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...