I’ve noticed a thing on South West Trains. When your train arrives at the platform, where you’re waiting for it, there’s a button you have to press to open the doors. It lights up when it’s ready, you press it, and the doors open. And yet for some people, it doesn’t seem to work. They press the button, and the doors don’t open for them. As far as I can see, they are pressing too tentatively, too briefly.
I find myself wondering, where did you learn this? That you mustn’t ask too loudly, state your needs clearly, press the button firmly. That it would somehow be “needy” or “greedy” or “bossy” if you were to press the button firmly for a couple of seconds, so that the mechanism actually works, just like everyone else does? It’s only a train door! You’re not going to break it. Everyone is allowed to use the button.
Such a person can be a nightmare as a road-user. If you’re driving behind them, they are the ones who won’t proceed at a junction even when they have right of way, confusing the other traffic. And it’s the same in relationships – the rest of us feel confused, and perhaps frustrated, by someone who can’t be clear. Both partners in this situation feel aggrieved.
As I said, I’m going to be wondering, where did you learn this?
Why would you even want to be in a relationship? Differentiation or attachment?
The main difference of opinion these days amongst couple and marriage counsellors, is about how self-sufficient a person should ideally be. Some experts (for example David Schnarch) say that in order to be in a relationship, a person really needs to be differentiated, meaning they know who they are, can stand on their own two feet, and don’t expect the other person to be their emotional caretaker. He sees a relationship as a place where people grow. I like that idea. He says a marriage should not be like a parent-child relationship, it should be a relationship of two interdependent equal adults who are each capable of looking after themselves.
The other main school of thought (Sue Johnson) is that people are in relationships to get their emotional needs met, and yes, even adults have legitimate emotional needs. She sees a relationship as a shelter from the storms of life, and she helps people understand and meet each other’s needs. This is called attachment. They can lean on and rely on each other – or else why would you even want to be in a relationship? I like her work too, and it (EFT for couples) is the most evidence-supported successful form of couple counselling, with a high success rate. I have some training in David Schnarch’s work, but more in Sue Johnson’s approach.
There may also be a gender difference here: although this is a generalisation, men often want or are expected to be self-sufficient, and like the sound of the “differentiation” approach. Underneath all that though, men too have good reasons why they want to be in a secure relationship. All the evidence says men do better in every way (health, happiness, career) when they are in a secure relationship. Self-sufficiency goes only so far.
I went to see the film Wonder the other day. The main plot is about a young boy, Auggie, with a mild facial disfigurement, and his struggles to make friends at school and avoid being bullied. I’d say the film makes everything seem a little easier than it is in real life: his parents and his teachers are all wonderful, and on his side, and so on. The bully appears to realise the error of his ways and show remorse at the end. In real life, things are not always that easy. I guess it’s a feel-good movie.
However, one of the other themes it raises is about Auggie’s older sister. Because of Auggie’s problems, his parents are totally focused on him, so his sister grows up as something of a loner. She’s too self-sufficient too early, learning not to ask for what she needs.
Freud talked a lot about the effect our parents have on us, but I think the impact of brothers and sisters can be huge too. Sometimes, just as in the film, one of the children in a family can get all the attention, because of sickness, special problems, or special talents, and the others have to fend for themselves and learn not to express their needs.
Quotations and useful links
In memory of two of my favourite writers:
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” - Ursula K. Le Guin
“A marriage is always made up of two people who are prepared to swear that only the other one snores.” - Terry Pratchett
An interesting Youtube video about communication. What stops us communicating?
Should you try counselling? From Talk about marriage website. (You don't have to look like the couple in the photograph to benefit).
Interesting article from the New York Times. 13 Questions about marriage . These are all questions we might well explore if you meet with me!
A long, detailed article about marriage for those who like a solid read: Twenty ideas on marriage from "The Book of Life"
A nice "should you divorce or should you stay" guide from Shirley Glass: Hang in or hang it up?
An interesting article from Dr Kelly Flanagan's blog. I agree with him that "communication" is often not the big problem: The 9 most overlooked threats to a marriage