Focusing on yourself can save your relationship

Human relationships are, by their dynamic nature, fraught with all kinds of complexities. But more especially, our intimate relationships can challenge us to the core and when they become particularly difficult, we may want to run away or “attack” our partners or significant others.

Although we may want to cling onto the belief that intimate relationships should be easy, the fact is they are not. It requires tremendous courage, hard work and thoughtfulness to ensure that we ride the inevitable waves of relationships and come through them more open, aware and grown up, as well as develop more acceptance of our and others’ imperfections.

We all start off with romantic ideas and wishes for how our intimate relationships should unfold.

These wishes of perfect relationships with happy endings are often influenced by the movies and media. Of course, wishing for eternally happy and fulfilling relationships is completely understandable and human.

However, this portrayal of the perfect relationship with a perfect partner fulfilling our every need, is often an ideal and leaves people in “real life” relationships, with all its inevitable challenges and imperfections, feeling disillusioned and mostly let down.

The common consequence is that many well-intentioned couples leave or withdraw (emotionally or physically) from their marriages or long-term relationships when they might have been able to “work things out” with their partner.

“Working things out” may be viewed differently for different relationship experts, but the common thread seems to be that individuals start with themselves, working things out within themselves first.

As I have written before in a previous column, our relationship template develops in our childhood with our first significant relationships which are with our parents.

The ways in which they related to their children, and with each other, becomes internalised from early childhood. Thus, if a child mostly experiences their parents as unloving, cold and distant with them and with each other, they will, in all likelihood, repeat this way of relating in their own adult relationships, because this is what they experienced, internalised and is essentially all they have known.

Similarly, if a child experiences their parents as consistently loving, caring and nurturing, this will be internalised and become their template of how to be with others, in a mutually satisfying relationship.

We, mostly and often unconsciously, repeat what we experienced as children in our adult relationships. But this can be shifted.

Perhaps after several failed relationships a person may seek out help from a psychotherapist who will know there is a lot of emotional processing that needs to be done with this individual.

This relates to both their primary caregivers in childhood as well as taking a deeper look at other aspects of their developmental history, such as the socialisation messages they received about what is appropriate behaviour.

Additionally, how parents lived their lives have a profound effect on children. Children instinctively observe the choices their parents make, the freedoms and pleasures they allow themselves, the talents they develop or not, the abilities they ignore, and the rules they follow, including moral rules.

Whether children accept their parents’ model of living or rebel against it, this early socialisation plays a significant role in partner selection, and is often one of the hidden sources of tension in married life.

An individual’s reaction to parental and social dictates often goes through a number of stages including to hide “forbidden” behaviours from them.

For example, the child thinks angry thoughts but does not verbalise them or gets shamed by his parents for touching his genitals, which he then does in secret. The child eventually comes to the conclusion that some thoughts and feelings are so unacceptable that they should be eliminated. So he constructs an imaginary parent in his mind to police his thoughts and activities, a part of the mind that psychologists term the “superego”.

Now whenever the child has a forbidden thought or indulges in an “unacceptable” behaviour, he experiences a self-administered jolt of anxiety which is so unpleasant that the child puts to sleep some of these forbidden parts of himself, in others words, he represses (or inhibits) it. The ultimate price of his obedience is a loss of wholeness.

The child also then creates a “false self” to fill the void, which is a character structure that serves a double purpose: it camouflages those parts of his being that he has repressed and protects him from further psychological injury. For example, a child brought up by a sexually repressive, emotionally distant and cold mother may become a “tough guy” who tells himself: “I don’t care if my mother isn’t very affectionate. I don’t need that mushy emotional stuff. I can survive on my own, and another thing is I think sex is dirty.”

As he grows up, he applies this patterned response to all situations. So no matter who tries to get close to him, he creates a barrier. In adult years when he overcomes his reluctance to getting involved in an intimate relationship, it is likely that he will criticise his partner for her desire for intimacy and her unencumbered sexuality.

Thus “working things out” requires working from the “inside out” and gaining more self-awareness and self-acceptance, which includes that the person looks at all past and present relationships including how they treated, and continue to treat, themselves.

Although this looking inward at the mind’s landscape, which includes how you feel, what you think, what choices you make, your habits, what triggers your buttons, etc, is something we would prefer to avoid and run away from, once undertaken it can be enormously liberating and allows the individual to make better choices in life and with partners from a more self-aware mindset.

This process often includes commitment to journey alone, with your partner and/or a therapist to uncover the masks or defence mechanisms that have been covering all the hurts from the past, including past intimate and romantic relationships.

Uncovering them sets us free from the ghosts of our past which may continue to haunt our lives and contaminate our relationships.

* This column will appear every two weeks. Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist in private practice.

While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774. Provide sufficient information about your difficulty.