If you're anything like me (and for your sake, I hope you're not), you were a little unsettled by the recent separation of Al and Tipper Gore. If Washington's charmed couple could come undone after four decades, whose relationship is safe?
Who knows what happened that, seemingly out of the blue, what worked for the Gores for 40 years suddenly no longer did. Was it an affair? A slow drifting apart? After more than 14,000 days spent together, could Tipper no longer stand the toilet seat being left up one more minute?
Anyone who has ever done couples therapy (or been in a couple) knows that needs and interests that were once compatible can shift over time. We certainly hope they do. A relationship that doesn't change becomes stagnant. What marks a successful couple from an unhappy one is not whether the partners fight or how often, but how well they complement each other -- and how they navigate things when they don't.
Often, the very characteristics that attract us to our mates can pull us apart over time. The way he was so carefree and spontaneous now feels childish and irresponsible. "Why does he 'yes me’ whenever I ask him to do anything -- but then not do it?" The way she hung on our every word now seems suffocating. "Can't she give me a little space when I ask for it?"
We were so happy at first. What changed?
Undoubtedly many things. Here's one that a couples therapist, working from a psychoanalytic perspective, might consider. Without realizing it, we (unconsciously) choose a mate who embodies undeveloped aspects of our own personalities. His spontaneity excites us because we get anxious taking risks. We are afraid of our unmet dependency needs, and so are drawn to her seemingly unflinching trust. His ying is her yang. He introduces us to the world of freedom, she to safety and commitment. So far so good. But so long as our partner expresses a part of us we cannot tolerate, we become jealous of him for what we think we don't have. What we loved in them now frightens us. How come he gets to go out and have fun when we are always stuck with the kids? Ying and Yang remain split, and conflict brews. So long as she is the needy one, he never has to confront his own neediness, and she her fear of being alone.
Couples therapy helps each partner take back what the other is burdened holding for both of them. He begins to see that he has always been afraid to depend upon others for fear he will be abandoned. In fact, by ignoring her whenever she makes a demand, he in essence abandons her before she can reject him. Similarly, by choosing a critical, distant man, she has married someone just like the father who ignores her and shuts down her confident, fun-loving side.
As they work through these issues together in therapy, he can finally risk being more vulnerable with her, and she can discover her own strengths and capabilities. Each can feel safe learning from the other rather than railing against them. Differences can complement and enhance, not threaten. Not only does the relationship grow stronger, so do both individuals, as they get in touch with parts of themselves that were hidden within them all along.
-- Eric Sherman, LCSW
The New Jersey Couples Therapy Training Program (NJCTTP), a division of the Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis of New Jersey, offers a unique multitheoretical training program for mental health professionals, from both family systems and diverse psychoanalytic points of view. For more information, visit http://cppnj.org/njcttp.php.