Navigating the demands of a relationship – now that’s stressful! There are all sorts of relationships, such as parent-child, sibling, co-worker, good friend, romance, etc. Let’s take a look at that last one.
Romantic relationships are complicated because people enter them for different reasons. For example, overly dependent (psychologically) folks look for someone to take care of them, and when they find someone, they proceed to suffocate the partner with excessive clinging. Narcissists look for someone to make them feel important; they don’t really love their partner, but just want to possess them and use them. Some people just love the excitement and energy of the early stages of a relationship when everything is fun, fun, fun. But as time goes on, if they fear commitment, they will soon be looking for a way out. Then there are those with drug/alcohol problems; they’re already seriously involved with their chemical of choice, and they use the chosen partner as a crutch to help maintain their lifestyle.
We don’t mean to paint a lousy picture of romance, but just want to point out that things can be complicated because some folks may have psychological deficiencies, and they’re just looking for someone to plug the gaps. It pays to be vigilant both within yourself and the other for signs of such dysfunction, and to remember that these toxic relations are not conducive to effective coping, and are likely to fail.
A major hazard in romance is unrealistic optimism. Consider marriage. In the exciting early days of a relationship that leads to marriage, most people underestimate the probability that divorce will happen to them. This type unrealistic optimism can lead to benign neglect in a marriage, a belief that “things will work out, even if I do nothing to adjust.” Obviously, this perspective can be fatal to the relationship because maintaining the bond requires a lot of compromise and adjustment from both parties.
Another threat to the stability of a relationship is believing in so-called romantic destiny. Those who believe in that “soul mate out there” also believe, “Because my mate will learn about my personal preferences eventually, it is unnecessary to discuss them prior to marriage”; “No matter how you handle it, conflict is always negative.” On the other hand, those who see marriage as involving romantic growth are less likely to agree with those statements.
Can you see the problem with romantic destiny? This belief is really a surrender, and the person is saying, “I have little control over my life; I feel inadequate at communicating my desires to others and resolving conflicts with another person. I can only hope that my soul mate is out there and we will magically find each other and live harmoniously. I can only hope destiny smiles on me, because I don’t see self-managed growth with another as a possibility in my life.” In other words, the psychological definition of Romantic Destiny is “I don’t think I can cope with the demands of a marriage.
Psychologist David Schnarch, says each person in a relationship has a level of differentiation. If you are differentiated, you are able to maintain your individuality, your sense of self, even when you are emotionally close to someone else. You can share, cooperate, compromise, and give in; but through it all, you remain an individual, and secure in your own skin. When differentiated, you do not subjugate yourself to the will of the other. You work with your partner from a context of personal stability and self-assurance, not from weakness, insecurity, and dependency.
When conflict occurs, people high in differentiation communicate effectively with their partners without becoming aggressive or withdrawing; people low in differentiation run away or fight with their partner. Highly differentiated people strike a balance between their individuality and their emotional connection to their partner. They do not need to suffocate the relationship emotionally. They maintain equilibrium between seeking validation from their partner, and validating themselves. Those low in differentiation will constantly look for attention and approval from their partner, or are narcissistic and “me” oriented. They overwhelm the partner with demands, possessiveness, and jealousy, forcing the partner to meet my wants and needs; or they ignore the partner while “doing their own thing” and concentrating on my needs. Either way, the partner will not feel a part of the relationship.
How does someone become differentiated? Probably every post on this blog touches on coping principles that facilitate such growth. As a start, however, next time your relationship reaches rocky ground, ask yourself a crucial question: “Am I behaving in a differentiated fashion, or have I constructed a relationship recipe that makes me the primary ingredient?”