Relationships take work and tend to lack the romance and luster that people associate with a Nicholas Sparks' novel or umpteenth Shades of Grey film adaptation. Don't get me wrong- relationships can still be very exciting and fulfilling across multiple contexts. For couples who made the decision to have children, this has only created an even greater burden (albeit a blessing as well!) on the relationship in terms of finding time to connect and ways to have quality time as a couple without the kids in tow- but that's a topic for another post.
Time and time again, I am confronted with the frustration and disappointment of a client that his or her partner is not fulfilling the role of a compassionate, loving, and involved companion. We will normally spend some time exploring the early stages of the relationship and identify any potential traumas or major events that may have first caused a divide in the connection, working backwards to obtain a better understanding of how this chasm came to develop. Additionally, in doing this, I will try to obtain an image of how my client operates as a partner, and what their expectations and needs are from their other half- and this is where interpersonal and intrapersonal issues may begin to surface for us to process and work through in our sessions.
As a psychologist, I am not only an advocate and support for my clients: I also serve the role of helping my clients confront the ways that they are keeping themselves stuck and locked in unhelpful and potentially harmful patterns and ways of being- as difficult as this process of looking inward can prove for individuals. In some cases, this entails an exploration of whether their expectations of their partner are realistic- are they too dependent? do they have their partner on a pedestal (idealizing and in turn demonizing their partner when a mistake is made or a shortcoming is perceived)? do they need their partner versus want their partner? This last question is key for me in distinguishing a healthy view of a relationship from a potentially unhealthy one.
In thinking about what makes a healthy relationship, you first need to consider what motivates an individual to enter into the relationship in the first place: if you consider early relationships and the teenage years, you will likely imagine anxious, fearful, and avoidant attachment styles. The problem is, if left unchecked, these same attachment styles can linger and follow us into adulthood, and can tend to resurface in the development of unhealthy relationships.
The anxious-preoccupied attacher is insecure about relationships, and tends to be jealous, moody, and controlling, in need of constant stroking of his or her ego and reassurance. This individual tends to struggle and worry when the relationship is calm and stable and will sometimes create conflict or drama due to having a need for more familiar surroundings in terms of coming from a history of tumultuous relationships in his or her past.
The fearful-avoidant attacher is suspicious of their partner's intentions and has difficulty trusting due to a past that may be plagued by traumatic events such as abuse, grief, and other difficult losses or challenges. This person is at odds within him or herself in that they desire closeness and intimacy while also despising their need or wish for it, and in the same token, these individuals struggle with independence as well as with seeking support from others.
The dismissive-avoidant attacher is the commitment-phobic individual, who struggles with emotional intimacy and resists vulnerability in relationships. These individuals will prioritize almost every other role and obligation other than the relationship, as they remind their partner of their need for independence and room to "breathe". The partners of these individuals may feel pushed to the sidelines or devalued, and will sometimes later learn that they were in a relationship with someone who also fits criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.
Here's where the problem with needing a partner comes into play- it's easier to get trapped into a relationship with one of the dismissive-avoidant attachers or to become one of the other two types: the anxious-preoccupied or the fearful-avoidant attacher. You will lack clear and defined boundaries when you find yourself in a space of needing another person in your life versus simply wanting a companion or partner, and this is where relationships begin to take on too much meaning and take over one's autonomy and room for self-care and self-respect.
When you want to share your life and time with another person, you are actively choosing to make room for this individual versus running the risk of the other person demanding space and time that you may not feel ready to or able to give. On the flip side, when you feel that you need the person, you may make sacrifices that you didn't intend or want to make, in an attempt to not lose the person or to keep the person happy so that they do not leave you or get upset with you; this would be particularly true for someone who fears abandonment and has a history of being let down or manipulated by caregivers and/or previous romantic partners.
The key is having self-awareness and recognition of your relationship patterns: do you have a tendency to become so entangled with another person that you lose yourself in the relationship? or are you so independent and detached that people forget that you have a partner to begin with? Either of the two extremes points to a need for deeper self-reflection and some inner work to determine where your relationship block may be stemming from and where your journey to a healthier relationship with yourself should begin.
Ni, Preston. Psychology Today, "What is Your Relationship Attachment Style?" Published July 5, 2015. Retrieved from <https://www.psychologytoday.com/ blog/communication-success/201507/what-is-your-relationship-attachment-style>