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What I’ve Learned About Relationships

Margarita Tartakovsky, working on a new article for PsychCentral.com, provided a wonderful prompt that gave me an excuse to condense the essence of my current thinking about couples and relationships. Here it is!

1. Relationships are complicated. Let’s start with one human brain: one of the most complex structures that we know of in the universe. Some estimates place the number of possible interconnections in the brain at more than the number of particles in the universe. Though we talk about them as if they were two things, our brains and bodies are really interlaced and inseparable. Emotions come about through an interplay of body and brain. Emotions and emotional reactions are complex, recursive, and multi-layered. So far I have just been talking about one brain/body. Now add a second person! Social interactions, including intimate relationships with our families of origin, current partners, other life-experiences, and all of the cross-currents between these raises the level of complexity geometrically. Then add the effects of language. As much as we would like to think that language is exact, it is not, and the ambiguities in language can muddy the waters further. Even trying to describe the complexities of relationships in words as I am here is necessarily extremely limited and over-simplified. So as delightful, fulfilling, and loving as relationships can be, they also must be expected to have their difficulties. If you are struggling in your relationship you’re not alone; and if you’re struggling more than occasionally, seeing an experienced couples therapist can really help.

2. The Power of the Unconscious. A corollary to the complexity of relationships is that it can be especially hard to make sense of them from the inside. Just as it is difficult to sometimes make sense of your own experience from the inside, and you know how helpful it can be to talk to other people for their perspective, the same is true for relationships. Part of what makes it hard to see oneself or one’s relationship from the inside is our unconscious minds. A surprising amount of what we think feel and do is simply not available for our own self-observation.

For the sake of discussion I will define the unconscious mind as beliefs, emotions, and patterns of behavior that drive us but are out of awareness. An example is the enduring joke about the person who insists that s/he is not acting like his or her parent, but whom everyone else can see is acting exactly like his or her parent. Another way to think of it is the well-known idea of the blind spot. Formally, the blind spot is a small area of the retina which has no vision receptors, so that little patch actually cannot see at all. There is one of these spots in each eye, all people have them, and yet many people may not even know that they have them, and almost everyone is unaware of them almost all the time. (To experience your blind spots see this demonstration: Blind Spot Illustration) The way our bodies and consciousness are designed, these holes in our awareness are seamlessly knit over.

Similarly we all have behaviors, ways of thinking, and emotions that are sometimes or always completely off of our radar. These thoughts, feelings, and patterns of behavior are sometimes referred to in current neuroscience terminology as implicit, or procedural, memory, which is to say memory that affects us but is not consciously available to us. Part of the reason for their implicitness is that many of the templates for these patterns of thought, feeling and behavior were established in us in infancy, before we even had language. Making matters worse, the verbal parts of our brains later in life construct explanations which can be inaccurate and misleading. We may think that our partners are doing something uncaring, or to punish us, when in fact they are just doing what is natural for them and it has very little to do with us. We may not know what our feelings really are (or may only know some of them) and the narratives we weave are frequently biased towards self-protection at the cost of connection. We often then—again unconsciously, or out of awareness—preferentially collect evidence and construct systems of justification to preserve these distorted beliefs. In relationships all of these things can serve to sustain negative cycles and keep us stuck in painful patterns.

3. Behavioral versus developmental change. This is a critical element that is difficult for most people untrained in psychology to appreciate. Many times when couples get into negative cycles of hurt and blame each partner will feel hurt that the other is not changing behaviors that they “should know are hurting me.” For example, “All I ask is that you call me when you are going to be late. Why can’t you do that when you know that upsets me so much when I don’t hear from you?” Back to the complexity point, there may actually be a number of reasons that the partner doesn’t call, including ways that the cycle between the two partners unintentionally makes it more problematic. The hurt partner in this case assumes that the change they are asking for is as simple as asking the other to turn off the light switch when they leave the room. That the other partner will see the hurt and simply develop a new habit.

In the absence of other emotional complications, this would be what we call a behavioral change. One sees the benefits of the new behavior and simply starts implementing it until it becomes a new habit. However when one partner makes a repetitive request for a new behavior from the other and it is not being fulfilled, there is a good chance that there is some kind of emotional interference for the second partner. Often this has to do with patterns developed during childhood in the second partner’s family of origin. Continuing with my previous example, the partner who doesn’t call may have been frequently nagged by his or her mother when he or she was an adolescent. This in turn may have been an extension of a pattern of smothering and over-intrusiveness on the part of his or her mother. As a result the second partner developed a self-protective, response of forgetting to call, which creates a boundary against potential intrusion. Also, by not complying with the partner’s request, the failure to call expresses indirectly the anger at being smothered. All these things get in the way of the second partner being able to simply notice the advantages and execute the new behavior.

Changing these more rooted behaviors would be what we call “developmental change” because it refers back to emotional patterns ingrained during childhood development. These emotional patterns need to be explored with compassion and empathy before they can be understood by the second partner in a way that will enable them to shift over time. The first partner will likely need to assist in this change by continuing to provide compassionate support and understanding. This kind of developmental change typically takes weeks, months, or longer depending on the intensity and complexity of the underlying developmental emotional experience, and the abilities of both partners to understand and treat it with compassion.

4. Attachment may indeed be the linchpin of relationships. Although attachment theory came to fruition with John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1960’s it is assuming an increasingly dominant role in psychology and especially psychotherapy. Only time will tell whether it is the ultimate theory of human relationships but it certainly seems to condense a great deal of essential understanding and leverage in helping people improve their lives and relationships. With couples in therapy it quickly becomes evident how securely attached the individuals are, and everything else seems to flow from that.

Security of attachment is determined hugely through our early experiences with our parents or primary caregivers. In turn this security is the foundation—at all levels—of our basic ability to trust ourselves, the world and other people. Without a certain level of trust a balanced, reciprocal, interdependent relationship is impossible. Furthermore, partners tend to find each other at similar levels of attachment security or insecurity, and insecure attachment generally results in much higher levels of developmental as opposed to behavioral change. So in insecurely attached relationships both partners tend to demand changes of each other, each thinking it should be easy for the other and feeling hurt (which often comes out as anger) when the other doesn’t follow suit. However, the changes they are demanding are much more difficult than they appear, and require lots of mutual understanding, compassion, and trust—all of which are by definition more difficult for insecurely attached partners.

5. When things are going badly in relationships there are negative cycles involved which make things worse. For example, the more I get frustrated the louder my voice gets, which scares you and makes you get quieter, which makes me more frustrated and loud, which makes you quieter and so on. Known in systems terminology as deviation amplifying feedback, or in common terms as a vicious cycle, these are patterns of behavior that emerge from the interaction between two people. The more important and dependent you are on each other, the easier it is for these cycles to get created and intensify. Although each person plays a part, the cycle gets created between you and in a certain sense takes on a life of its own beyond either one of you. These cycles can be especially hard to understand from the inside. Out of frustration partners often end up either blaming each other or withdrawing into silence, either of which makes everything worse, leading to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Getting outside perspective can help you understand how the cycle works, what the pieces are, and how to move from the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle—more like the good feelings that you had at the beginning of your relationship.

6. Empathy and being able to see things from your partner’s perspective are the sine qua non of a healthy relationship, and keys to your children’s emotional health and lifelong well-being. In the end these are what really make the difference in all relationships. Empathy both flows from and creates mental health and well being.  Being able to empathize and see things from others’ perspectives are dependent on a foundation of secure attachment. The less securely attached you are, the less safe, secure, and trusting you feel. If you are scared, it is hard to trust, hard to be vulnerable, easy to feel persecuted and to either blame your partner or retreat into various forms of withdrawal. When you are scared and insecure you have less space to a) sit with and understand your own feelings, b) be able to articulate your own feelings to others, and c) be open to your partner’s feelings and perceptions–especially to the extent they are different from your own. With the force of biological imperative, fear prioritizes threat detection as a means of self-preservation. Anyone can go a few days without carrots, but if you miss the big stick that kills you it’s game over! (See my blog entry Negativity Bias and Appreciations).

So under conditions of stress and fear we tend to focus on the negative—particularly the negative in our partners!—and this contributes to negative cycles. Fear also narrows our perceptions so that we tend to stereotype the aspects of our partners that we don’t understand or don’t like (which often tend to be the same things). Empathy and perspective-taking work against these forces by expanding our perceptions and giving us a fuller, more realistic, multidimensional view of our partners and their connectedness to us. Associated with this is an important skill of being able to hold multiple values and points-of-view simultaneously, even when these values and perspectives may be in conflict with each other.

7. We all have a fundamental conflict or tension between self-preservation and connection with others. This is another facet of the fear problem. Again looking at it from a biological/evolutionary perspective there are two critical aspects to continuing our species (the latter of which is the most basic motive of our natural design). To be able to reproduce we must both preserve ourselves as individuals and connect with others in order to conceive and nurture our young. Of course this is a very stripped-down view, but in many ways the feelings and experiences that we have in relationships flow from these two basic drives: connection and protection. We want to merge together and feel the bliss of unbounded connection, warmth and security, but on the other hand we want to be independent, to make our own choices, have our own ideas, explore, and avoid being hurt or (ultimately) killed. With language and consciousness we have symbolic reasoning which extends threat beyond the realm of the physical all the way to the abstraction of a single phrase or gesture. Consider the phrases “Fuck you,” or “I’m leaving you.” Even these printed words on the page—funny little squiggles on this screen or paper—can arouse fear within us. Threats of aggression, abandonment, or both. This tension between self-preservation and connection is captured in popular titles such as “Do I Need to Give up Me [sacrifice self-preservation] To Be Loved by You [in order to have connection]” (bracketed translations added by me). The subtlety of self-preservation can extend all the way to fears of losing voice, agency, identity, or integrity. When relationships start to deteriorate, stress can easily shift the focus to threat and protection, and the connection can start to get buried. Finding and maintaining the connection-protection balance is indeed one of the central ongoing challenges of relationship.

Here’s Margarita’s article – it has some other tips in addition to excerpts from my writings above: 15 Lessons.

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