Whether it's those lurking peak wedding months or the daily talk of royal nuptials, marriage is a subject we're hearing a lot about lately. Feelings about this trend seem to range from wild enthusiasm to mild resentment. Forgetting for a minute the adversity surrounding the institution of marriage and setting all ceremony aside, stripped down to its barest of bones, marriage is really just a long-term commitment to a serious intimate relationship.
Regardless of one's feeling about marriage, the idea of a lasting romantic relationship is of much significance to most people. So, despite this post's provocative name, what I really wish to offer here isn't so much a lecture on why a person isn't married but an explanation of why many people aren't able to form a lasting union with someone they love.
For many couples, the honeymoon phase is over before they even make it down the aisle. The reasons for this can be many, but one of them is a prevailing fear of intimacy. In nearly 30 years of research into the psychology of interpersonal relationships, both I and my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, Ph.D., have closely followed hundreds of clients and case studies of couples. In our research we have found overwhelming consistency in certain behavioral patterns that systematically sabotage real intimacy.
First off, the search for a partner to whom we feel a real attraction and deep connection is a challenge that it would be foolish to underestimate. The idea of a soul mate is a pleasing way to maintain faith that there is that perfect someone out there just waiting to complete us. The trouble is that when we seek this someone, we don't just look for a person who enhances our every attribute; we also look for people who match with our negative traits or fill holes leftover from our past.
If we are used to taking control, we may seek someone who is passive. If we are used to being a wallflower, we may seek someone who dominates conversations. Though the match may seem to work well or make us feel secure in the beginning, eventually we grow to resent our partners for the very quality that drew us to them in the first place.
As I wrote in my recent blog "Why You Keep Winding Up in the Same Relationship," the romantic choices we make are heavily informed by our early life experiences. If we grew up being treated as incompetent, it's very likely that we will seek out a partner who perceives us as incompetent. If we were intruded on, we're likely to choose someone who is overly attentive, focused or jealous. Conversely, we may seek someone who compensates for our pasts by acting distant or aloof. These often unconscious negative motivators reside within us like mis-attuned matchmakers, driving us toward destructive partners.
For example, a woman who grew up feeling rejected by her parents found herself choosing men who were distant and resistant to commitment. When she finally met someone who showed a real interest in her, however, she struggled to accept his affections. Even though her partner possessed the traits she'd thought she wanted, in many ways it was more comfortable to her to choose a more rejecting personality that fit familiarly into her previous self-image and past experience.
Going against our negative instincts and choosing someone who brings out the best in us is the first step toward finding lasting love. Yet, even when we find someone who is "good for us," there are many things we do to push love away.
In "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage," author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, "I mean, once the initial madness of desire has passed and we are faced with each other as dimwitted mortal fools, how is it that any of us find the ability to love and forgive each other at all, much less enduringly?"
Every human is flawed. Perfect soul mates don't exist, because perfect people don't exist. We have all been hurt in very particular ways that then allow us to hurt those close to us in other very particular ways. One of the ways we hurt our relationship is by distorting our partners. The flaws that drive us away from a loved one don't just appear the minute we move in or say "I do." They were there from the beginning when we weren't as likely to blow them out of proportion.
Yes, it is true, that often the closer we get to someone, the more driven we become to push them away. This is also a side-effect of a fear of intimacy lingering below the surface and warning us not to be too vulnerable or too intimate. However, this fear also motivates us to react to our partners in ways that are excessively controlling, critical and unkind. We start to read negative intent into our partner's actions and seek hidden meaning in their words. We can take a behavior as simple as a delay in unlocking the passenger door to a car as insensitive, or we can feel hurt by something as natural as our partner choosing to spend an evening out with friends.
When we sense ourselves becoming mean and critical of our partner, we should take note of how we may be distorting him or her. It's important to be aware of an internal coach informing us of our many faults as well as those of our partner. Be wary of a critical inner voice telling us to be upset, suspicious and mistrusting.
That voice may be saying things like, "Where is he tonight? I can't believe he didn't call you. He's so insensitive." Or, "All that she ever does is nag at me. Why won't she just leave me alone?" These thoughts are rarely entirely accurate representations of our partners. Still, the more we react to them, the more we actually provoke these characteristic in our partners. Worse yet, we accomplish the very goal of our critical inner coach; we create distance from our partner by failing to relate to him or her in a way that is sensitive or attuned.
In one of my father's books, "Fear of Intimacy," he wrote, "The average person is unaware that he or she is living out a negative destiny according to his or her past programming, preserving his or her familiar identity, and, in the process, pushing love away. On an unconscious level, many people sense that if they did not push love away, the whole world, as they have experienced it, would be shattered and they would not know who they were."
Though people claim to seek real love, when they find it, they are often unprepared for the many challenges that ensue. When we find someone who makes us happy, it often shakes us to our core. Our perception of ourselves and our lives is turned on its head, and we are forced to expand our capacity for love and closeness. Feeling another person's affection for us challenges any defenses we've grown accustomed to in the course of our lives. When these defenses are challenged, we tend not only to turn against our partners but to provoke them into acting in ways that fit in with our past.
For example, a friend of mine often tells stories of growing up feeling intruded on by his mother. Whether she showered him with excessive praise over small accomplishments or erupted at him when he neglected to study, he rarely felt appropriately seen or sensitively treated by her. After years of dating women who showed similar controlling patterns, my friend fell in love with a woman who he felt respected him as an individual.
After a while, however, he noticed himself having trouble making decisions and starting to make out-of-character mistakes like losing things around the house or getting lost on the road. His behavior started to provoke his partner, who found herself both literally and figuratively taking the driver's seat in their relationship. My friend then also grew annoyed by what he saw as his partner's new know-it-all attitude. By talking through it, the couple was able to gain a foothold on what was operating under the surface to cause the conflict in the first place. Though his motivation was entirely unconscious, my friend understood how he himself had provoked his partner's more dominating behaviors.
This pattern is shockingly common among couples. People who fear rejection find ways to push their partners away. People who feel aggressive find ways to control their partners, then feel critical for qualities they perceive as weak. We must be careful not to stage the scenarios that we later feel victimized by in our relationship. Manipulative acts like testing our partners with seemingly innocent questions about how we look or what they really think is never appropriate if we are hoping to provoke a certain response or to punish them for their answer.
If we are lucky enough to choose someone who inspires real feelings of love or passion, we must be wary of how we can try to alter that person to fit the phantoms of our past. It may be a struggle, but by getting to know ourselves and having compassion, we can show patience with ourselves and with our partners throughout this journey. We can share our stories and know each other as the individuals we truly are. By letting our guard down and revealing our soul, we may even find a soul mate.
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To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships, visit "PsychAlive: Alive to Intimacy."