My typical day is spent listening to couples describe their difficulties. Sometimes they don't know where to start and sometimes they launch into a rapid-fire, detailed account of wrongs done and slights endured. Often, the descriptions are laid out on a blanket of anger or sadness and almost always with disappointment and fear. The desire to unburden themselves of months or years of pain is palpable. Once it's all out, relief sometimes comes like a balm. What we are left with is usually the scene of substantial wreckage and a simple question, "Well, now what?"
The "now what?" question hangs there holding all the anticipation of an expectant parent moments before delivery. Of course, the reality of the situation is that there is no easy resolution to the difficulties laid out. It's unlikely either partner is going to have a sudden attack of unconditional love and forgiveness. The road ahead will be winding, hilly and littered with potholes.
It's at this point that I often succumb to the temptation to ask what probably seems like a really stupid question. I ask, "Is any of this interesting to you? Or, is all this just a huge pain in the neck?" Naturally, most respond by telling me how awful it is and wonder out loud how it could ever be interesting. It strikes me, however, that the ability to find one's circumstances interesting is a first step toward experiencing something different. If I look at the wreck my life is currently and respond to it with exasperation, I've doubled my burden and added nothing to its resolution. On the other hand, if I'm able to find my circumstance interesting, I've at least stepped back from it enough to have added perspective and I've laid some groundwork for a shift in behavior and attitude.
It all reminds me of times I've tried to fix something like a broken appliance or one of my son's toys. If I go into that enterprise frustrated or annoyed, I take the stance that this is just a colossal pain the neck. What usually happens next is that I wind up breaking the thing, essentially making it irreparable. But, if I look at the project and find a way to make it interesting, patience grows and I'm able to notice details that my frustration would otherwise mask.
I'm not sure there's anything more interesting than the complexities of a relationship. Stepping back from frustration and noticing the interesting features of a life circumstance can go a long way toward smoothing the road to reconciliation.
Speaking to his girlfriend, Annie Hall, Alvie Singer says, "A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark."
Annie Hall (1977) Woody Allen
The notion that relationships require movement is familiar to anyone who has been in one for more than a few months. Naively, many of us believe the movement will be essentially linear and in a positive direction. Oh sure, we say, there will be difficult times, disagreements and disappointments. But, we expect that over the long haul we will be in a better place when all is said and done than we were when we began. Often this is pretty much what happens in one of the several dimensions that make up an intimate relationship.
In another dimension there is also constant movement but it isn't linear. It's circular. In this dimension, we move in a repeating pattern of merging and separating, merging and separating--over and over again. Imagine two circles, side by side, with one moving in a clockwise direction and the other in a counter-clockwise direction. In a healthy relationship this is the pattern of movement that prevails. We connect, enjoying our time together and move apart enjoying our separateness. For example, we have a nice evening together but when it's over we eventually fall asleep and move into our individual worlds. When we wake we may cuddle and discuss the day ahead before getting out of bed. But, eventually we go to work and move into our individual interests and obligations. This is the pattern--merging and separating.
Alvie Singer's "dead shark" can show up in a couple of places. The most obvious is when a couple needs or demands constant connection--constant merging. It doesn't take long for this to produce an environment in which there is so little fresh air that the inhabitants eventually asphyxiate. Jealousy and the fear of loss are usually behind the inability to move toward appropriate separation. In much the same way, being afraid to give up separateness creates the kind immobility that eventually eliminates the fresh and new experiences necessary for life.
Good and fulfilling connection comes when we are moving toward or away from the experience of separateness. Likewise, healthy separateness usually comes in anticipation of or after a clear sense of connection. The constant merging and separating movement keeps the "shark" alive and well.
Few fires burn hotter than the one kindled by lovers. For lovers whose history includes the inevitable wounds brought on by misunderstanding, poor judgment, and inattention, the fire of passion is a mixed experience. The compelling desire to connect can be matched by the equally compelling need for self-protection. Caught up in this intense push-pull, couples are torn by opposing needs and desires. It's as if they were two burn victims trying to make love. Their hearts draw them to each other but the experience of pain when touched brings an immediate withdrawing response.
Both sides of this dilemma deserve all the attention they can get. Any attempt to deny the validity of either the desire or the pain will only result in a skewed picture of the whole. Some say arriving at this this dilemma is precisely the point of a committed relationship--that a committed relationship is the only thing that offers the crucible necessary to resolve the paradox of desire and pain.
Few experiences test the strength of a relationship crucible like the intensity of desire and pain brought together. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It does, however, appear that successful resolution is almost always characterized by courage, patience, compassion and respect.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.