What I’ve Learned About Relationships
As a Couples Therapist — Part I
Relationships are complicated. Let’s start with one human brain: one of the most complex structures that we know of in the universe. Though we talk about them as if they were two things, our brains and bodies are 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, raise 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. The ambiguities in language can muddy the waters considerably. 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. If you’re struggling more than occasionally, seeing an experienced couples therapist can really help.
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 perspectives) 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 experience this 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. This is memory that affects us but is not usually consciously available to us for observation. As the term “procedural” implies, this includes things we do automatically, without really knowing how or why we do them. 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. Further confounding things, later in life, the verbal parts of our brains construct explanations which can be inaccurate and misleading.
Thus, it is common to think that our partners are doing something uncaring, or even punishing, 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 elements can conspire to sustain negative cycles and keep us stuck in painful patterns.
Developmental versus behavioral 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 simple thing, when you know it 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 a negative cycle between the two partners unintentionally makes it more problematic. (I’ll address these cycles in Part II in a few weeks.) The hurt partner in this case assumes that the change they are asking for is as straightforward as asking the other to turn off the light switch when they leave the room. That the other partner will see the hurt and efficiently 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 routine.
If you find yourself repeatedly requesting (or worse, demanding!) a different behavior from your partner, and it is not being fulfilled, there is a good chance that there is some kind of emotional interference going on for your partner.
Often this has to do with temperament, or with patterns developed during childhood. 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 indirectly expresses the anger at having 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.
Making changes in 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 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 each other and themselves with compassion.
Thanks for reading! ~ * ~ If you found this interesting or helpful I would love your ❤.
Robert Solley is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Noe Valley, San Francisco.