When I ask someone what it is they like about their partner, often the answer tells me more about what that person receives from their partner – a feeling of being appreciated, loved, understood, safe, etc. It seems what we are looking for in relationships is to have our emotional needs satisfied. Is this not expecting too much? Is it even possible?
I am interested in how something that starts like a romantic movie on the scale of “Titanic” turns into a low-budget drama with elements of nightmare. What is it in me that triggers and steers this process from the very start? Why longing for a working relationship, I set myself up for failure and sabotaged the few ones I had? What would it take from me to live together without hurting my beloved? I have been trying to remember a single morning when I woke up and said to myself, “How can I make sure I get hurt again and while I am at it, why not help another soul feel miserable?” Not that I remember. There seems to be a glitch in the system somewhere.
So I thought I’d take a good look at the dynamics of intimate relationships and try to see where my own judgement fails me.
Why this exploration? Because
a) those same patterns show up in all our relationships although not as powerfully
b) I strive to live a conscious life in this universe not of my choosing
c) let’s just say I finally bought Elisabeth Gilbert’s “Committed” and find myself warming up to the idea of giving myself a try at relationships
“Of all the ideologies that possess the contemporary soul, perhaps none is more powerful, more seductive, and possibly more delusory than the romantic fantasy that there is someone out there who is right for us, the long-sought soul mate, what I call “the magical other” , the one who will truly understand us, take care of us, meet our needs, repair the wounds, and, with a little luck, spare us the burden of growing up and meeting our needs”.
James Hollis, “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Your Life”, p 104
This fantasy of the “magical other” who can complete us and finally make us feel happy is enthusiastically supported by the culture of the modern world.
Here comes Tina Turner:
I call you when I need you, my heart’s on fire
You come to me, come to me wild and wired
Mmm, you come to me
Give me everything I need
Give me a lifetime of promises and a world of dreams
Speak a language of love like you know what it means
Mmm, it can’t be wrong
Take my heart and make it strong, baby
From “Simply the Best!
So I called the first phase – Give me everything I need ! – phase
Hollis holds that “all relationships begin with projections. In each new moment instead of reinventing ourselves again and again, we lean back on our past, on our most primal experience of relationships. We let each new moment, each situation, be coloured by the past and therefore cannot see the essential reality of the present moment. As projections is an unconscious mechanism, we do not realise that we are internalizing our internal experience onto the other person.” (p. 106)
In the screen shots below we have U and Schmoopy at the initial stage of their relationship, projecting onto each other in hope that once they are together, they will finally become whole, the problems of feeling guilt or unworthy, unsafe and lonely, will go away and they will live happily ever after. (Here the couple are of opposite sex but as I understand the same dynamics apply to same-sex partner relationships.)
Hollis: “We have a predisposition to project our childhood agendas, our infantile longing, and the burden of our assignment for personal growth onto the other” (p 116)
In other words, we don’t know what we are doing and project our agenda onto others.
Experience: A fifty-something-year old man I was dating for a very short period told me at the very outset of our relationship, “Change me, baby!” What he wanted me to change in him was not where he should consider changing if he sincerely wanted to improve his relationships. The defense mechanisms he used was attempting to control the situation and people around him and complaining (something many of us employ in varying degrees). On one occasion he made a spectacular scene in the middle of a street (quite in the spirit of the film we just watched – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), right outside the movie theater. The whole situation felt very surreal to me at that moment, as if I woke up and saw us from above, wondering, “”How did it come down to this?”. I saw that angry aging child and me next to him, his emotional keeper and punch bag; I saw passers-by throwing cautious looks at us, and it occurred to me up there that the girl on the ground was no longer a child and had the choice to leave.
I don’t know what shocked me most in this particular story: that I once again found myself in a destructive relationship as if I was my worst enemy or the fact that the man in question was practicing Tai Chi, daily meditation and went on retreats, was teaching philosophy at the university and wrote a book on the science of happiness. He did not give me an impression of a particularly happy man and it certainly was not how I wanted a relationship to be like so I climbed on my bike and took off. But as I was biking, laughing at the absurdity of the situation, wondering if any of my friends would believe I let it go this far, I had a gnawing suspicion that the reason why I had agreed to become part of that relationship was not left behind. Maybe it was riding with me.
(to be continued)
- insights from Jungian psychology from the chapter on the dynamics of intimate relationships from James Hollis’ book “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Your Life”
- screenshots from the video episode of podcast “A Crush Course in Miracles” with Philip Urso (used with Philip’s permission)
- lyrics from Tina Turner’s undying hit “Simply the Best”
- personal experience of heartbreaks and heartaches, history of an abusive relationship; history of a long-term marriage and a quick divorce (if words like “good ” could be applied to divorce as far as the involved parties’ treatment of each other under these painful circumstances and the relationship following the break-up , the word would be “excellent”)