Read an Excerpt
Long-term commitment to an intimate relationship with one person of whatever sex is an essential need that people have in order to breed the qualities out of which nurturant thought can rise.
—Gerda Lerner (1981)
The Stuff You Have to Understand for the Rest of This Book to Make Sense
Love in Today's Social Context
Pat and Jane are in their mid-thirties. Jane worked during the first part of their relationship and supported the family while Pat attended law school. After Pat graduated and passed the bar exam, they started expanding their family and today enjoy two beautiful children. For the past several years, Pat has been focusing on building his career, spending long hours at the office, going above and beyond the call of duty, to impress the partners of the firm. Jane's new job is raising her two children and managing their recently purchased home. This shift in their individual roles was not easy. Pat has been having trouble connecting to his wife after a full day's work; he's often exhausted and doesn't know how to get close to her. He helps her out because she seems so tired and drained by caring for their two young children throughout the day. But something is missing; he is helpful, but disconnected from the woman he loves. He suffers in silence, as do most men. He never developed the ability to tell his wife what he wants; his personal language is poorly developed because in his family of origin his father focused on being a provider rather than a participant.
Jane also contributes to their problems. She is unhappy with their connection, but because Pat works so hard she swallows her unfulfilled desires in order to not burden Pat. She tries to remain loyal to her love for Pat, but she never learned that mature love means to having loyalty to herself too. So she remains silent. They are both suffering from a lack of intimacy. In Jane's family of origin, she learned to please others at her own expense as a way of expressing love. A deadly combination for this young couple, wouldn't you agree? The good news is that they have reached out for help. They want more than just a marriage in name only; they want a passionate, loving connection. They are not alone.
Today the forces that join two people are extremely complex, but love has emerged as the central concern for the first time in the history of Western civilization. What does this mean to you and me in the twenty-first century?
I believe we are in the midst of a dramatic social change. We are moving toward a more personal and authentic consciousness. Self-help books now fill a whole section at the bookstore. Reality TV dominates much of the programming on television as we watch people from all walks from life struggle with their personal lives. We watch to see how they get along with friends, lovers, husbands and wives and to witness how they face real, practical issues and difficulties. Our willingness to study human interactions resulted in the Civil Rights movement, the women's movement and the men's movement—and it continues today.
Our increased life spans present special stresses to our relationships. Because of advances in medical science, we are faced with learning how to love a person for a longer period of time. Today a couple's marriage may last two decades more than their parents'. The challenge becomes how to stay connected and passionate for the entire course of the marriage.
What all this means is that love no longer exists merely as a courtship ritual that withers after the first year of marriage. An altogether different sort of love is emerging: a love that is based on individuality and integrity, rather than on social dictates or emotional dependency. Erich Fromm anticipated the character of this type of love when he stated that, 'Mature love is union with the preservation of integrity.' This is the type of love we need to embrace in the twenty-first century.
I'm certain that the romantics reading this book are jumping for joy. However, this notion of love is not an idealized love. It is a love that springs from striving to create a mutually satisfying relationship. It is not solely created by chemistry. It is created by learning how to hold on to yourself and stay connected to your partner. It is a love grounded in developing an understanding forged from the conflict that eventually reveals the higher purpose that brought you and your partner together. It is a love created by learning how to live together with integrity and respect. It is a love that is strengthened by struggling with your partner in a way that requires authenticity.
The Natural Therapeutic Value of Relationships
Sigmund Freud's seminal work in psychology has had a tremendous impact on how we understand ourselves and our behavior. I don't want to burden you with textbook details, but there are a couple of important insights that directly affect our understanding of what happens in relationships. Let me give you an example.
Imagine a little girl abandoned by her alcoholic father, not because he wasn't physically present, but because he was often too drunk to interact in a meaningful way with any members of the family. At sixteen she runs away and marries her boyfriend. In the course of their marriage, he begins drinking. She can't believe the love of her life is doing the same thing to her that her father did. She gets angry and attacks him about his drinking, which further drives him away.
Why does a woman who was abandoned by her father as a child grow up and marry a man who abandons her? Why does a man divorce a cold, critical woman only to marry someone who is her psychological twin? According to Freud, all of our behavior has a psychological cause, but often the cause is hidden within our unconscious.
Freud believed that the psyche develops out of the resolution of conflict. If conflict resolution is successful, at whatever particular stage of psychological development, then we move on to the next stage with few or no residual problems. However, sometimes we get stuck at a particular stage of development that destines us to apply the same solution over and over again, whether it works or not. It's like the needle of a phonograph stuck in the groove of a record.
Go back to the example of the abandoned woman. Let's imagine her husband dies in an industrial accident. She is free! There is a second courtship and the woman remarries. Six months later her new husband begins acting very similarly to her first husband. According to Freud, this woman will be stuck in this painful cycle of emotional neglect all her life.
I am much more optimistic than Freud! I believe, as do many humanistic and existential psychologists, that our mate selection has an underlying positive intention. I see an inherent wisdom to our behavior that we often overlook or discount. I am convinced all our behavior is a natural extension of an inner urge to grow up and move toward greater emotional and spiritual maturity.
Therefore, we choose a partner who will stir us to change in necessary ways. Carl Whitaker, M.D., and Augustus Napier, Ph.D., call this the 'wisdom of the unconscious.' Here's what this means. We select a partner who is going to cause us the 'right kind of trouble.' We pick someone who, by his or her very nature, will furnish us with an opportunity to master the as-yet unaltered, to encourage us to give a voice to the as-yet unspeakable, to insist that we take another step forward in the endless pursuit of personal development and personal integrity.
This is the natural therapeutic value of a relationship. It is as if our partners are angels, heaven-sent, to inspire us toward maturity and integrity (wholeness). Their help usually comes from the most unexpected directions and in the most unexpected ways. Typically, growth comes from the pain and frustration they help create in the relationship.
In the example of the woman who feels abandoned, her husband's behavior is bringing her emotional and spiritual wound to the foreground of her life. She now has the opportunity to face her pain and begin what will be a lifetime endeavor of healing this pain and learning to hold on to her self regardless of her husband's behavior. She will eventually realize that she learned how to abandon herself a long time ago. And eventually she will learn how to take care of herself—the next step in her personal development.
Sadly, for most couples, the therapeutic value of a relationship is more of an idea in a psychologist's book than a reality. Why does this happen? There are two reasons: Either we do not respect and acknowledge the depth of wisdom that operates within us, and/or we lack the skills that would help us realize the inherent worth of our relationships. Thus, the original good judgment and potential that joined us with our partner are rarely realized. We lose sight of the bigger picture and become confused, frustrated, disheartened, angry, sad or hopeless. The relationship deteriorates; we distance ourselves from our partners; and we sometimes divorce or just give up and remain in an unfulfilling relationship.
Losing sight of the relationship's purpose is one of the most common causes of divorce. Many people get divorced because they no longer see the value of their relationship and their love dies.
Recognizing that there is unrealized value in your relationship may provide you a vision worthy of facing and struggling with your circumstances. When you integrate this broader horizon into your understanding, suffering becomes more tolerable because it is seen as necessary to help you take the next step on your personal journey. Emotional pain does not have to be a permanent condition.
Understanding the personal significance of your pain can enable you to face hardships and discover important and critical information from your experience. I hope you can keep this in mind whenever you are struggling with difficulties in your relationship.
When we accept and digest the challenges we have created in our lives and relationships, we become more complete and move closer to becoming whole, becoming the best we can be.
When we are on the 'right path,' we will thrive and our relationships will flourish. A healthy relationship is like a timely serving of soul food. It feeds our spiritual hunger. Eaten and digested properly, our souls will sing with ecstasy and inspiration. Sex becomes electric, encounters enriching, dialogue meaningful. When we approach our relationships from this perspective, negative emotions offer opportunities for intimacy.
The Cruel Legacy of Unconditional Love
When I speak of the therapeutic value of relationships, I am not describing a process in which partners gradually shed their humanness to become haloed saints fit only to hobnob with seraphim and cherubim among clouds of unconditional love. In fact, I believe that the term 'unconditional love' has further complicated the issues involved in establishing and maintaining a mature and healthy relationship.
The notion that we can love a partner unconditionally, without regard to anything our partner says or does, would require us to completely deny our humanity. Because the 'unconditional love' movement has taught us we are 'selfish' unless we suppress our needs and expectations in order to perfectly love our partner, many of us go through life feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. We continue to have expectations of our partners even though we've been taught expectations are wrong. We keep on getting angry and disappointed although we're told anger is 'negative.' We struggle with the 'I' that keeps popping up in our relationships.
I do not believe any relationship is healthy in which self-sacrifice is a major requirement, and self-sacrifice is a requirement for unconditional love. I will be discussing this further in Chapter Two. The important thing to remember right now is that there must be room for both partners in a mutually satisfying relationship.
The vision I have for a healthy relationship is similar to that expressed by the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr when he described the ideal marriage. He stated, 'A happy marriage perhaps represents the ideal of human relationship—a setting in which each partner, while acknowledging the need of the other, feels free to be what he or she by nature is: a relationship in which instinct as well as intellect can find expression; in which giving and taking are equal; in which each accepts the other, and I confronts Thou.' This ideal is a great goal to strive for, but I don't want you to be fooled into thinking that this kind of emotional climate is easy to create. It's not. But there is great value in striving for such a wonderful and authentic union.
The Balancing Act in All Relationships
The confrontation of 'I and Thou' (me and you) in a relationship requires the ability to balance two issues that naturally arise in the course of life: (1) the desire to join, cooperate with and please your partner, and (2) the pursuit of your own individuality. Both of these forces are deeply rooted in our lives. Let's take a look at these in more detail.
Cooperation and the desire to please are essential to survival. Our desire to cooperate and please is first manifested in an infant's relationship with its mother. The mother's breasts fill with milk for the baby, and the infant's feeding relieves the pressure in the mother's chest. Mother and child are cooperating and ensuring the immediate survival of the child, as well as creating the deep attachment necessary for parents to withstand all of the frustrations that inevitably occur over eighteen to twenty-one years. Who hasn't fallen in love with a newborn's innocent smile?
Cooperation is a prerequisite for successful social adaptation as an adult. We are social animals. The individual who is unable to cooperate is typically considered an outcast and often lives on the fringes of society. Some anthropologists have argued that the complex social interactions between human beings fueled the evolutionary engine that eventually created language and the human brain, making cooperation possible.
However, cooperation alone does not assure personal success. The second major force in our lives is the pursuit of our individuality. There is an intrinsic motivation to become all you can be. We desire to follow our own paths, assert our needs and wants, master problems, find solutions, and discover our purpose in life.
When we balance these two forces, we are functioning with integrity. Integrity, as it is used throughout this book, is concerned with wholeness and maturity. People who function with integrity honor what is important to them at any particular moment. They do not lose themselves to social customs or peer pressure, nor do they dismiss the social demands or rules of a situation. People with integrity consider all of this information and integrate these considerations into their responses.
This awareness facilitates the integration of our individuality and our desire to please. As you can see, integrity involves self-concern, but don't mistake self-concern with selfishness. Selfishness has nothing to do with the self-concern that is necessary to balance these two forces.
The pursuit of integrity is always at work in our lives. We seek information. We desire to learn. In fact, we create situations in our lives that provide us with opportunities to learn. We are constantly struggling with our desire to please and our desire to follow our own directives, and this struggle will always be most evident in important relationships.
While our desire to maintain our integrity is always present, unfortunately it is not always honored. Either we honor our desire to please at the expense of our individuality or we honor our self at the expense of our desire to cooperate. In either case, we lose our integrity and therefore limit our relationships and fail to realize our potential as people.
Integrity also has a quality to it that moves us toward closure or resolution. If something is incomplete, we want to bring it to closure. The nature of integrity spurs us toward wholeness. Let's see how these forces manifest themselves in our primary relationships.
In a primary relationship, you cocreate an atmosphere that determines how you, as a couple, balance your competing needs for cooperation and individuality. What is said between you and your partner, and what is not said, creates invisible rules that govern the interactions, the level of intimacy and the dynamics of your relationship. These rules create a social structure for your relationship that encourages or discourages integrity. How you respond to your partner's desire to please, how you respond to your partner's individuality, how you encourage your partner to have his or her voice and how you balance these two forces in your life are some of the ways you create the social structure that governs your relationship.
Unfortunately, couples often create an atmosphere that undermines the healthy management of the drive for cooperation and the drive for individuality. When a relationship is imbalanced or skewed, it seems that one party in the relationship falls out of bed on one side, while the other partner falls out on the other.
For example, Russ and Cathy came into their first counseling session with me with a common complaint. Cathy said up front, 'I am the giver and my partner is the taker.' Russ countered, 'I don't ask you to fuss over me. Sometimes I feel like I'm married to my mother.' Clearly, Cathy was trying to please and cooperate to the point of losing sight of her self in the marriage and she was quite resentful. On the other hand, Russ was quite willing to accept her sacrifice.
Typically a person adopts one side of these two forces as a basic solution to life. You either become a people-pleaser or self-centered. If you are a people-pleaser, you move toward your partner and try to become whatever you think he or she wants you to be. You determine how you are going to behave based on your perception of what your partner wants. You lack an inner compass that points the way; your direction is determined by your partner's needs.
Conversely, if you are self-centered, you fear losing yourself and so avoid or minimize intimacy. Your self-centeredness obstructs your capacity to have empathy and therefore you are out of touch with your partner's needs or desires. The truth is that you are as emotionally dependent as the people-pleaser. Your partner is too important because you do not know how to hold on to yourself and stay connected.
In a successful relationship, we please our mate without compromising our own individuality; we strive to maintain our integrity. We learn to honor our desires and yet respond to our partner's needs and desires. We respond as allies to our partners, without losing sight of what is important to us, and then we work together to discover a solution to our unique problems while also guarding against our partner's submission or false compliance.
In order for a relationship to be based on who each person is, rather than on an ideal of what a relationship should be like, we need to hold on to ourselves and inform our mates how to be our partners, to let them know what we need. And at the same time we must encourage our partner to reveal his or her needs to us, too.
As the saying goes, 'You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.' It is impossible to tell your partner what is important to you if you don't understand what is important to yourself. The more self-knowledge you have, the better partner you can be. Therefore, an important aspect of becoming a good partner is confronting yourself and understanding what you want, and then being able to communicate your desires to your partner. I'll discuss this more later.
Let's now turn our attention to disappointment and failure and how they are addressed in your relationship.
Whose Fault Is It Anyway?
Blame is rampant in relationships today as couples search for explanations of their ongoing failures to make their relationship or marriage work. Blaming each other, our parents or their parents is futile. Rarely will it lead you to a place where you can heal a wound or truly learn how to be a better partner. Here is why.
Blame is based on linear thinking. The logic goes something like this: A causes B, so therefore we must do something about A if we want to change the outcome. This way of thinking permeates our lives. Our society and culture are based on this type of an approach to life. Family therapists have challenged this assumption over the past fifty years, and the results have revolutionized psychotherapy.
There has been a shift in our thinking that is extremely helpful in relationships. I will refer to this as 'systems thinking.' It is based on the idea that you are jointly creating the social reality of your relationship. Neither of you is to blame, and yet both of you are at fault. There are no victims, only volunteers.
As you will see throughout this book, I am strongly committed to this idea. I believe it is an incredibly powerful idea because it frees you from being a victim. It empowers you. You influence your situation whether or not you realize it. If I am right about this, it means you can have a greater impact on a situation than you may have ever believed. It also means that your partner doesn't have to change for you to change your relationship; once you begin to change, the relationship will change. It has to. Once you change what you are doing in your relationship, the pattern of interaction between you and your partner will be different.
We live in a painphobic culture. We hate pain, especially psychological pain. We avoid facing our anxieties, shortcomings and limitations. We have difficulty being rigorously honest with ourselves and therefore turn away from important personal realities. We have selective inattention and try to avoid seeing things about ourselves, our families of origin or our current relationships that need serious attention. I have said to many of my patients, 'You can pay me now or pay me later!' It is a basic principle of our human makeup that brings unresolved issues back into the foreground of our consciousness time and time again until they are addressed and resolved. Essentially, you can run, but you can never hide.
Finding the courage to face yourself is the most important thing you can do for your relationship. The more you understand yourself and where you have difficulty holding on to yourself, the better you will be able to:
‡ identify where you are not functioning with integrity;
‡ become aware of how you are letting your anxieties and shortcomings drive or immobilize you;
‡ see how you fail to soothe yourself when you are upset or anxious;
‡ address your emotional dependency and how it impacts your relationship;
‡ face personal issues that interfere with your becoming the kind of partner and person you want to be; and finally,
‡ focus your time and energy on becoming a better partner.
Putting the Information to Work
Truly knowing yourself and confronting your personal issues is an important step in improving your relationship. But insight without action is merely an intellectual exercise and not the beginning of a real, deep, personal transformation. The key word to remember is 'integration.' What you learn needs to become integrated into your life. It needs to be applied to how you treat and interact with yourself and your partner.
Learning about yourself and understanding your personal issues will allow you to identify the personal baggage you have dragged into your relationship. It will help you identify what you need to change to become the partner you want to be.
To help you confront yourself, in the next three chapters I have identified some of the romantic myths, unreasonable expectations and destructive communication patterns prevalent in our lives today. Be honest with yourself and stop running away from your issues. It's your only chance to turn things around in your life.
Now let's jump into the water and have some fun. Grab a brand new highlighter and a pen (in case you want to mark up a section that is particularly relevant to your life or make some notes), and prepare to be as honest with yourself as possible. In the next chapter we begin exposing common myths about relationships.
©2007. Allen Berger, Ph.D., With Mary Palmer. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Love Secrets Revealed : What Happy Couples Know About Having Great Sex, Deep Intimacy and a Lasting Connection. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.