“This is not another book about love or how to find love; there are more than enough of those out there already. My aim is to help you to understand your relationships and to achieve new and healthier ways of relating by explaining some of the major underlying psychological principles and ‘drivers’ that lead us to think and behave in certain ways with our spouses or partners. Identifying and working on these motivating factors will help to eliminate ‘knee-jerk’ reactions and will nourish and sustain the relationship instead of allowing it to plod along and deteriorate by default.
Working as a psychotherapist, I encounter the full range of psychological drama and complexity through the stories clients tell me about their lives. Yet, no matter how often I peer into the kaleidoscope of passion, joy, sorrow, and the whole range of emotions that constitute what it means to be human, I am still surprised by the widespread misconceptions that people hold about major life issues.
High on the list of these beliefs are the expectations people have of their relationships. For the purposes of this book I am referring to love/romantic relationships between adults, both heterosexual and same-sex; although some of the principles in this book can be applied to relationships generally.
Most readers will, I’m sure, be familiar with the adage ‘Who ever said life was meant to be easy?’ which, despite its intrinsic flippancy, contains a fundamental truth. For many, there is an assumption that success and happiness should be handed to us on a silver platter; that those states of being are, if you like, an inherent and inalienable part of our birthright. In the case of relationships, there is often an expectation that these ‘love partnerships’ should not only provide a permanent state of bliss but alleviate all the difficulties of living as well.
It’s natural and healthy to dream of finding someone with whom we can enjoy a joyful, nurturing, fulfilling relationship.
However, when we buy into the widespread idea that harmony and mutual fulfilment happen automatically as a result of meeting the ‘right’ person, an important factor is missed, or dismissed. Meaningful, lasting relationships are incredibly complex, multi-faceted psychological structures that are not built in a day and do not happen purely by accident.
That is certainly not intended to offer a negative take on what can be the most sublime and uplifting of all human experiences; rather it flags up a key principle of this book, namely that the more you put into relationships, both in terms of effort and understanding, the more you get out of them.
Like so many things in life, the index of success in relationships almost invariably correlates with the amount of sustained attention, effort and, occasionally, self-sacrifice that each partner is prepared to bring to it. In this context, I am reminded of Gary Player’s response when asked for the secret of his phenomenal success as a champion golfer: The harder I practise the luckier I get.’ Other qualities such as caring, nurturing, giving, and, of course, genuine loving, play a huge part as well but these do not preclude the need for working at a relationship to ensure its continued stability and growth.
A relationship that is taken for granted, not worked at to some degree, or where either partner (or both) does not respect the other as a person, downplays or dismisses their needs, makes no attempt at meaningful communication, and does not honour certain boundaries of behaviour, will almost invariably wither and eventually die.
This is where the psychological basis of a relationship kicks in, which means, paradoxically, that working at it is often not enough in itself. Given those complicated and often delicate underpinnings – which are usually out of our awareness or in our ‘unconscious’, to use the psychological term – focusing on the ‘visible’ issues, such as better communication, acceptance of the other person’s human failings, and learning to deal with change, needs to be supplemented by an understanding of what is really going on beneath the surface of the dialogue and interactions.
The more you are able to gain insight into the hidden agendas, feelings and unspoken communications, and uncover what is really happening between the two of you, the better placed you will be to deal with conflict, change negative and destructive patterns of relating that eat away at the fabric of the relationship, and bring those vital qualities of mutual nurture, respect and genuine love into play.
When couples are suddenly able to see what lies beneath their ‘locked-in’ behaviour patterns it can mark a turning point in their relationship. And often it is something relatively simple in psychological terms that goes unrecognized, simply because the individuals concerned have not been made aware of it. That was the case with Bill and Angie, who came to see me because they were caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of arguing and recrimination, which had descended to the level of increasingly bitter personal attacks.
After listening to them both putting their own side of the story, I asked them if my perception that neither was prepared to back down in any way was true. Rather sheepishly, they agreed that was the case. When I suggested to them that pride was the basis for their stubborn refusal to give ground, and explained that this was linked to a perceived loss of self-esteem, or loss of face, it was as if a veil had been lifted from their eyes.
In the next session they told me that things had already taken a turn for the better because every time an argument began to kick in they had been able to step back and acknowledge their own feelings of vulnerability, and, most importantly, listen to what the other was trying to communicate instead of hitting back. Relationship issues do not usually resolve themselves quite so easily, but in this case a simple insight had sparked a sea change in their way of relating to each other.
If you are struggling to understand why your dreams of emotional harmony and sexual ecstasy are crumbling before your eyes; why he or she is proving to be anything but the model of loving kindness you expected them to be; or why you have descended into a living hell of rowing and resentment, my hope is that the following chapters will help you find a way to step back, see things from a new perspective and begin to move forward in a more positive direction, as in the example of Bill and Angie above.
On the other hand, perhaps you are simply seeking to gain more insight into your relationship, to see how it functions on different levels, and make it more loving and rewarding than it already is. Or maybe you are keen to understand relationships in general and so be better equipped for entering into one when you are ready. In either case the principles and practical pointers in this book are also designed to put you on a sound footing for achieving those goals.
The celebrated American author James Thurber once said:
‘A lady of 47 who has been married 27 years and has six children knows what love really is and once described it for me like this: “Love is what you’ve been through with somebody.’”
It is my hope that the following pages will make the ‘going through’ a more joyful, more fulfilling experience.”