If you want something very badly, let it go free.
If it comes back to you, it is yours forever.
If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.
Marital and romantic relationships entail a deep sense of personal failure and are defined as wasted efforts if they do not last a lifetime. But with few role models available for relationships built on genuine feelings of equality, and with the divorce rate on the increase, there is an utmost need to understand the primal struggle which results when two egos are caged together in a lifelong predicament.
In his new book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman, a psychiatrist, revives Mary Ainworth’s famous ‘attachment theory’ to explain the mechanics of conflict in a relationship. Accordingly, all of us are like little children, in as much need for attachment, which never really ceases. Like toddlers racing back to their mother and clinging to her whenever they feel threatened, we seek close physical proximity to a partner and rely on their continuing affections because it is a survival need. The core elements are the same for adults and kids – the need to feel that somebody is emotionally there that you can make contact with another who will respond in need.
This allows us to see the world as a home rather than as a dangerous place. As we become personally committed, we tend to feel safe in allowing unique aspects of our thinking to be displayed in our encounters with each other. As our shared reality becomes more distinct from the realities of outsiders, we need each other more and more for confirmation of our views of events.
Perhaps this is why the loss of the one we love, or think we can love, will have a great impact on us, often resulting in a loss of a part of our own concept of ourselves. And maybe this is why it takes some people a lot more effort to get over lost loves. Mrs B Khan, a leading advocate and marriage counsellor, says: The real problem lies in the fact that we bring into our closest intimacies expectations that we have of nobody else. As a result, whenever attachment is threatened, we feel alienated from our partner and tend to nurture certain misconceptions, probably without awareness of the same so as to dull the experience of self-threatening problems.
Indeed the ‘attachment fears’ that we often have – of being unlovable, abandoned and rejected – are so essential to our survival that they elicit strong fight or flee responses – anger or withdrawal. Couples frequently misattribute each other’s awareness of the fact of conflict and construct an illusion.
But our REAL fight is always with ourselves; the other gets to bear the brunt of simply being there! In protecting ourselves, we thus undermine ourselves as a secure base for our partner who becomes alarmed and usually reacts in a way which only confirms our fears. But partners busy ‘being in conflict’ seldom afford themselves such causal analysis. Their attributions during discord are invested in protection or illusion rather in genuine reasoning. They block emotional engagement and their communication is usually coloured with angry protests and bitter recriminations.
When either party acts contemptuously, the other ends up acting defensively and this only makes safe contact increasingly unlikely and the relationship invariably goes into a tailspin. Signs of defensiveness include denying responsibility, making excuses, disagreeing with the negative mind reading, cross complaining and totally ignoring what your partner has said. The first step is toward breaking out of the vicious cycle would therefore be to no longer see the other’s words as an attack, but as info which although wrongly expressed, may well contain an element of truth. It could perhaps even be a cry for help, for all you know. Even the act of forsaking someone silently is similar in nature to a perturbed, raging outburst.
Few people, however, realise that if sometimes loving costs a lot, not loving always costs more. Few realise that if you are genuinely open and receptive when your partner is expecting either a confrontative or defensive response, he or she is less likely to criticise when disagreements arise. This, according to Gottman, is the basic moral of the attachment theory – that to be valid adults we don’t need to deny that we are also always, until the end of our lives, terrified little children. A good intimate adult relationship is a safe place where two can experience feelings of vulnerability – being scared, feeling overwhelmed by life, being unsure of who they are. This kind of sharing is what adult-intimacy is all about – discovering each other as human beings who need comfort, contact and caring – always remembering that your soulmate wants to cuddle a warm human being rather than a giant cactus.
Khan explains, When there are many problems in a relationship, we tend to assume that a major overhaul is required; whereas a small adjustment, strategically employed, is all that is needed. Hostility may be an attempt to bring you back into contact rather than to control you. In one sense the appropriate response to hostility may be a hug rather than a return of verbal barrage. The most powerful change agent would then be the expression of the tender, more disarming emotions such as longing, fear, and the utter sadness which comes with true, mature love.
In fact, one reason people feel so angry in the first place is that they feel totally helpless and this scares them. Behind every such reaction also lies the fear of everyday rejection, of loneliness, of feeling brittle at the thought that one day love might be withdrawn. Perhaps this is why it is so vital to know the lineage of our beliefs because we subconsciously inflict on others the same garbage that was dished out to us in the past. Rarely, if ever, do we realise that the ones to whom we hand the bills are unaware of the account books in our heads.
The solution to marital crises thus lies not merely in ventilating feelings, but in allowing the other to use us to immerse themselves more deeply into their experiences. Yes, I know some things are better left unsaid, but then so many unsaid things can become such a burden! In contrast, when we express our fears openly, they lose their power to hurt. This is what separates distressed couples from those who fight on a grand scale and have an even grander time making. Such volatile couples see themselves as equals and their unions tend to be passionate and exciting. They seem to develop verbal exchanges almost as an exercise to keep their points of differences honed, to guard against taking each other for granted. But healthy partners also realise that when they fight the relationship should be improved and both egos should remain intact. They know all too well: that the worst pain of all is in watching someone else in pain, and knowing that you caused it.
If you find yourself sitting on something you want to say, be brave and get it out. Letting your true feelings show will never be a threat to your relationship. If you feel you have to apologise, do it right away; don’t be stuck up about it. Erich Segal says that love means never having to say you’re sorry, but I think being in love means being sorry all the time. It can be very demoralising, to be loved, and there are times when even the best of us can botch up in the most miserable ways.
Sadly though, attempts to get back on track often gets lost in hostile, negative thoughts, and people continue to feel the unnecessary need that there is an image of them at stake – a meaningless image of pride and meaningless image of pride and self-sufficiency – which they must defend even though they know it won’t get them anywhere.
If you are ever faced with this option, of forgiving someone, you ought to realise that it is through forgiveness alone you can once again remember that you care about this person – which may be why their behaviour hurt so much in the first place. Never give up on anyone, never! Trust your hopes, not your fears. Remember, beauty did not try to make a prince out of beast. It was because of her acceptance that he was freed to become his true magnificent self. Don’t you ever try to change the one you seek to love, no matter how damn noble and poetic and unselfish your intentions are. Never touch a butterfly’s wing with your fingers. It’s a lesson you learn in life, often too late, that the only person you can really correct and change is yourself. You can’t do it with anyone else. But if you can do it with yourself, and that too if you want it deeply enough.
Of course, some things are absolutely unforgivable and each person has to decide whether the line has been crossed and the relationship is worth continuing. But what is truly, truly important is love, and for that matter in life, hold fast and cherish whatever fragments that are left or can be redeemed. For it is only with the grace which comes out of hurt and despair – be it existential or romantic – that one realises that sometimes, just sometimes a mosaic can be infinitely more beautiful than the unbroken pattern.