor self-esteem, or envious of the child or of their partner’s relationship with the child, may destroy that child’s self esteem through constant criticism. This basic self-image is later reinforced or modified by contact with other higher powers in the wider community, especially in the school and in the workplace, and becomes the major driving force in important and intimate relationships.
With the development of the intellect and reason, children usually begin to question their parent’s knowledge, opinions, wisdom and decisions. Rebellious teenagers can lose all respect for hypocritical, oppressive or morale-destroying parents, transferring their higher power to the peer group, another adult, a guru or a partner, often with devastating consequences. When such a child marries a substitute father or mother, the result is usually an unhealthy attachment or dysfunctional co-dependency. Others can remain uncritically compliant, even adulating their ‘perfect parent’ as their higher power for life, even trying to live the parent’s dreams or please them even after they have passed on (ancestor worship). These too, invariably have relationship problems because they never really cut the umbilical cord. One must leave ones parents in order to cleave to a partner. Failure to do so results in the partner being continually compared and measured up against the perfect parent, and more often than not found wanting. The hidden agenda is usually to change the partner into their ‘perfect parent’. This is particularly a problem when couples come from different cultures, customs, religions or value systems and refuse to question anything that has been handed down to them; to listen to another point of view; to be open to change; to explore the mysterious wonders of the universe, or are too afraid to discover themselves and their own higher power. Intimacy involves the sharing of one’s own reality and accepting the other’s reality without either judging that reality or trying to change it. Rigid judgmentalism, emanating from either self/family-righteousness or from poor self-esteem, fractures many relationships. It is a very freeing experience to become your own person, to form your own opinions and be open to others. Recovery is the journey not the goal; it is about improvement not perfection.
Needs and neediness: First, being social creatures, our deepest need is for companionship, warmth and love on all levels, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Such love goes way beyond sexual intercourse; it includes meaningful eye contact, touch, words, sounds, emotional expression, and handling life’s’ practical concerns. Perhaps more importantly, loving for life is about opening up to the lover within oneself and uniting with the beloved. It is the sharing of the love of life, for life. Secondly, we are each innately incomplete and need the complementary qualities of another; their fulfilling power and energy that make us more complete or whole. Romantic love and attraction is more than chemistry, it is completeness that we seek: a mate who will not only compliment or flatter our egos, but who will also complement our personality. And so we find that opposites attract, the:
Introvert to the Extravert
Intense and serious to the Relaxed and humorous
Laisse faire to the Highly organized perfectionist
Cautious or diffident to the Confident
Naive or gullible to the Skeptical
Optimist to the Pessimist
Aggressive to the Passive
What often happens, however, is that the very attributes that attracted, the characteristics that we admired and desired to complement us, begin to irritate, frustrate or embarrass us as the differences become highlighted and interpreted as faults. The introvert now feels dominated by the extravert; the lassie faire is too disorganized and the humorist too flippant. The passive partner may begin to feel controlled by the more aggressive one, and instead of becoming more assertive, becomes a passive-aggressive helpless victim, sabotaging and manipulating through illness, and all manner of dysfunctional oppositional or co-dependent behavior. Very often we set about trying to change the other person into an image of ourselves! If perchance we did succeed at that, we may not like the image we produced, but we try anyway. We may also begin to find fault with the source of those traits in the other’s family or higher power – a very sensitive area indeed.
Males and females also function in such different ways that some say men are from Mars and women from Venus. The bearers of children tend to be more sensitive to feelings, more intuitive and more nurturing. The two sexes often have different agendas, priorities, needs and means of communication. After a hard day’s work, the man usually wants to hive off to his cave (den or TV room) while the woman looks to him for a sounding board. Instead of just listening empathetically, he feels responsible and has to fix the problem. As romance and intimacy decline, the wife very often begins to feel ignored and neglected, so she nags and he develops selective hearing. Before long, fault-finding replaces flattery. The chemistry evaporates into a miasma of criticism, and the couple falls out of love. Gratitude and praise promotes passion but constant criticism kills it. Romantic love is therefore fragile and the honeymoon often short-lived. Some say it is the trick of nature to keep procreation going until the rose-tinted glasses fall off, revealing differences and perceived faults. Disillusion with each other and with oneself is often very painful. Adoration and praise are quickly lost in a vicious cycle of fault finding, ego-attacks and self-defense. It is too easy to blame the other for one’s own failings or fragile feelings; or to be quick to help the other find their faults and to make sure they remember them.
The arrival of children further complicates family dynamics and tests the chemistry, compatibility and companionship that holds a relationship together. As romance fades and unmet needs begin to hurt, there are various responses. A parent, particularly a non-working parent whose emotional needs are not met by their partner, will often look to the child to fill those needs. That child, especially the youngest and/or one of the opposite sex may become overly precious, over-protected and emotionally smothered – a mummy’s boy or daddy’s girl. The other parent may then become jealous of that special bond and deliberately or subconsciously sabotage it, often by criticizing their partner in front of the child and not infrequently criticizing the child also. Children may thus be smothered by one parent and abused or abandoned by the other. In a fractured relationship, both parents may compete for a child’s love and devotion, thus smothering and spoiling the child. Other children can feel abandoned by both parents, even in a normal loving family where the parents have other priorities or commitments, distracting or draining them mentally and physically. For example, too many children, a chronically sick, disabled or demanding child, religious, social or political involvement, financial stress or work requirements.
The child may escape the pain of abandonment by fantasizing about being rescued by a hero of some kind. Girls might imagine a knight in shining armour with loving feelings for her doing things to demonstrate this love and giving her life meaning and vitality (e.g. fairy tales). Boys might fantasize about being rescued by various versions of a super-nurturing female (a wonder woman). While healthy parental caring transmits the message: ‘You are important, you matter, and you are loved?, abandonment experiences leave children with feelings of worthlessness or low self-esteem, and the pain of the little child goes very deep and far back beyond the earliest conscious memories. Such children are very vulnerable to feelings of abuse, rejection or abandonment in later relationships.
Extreme emotional neediness, often manifesting itself in love-addiction and/or love-avoidance, can be understood in the context of the system that operated in the family of origin. Unloved children often become desperate love addicts, craving love but not knowing how to give or receive it, while those that are smothered tend to become love avoiders, fearful of intimacy or closeness that might impact on their independence. A child that has been so emotionally smothered or drained that it is unable to form its own reality or identity often carries this inequality and imbalance of power into adult relationships. People who haven’t learned to nurture themselves tend to operate out of feelings of inadequacy and emptiness, putting excessive demands on others to care for them and meet all their needs. A rescuer may be attracted to such a needy person, but then resents being controlled or overwhelmed by their neediness. Many don’t know how to express unmet needs without creating disaster. Immature people often express their needs in a judgmental way that drives their partner further away from meeting their deepest needs. The law of reciprocity ensures that the escalating neediness of one is met with increasing resolute avoidance by the other. An example is a husband who becomes a workaholic, for example, to avoid a nagging and excessively needy wife.
Dysfunctional co-dependent relationships are characterized by inequality of needs such as power, control and freedom, which are extremely intense positive and negative feelings and cycles of pleasure and pain. Some turn to drugs, like nicotine, caffeine or alcohol to alleviate the pain, but this only complicates the problem. Others become addicted to work, shopping, religion, gambling, food or sex. When pain replaces passion, some people try to deny their unmet needs for love, companionship and support, or pretend to be unaffected by such unmet needs. They may say “we don’t need each other; we just come together because we like each other, or for convenience”. Denying our real needs or declaring “I don’t need you’ only complicates the problem. We might learn to avoid being in touch with our real needs and feelings. We may be too fearful of exposing our raw emotions or of being vulnerable. And we might also use the ultimate weapon of revenge and manipulation or silence! People who are not naturally manipulative or controlling can become manipulative in order to meet their needs. Manipulation and control comes under many guises. It can even masquerade as apparent servitude or eager compliance, giving up oneself to please the other, but underneath expecting reciprocation and showing resentment when it is not forthcoming. Anything with strings attached is manipulation and threatens good relationships. Giving from fullness, rather than from emptiness to gain fullness is the basis for healthy functional relationships.
Expectations are closely related to needs. Are they realistic or unrealistic? We can expect warm loving regard some of the time, but not all of the time. And so it is vital that we love, care for and nurture ourselves if we are to function from fullness rather than emptiness. We will then become less demanding lovers and know how to ask when we need love and support. Our ability to face reality and cope with every situation is directly related to our ability to have a healthy relationship with our self, which means loving the self, protecting the self, identifying the self, caring for the self, and moderating the self. When we practise self-care and value ourselves, we attract abundance in many forms: friends, pleasures, prosperity, peace, serenity, energy etc. We are part of a universe of abundance, not scarcity. As we experience increased levels of self-value, self-empowerment, and abundance, we can surrender the need to get our way all the time, to have things completely as we think they should be. Occasional arguments and disagreements are opportunities to practice defining issues, setting boundaries, showing mutual respect, negotiating compromises and demonstrating to our children that we can disagree without becoming disagreeable; that winning peace is more important than winning an argument or a fight. Children need to learn that relationships are built on good communication not manipulation, consideration not control, regard not revenge, and trust not lust.
As we have all learned dysfunctional behaviour patterns from our past, we need to take an honest look at our hot spots, those intense feelings that cause us to over-react when our buttons are pushed. Recovery and discovery is a continual journey led by the rational mind, rather than by blind emotions and habitual behaviour. We need to acknowledge our emotions but then stay in the head, as it were, and observe our own behaviour to identify problems and their causes in order to make needed changes in our acquired beliefs, thought processes and behaviour. If we often get upset and irrational during an argument, for example, we should reflect on whether we learned to do that as a child by observing others, or in order to be heard, or to get our own way. If we are aware of what is happening, we can say ‘there I go again’, make amends and get back on track. No matter what relationship we get into, some aspects of it will be positive and some negative. Not to realize this is to set ourselves and our prospective partners up for certain pain and disappointment. To realize and admit that we are but erring and learning human beings, is liberating and unifying. As adults we can begin to experience a sense of personal power and hope as we heal from dysfunctional and self-defeating life cycles. We need to relearn how to value ourselves, develop boundaries, identify who we are and share that appropriately, and to take care of our needs and wants interdependently. We need to deal constructively with issues of misunderstanding or injustice, avoiding resentment, revenge and recycling anger. There is little to be gained from reacting to or punishing someone else. Unless we are willing to examine ourselves and our family system, we are doomed to repeat the dysfunctional patterns of the past and pass them onto our children. If we keep on doing what we are doing, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve already got.