In Part I and Part of II of this series, I have described how we can view love as the action which serves as the vehicle for nurturing and enhancing our emotional and psychological growth, and looked at that action actually within the context of one’s relationship with another.
In this article I provide a brief description of three basic types of relationships that define the relative state of health of that relationship.
Fundamental Positions Towards Relationship
Individuals can only be in one of three fundamental positions in terms of his or her emotional/psychological health within a couple’s relationship. They are either evolving and thus growing and maturing, revolving and psychologically speaking standing still, or devolving and going backwards. The following paragraphs offer brief descriptions of these positions.
Evolving. When an individual is healthy and evolving within a relationship, their primary intention is to utilize experiences within that relationship as a vehicle for learning new things about their self, their partner, and their relationship to the world around them. New experiences and understandings are constantly arising through a conscious effort to remain awake and aware.
This form of relating provides a particularly unique forum for learning about oneself and one’s relationship to others, and the partner is seen as being vital to this type of learning. One’s partner is treated with great respect, care, and of course love, in which one’s actions are directed towards supporting and their encouraging their growth and development.
While we do not accept responsibility for someone else’s choice for growth, we are capable of providing the conditions conducive to the other’s growth should they choose this direction.
Revolving. When the relationship is revolving the primary intention is not growth but consistency, comfort and security. Typically a great deal of effort is directed towards ensuring a high degree of predictability and conformity.
If the other is similarly motivated to find security and comfort then there usually is an implicit agreement among both partners to please the other. If this mutual intention is successful it can generate a great deal of satisfaction between the partners as they both feel they can “relax”.
If it is not successful, the efforts of one partner to bring the relationship in line with his or her particular wishes and expectations can introduce conflict and resentment into the relationship.
The resolution to this type of conflict typically requires one partner to give up his or her position in order to have peace within the relationship. If this resolution is not successful it can lead to separation.
Many relationships seem to be characterized by the revolving patterns. In these relationships, the feelings of comfort and security we strive so hard to achieve and maintain constantly rub shoulders with the discomfort and dissatisfaction which arises from our failure to grow. This persistent discomfort is usually placated with alcohol and other drugs, new toys, and many plans for the future.
Because revolving relationships usually are possible only with individuals who are reasonably well-adjusted and who therefore can successfully control and shape their world, there is typically little that is sufficiently wrong enough with that relationship for either partner to feel they can legitimately complain about it.
Because they can’t find compelling justifications for their complaints they often decide to simply keep their concerns to themselves. Sometimes they feel it must be their issue and end up wondering if something might be wrong with them for feeling this way. Should they eventually reach a point of being sufficiently unhappy or depressed they often look in the wrong direction for a solution, and remain conflicted between the struggle for growth and the desire for comfort and security.
Since these efforts invariably lead to continued or increased suffering, further confusion and frustration develops, along with a growing sense of pointlessness and futility. Ultimately this can lead to depression and despair. In relationships it leads to conflict and often, to separation.
Devolving. When a relationship is devolving it has typically begun from a position that appeared to offer security, and moved downhill from there. One partner tends to be dominant and aggressive, while the other seems weak and submissive, though it is often not clear who is dominant and who is submissive. Some positions that look weak are actually clever forms of power and control.
When there is pathology there is an abuse of power and control. Such motives dominate the abuser’s life. Inflicting suffering and engendering fear is one way of coping with their own fears. Driven by uncontrollable desires and impulses enacted at the expense of others, such individuals care little about others except in so far as needing them in order to have someone to dominate.
For the submissive person, most of their time is spent resorting to various strategies to keep him or herself (or those we care for) from being harmed, either emotionally, physically, or psychologically. From this position of being anxious and uncertain, and in more extreme cases, fearful and terrorized, the ability to learn anything new is severely compromised. Staying in such a relationship for a prolonged period results inevitably results in psychological and emotional regression to earlier and earlier stages of development.
In the final analysis, we don’t need to be in a relationship with another to be healthy, but neither do we need to be in one to be unhealthy. Having said this, never underestimate the power of our relationship, for better or worse, to exert a powerful influence on our state of well-being and our basic sense of self.
In several of my preceding articles on love and couples therapy, I have argued that our greatest source of suffering arises when our emotional and psychological growth is impeded. If we are not clear about the source of that suffering when it arises, our confusion as to what is actually causing it leads to numerous misguided efforts to reduce that distress.