We were once a creature with eight limbs, so the Greek myth goes, who was tragically separated into two, destined to desperately seek reunification with its other half. This is a fundamental reality of the human condition: a seeking of another in unification and love, and, for many, a feeling that our life is incomplete without a significant other. We define our experience based on the presence and absence of this unification, what drives the trajectory of our life and choices is often rooted in this kind of seeking. Yet it seems that the drive for unification is matched by the drive for separation – one glimpse at divorce statistics in this country will confirm this. Often another is quickly sought to replace the previous, albeit failed, unification. Are marriages too quickly discarded because divorce has become socially acceptable?
Sheila and Ray recently celebrated ten years of marriage. “You’re achieving all your developmental milestones,” said a friend, “ a home, children, a successful marriage…” “Successful at the moment,” said Sheila, “we’re on an upswing.” This response by Sheila may very well represent her discomfort with implicit complements, yet this was her truth – making the marriage work at times simply meant sticking it out, tolerating stretches of discontentment. This feeling of dissatisfaction has ranged from the very profound variety to a merely superficial sort, and was at times coupled with dreams of leaving and starting afresh with another. Sheila hates to admit it, but through one particularly lengthy period unhappiness, it was the material and practical security of her marriage that kept her rooted – separating and becoming a single parent meant a significant drop in quality of life, not to mention the potential painful loss for her children. She stayed and here she is, years later, freshly in love with her husband, loving him more deeply, time and age seemingly refined the flavor of their bond.
But what stretch of misery is too long? And ten years is only a fraction of the lifetime commitment of marriage. If one reflects on thoughts and feelings in various moments of the day, or various moments over time, it seems as though the significant other is a creature of many faces and minds. “At times I love my husband and think of him as the most wonderful person, I can’t believe my luck at having him for a partner,” says Sheila, “at others he is the most frustrating, intolerable person, I can hardly stand him and ask myself why I even married him.” Emotional states are fickle – so what is real? Is it the wonderful husband or the infuriating jerk?
The answer is: Both, and everything in between. For a long time Sheila wondered if it’s even normal for her to have such extreme feelings about her husband – what does it mean about her and her relationship if she indulges in escape fantasies? Feelings of anger, discontentment and disappointment, if a couple is not careful, can overwhelm a once loving relationship. This phenomena, so prevalent in couples, has been termed “ the negative union”, a term coined by the renowned psychoanalyst Dr. Phyllis Meadow (deceased 2005).
This notion of the negative union is based on the idea that connection based on love and its consequent dependence is inseparable from feelings of fear of abandonment. This inner knowing of our emotional dependence on our loved ones may raise feelings of anger, hate and rage due to the potential for abandonment, extreme vulnerability and emotional pain. Meadow thought of this dynamic as rooted in early infantile development when dependence is a matter of life or death, hence the intensity of the feelings. Because of the potential for fear and pain due to the loving connection, couples often act out and destroy the connection in order not to have or acknowledge feelings of vulnerability. Couples may get caught up in patterns of incessant fighting, power struggles and bickering that leave both members of the couple wounded, setting up a situation in which feelings of vulnerability feels completely unsafe – it is a vicious cycle.
This is when couples often end up in my office – at a point of desperation, seemingly incapable of ending the difficulties between them without ending their relationship. The first thing we figure out is whether they have come to me to stay together or to break up. For some the answer is clear. Some couples go home, think about it for a week or two and come back. If they are there to stay together, the work begins: we begin to tease out behaviors from feelings – a laborious, repetitive task. We examine how the past is alive in the present of their relationship and try to separate the two as well. Couples amazingly manage to find partners in which they can live out old, unresolved conflicts from their first family and unconsciously try to repair the damage in their chosen family. Part of the process is to identify this dynamic and create enough space to make choices to behave differently, speak and listen to one another in new ways. We work on interacting in ways that are sustaining to the couple instead of destructive.
Often the work breaks the dark cloud of the negative union so the positive can once again shine through. At times couples are too far gone for reparative work. For some, their first marriage is a practice run on how to do it right the next time. For others, even the third marriage will end up like the first. In many cases, working on tolerating frustration and painful feelings goes a long way in sustaining a loving and successful marriage. These days, when Sheila goes through a rough stretch in her marriage, she indulges in her escape fantasies. “I have it all figured out – when I leave I find an incredibly wealthy man who will take care of everything. Sometimes I go so far as to imagine the floor plan of my mansion,” she chuckles. Sheila learned to recognize her feelings as such, as fleeting things that are part of the fabric of a relationship. Those fantasies are derivatives of those feelings, a way to discharge them in her mind. She has more realistic expectations of her husband and of a life together. She puts up with the bad and rejoices in the good to the end of a stable, supportive, life-long partnership.
Michal Tziyon is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice. Her website is www.nypsychotherapy-mtziyon.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org