Before I start, I want to make clear that I never start work with any couple by talking about things like this. Relationship counselling can be very successful, indeed sometimes more successful, without ever mentioning such things. Couples benefit most from starting with (maybe staying with), a practical and direct approach that each partner is brilliant and together they can draw on what’s brilliant in the relationship to heal things. For practical everyday relationship exercises, see for example Watch movies and grow closer and If doesn’t work, do something different. So this post is kind of what’s going on under the bonnet. It’s pretty advanced. You can most often drive the car without knowing. ( Index page to all relationship posts)
In your relationship, in every sexual relationship, there are three versions of love. THREE. There is universal love, in itself complex and multidimensional; love in relationship, love in presence of being, and infinitely so much else. Plus on top there are two versions of what I’ll term “private reality” love: your private version of love, and your partner’s version. If you want to feel a deep and nourishing flow of intimacy and close connection with your beloved, you need to begin to step out of private realities about love. Real love has a universal quality. It is not interested in, does not care about, your private ideas around what love should or must or ought to be. These only get in the way. The challenge in answering the call of love is to step out of our private realities and into something larger.
I’ll give an example. It may sound strange, but this type of situation, though unique to each couple, is routinely how things are in everyday life.
Charlie and Fiona marry. In Fiona’s private reality, love is whatever gives her the sense “I, Fiona, matter, so, I can do what I want”. We’ll see in a moment, where these private ideas of love arise from. In Charlie’s private reality, love is what means “I, Charlie am looked after and cared for, so, I get my needs met without exposing how weak I feel.” It’s nothing to do with man/woman, the other way round happens equally often. Most likely, neither person is aware of these things.
Here in England, a lot of people, half or more, have some element of either Charlie or Fiona in their makeup. So love-means-I-matter meets love-means-I’m-looked-after is a very normal relationship pattern in England. (So are love-means-I-matter meets love-means-I-matter and looked-after meets looked-after. Those very different stories are for another day.)
I’m going to present a stark and breakup-risking version of this story, and this extreme is fairly common in my consulting room. In everyday life, milder versions are common, just how life is. How much the situation is felt as a problem depends on:
- how much love the people involved feel for each other
- how much love each person feels for himself or herself
- how rigidly each person holds their private reality about love
- how happy their lives are and how stressful life generally is.
If all else is very good, these patterns don’t matter much. Some couples might experience this as routine life-learning which enriches the relationship. Other couples might not even notice an issue, or not until for example the children leave home. Some people actually prefer it like this, but they are probably not reading blogs like this one!
Private ideas of what love is come from our family in childhood. I’m only giving a sketchy outline now. There’ll be more in later posts.
When Fiona was a toddler, she grew up in a family atmosphere where she couldn’t do what she wanted nearly enough. Maybe dad was ill, and she constantly got “Shh! Quiet! Your dad needs to rest” [a real example, from another country.] Or instead, maybe mum was over-caring, always saying “No, do it like this, this is the right way” to lovingly save little Fiona from god forbid ever making a mistake. For whatever reason, Fiona couldn’t do the pretty-much-random noisy trial and error that toddlers do: walking round with one leg out of their trousers, yelling, playing how she wanted to play, pooping when she knew she needed to poop, kissing the dog. Instead she had to hold herself back all the time.
Little kids need this a lot. Their impulses are unformed, childish and chaotic, but their impulses are not stupid. Toddlers are no longer dependent babes in arms; their individuality is starting to develop. Their haphazard aliveness is loud and random to adults. But it is an individuality arriving on the planet, one autonomous impulse at a time. Each “me! me do this!”, every “me, my poop, me poop now!” is an autonomous human being emerging, one poop, one kissed dog. at a time.
Years later as teenagers they’ll need autonomy beyond the boundaries of mum and dad; now as toddlers they need autonomy within mum’s boundaries to live this seedling individuality. Even though still dependent on mum, little kids need a circle of freedom around her to try things, get things wrong, to learn to trust their own sense of what’s fun and what’s not, to make mistakes and find that help will come, to get it wrong and still be loved; to be free to be themselves.
If toddlers don’t get this protected autonomy, if everything they try is squashed or oh-so-lovingly done better than they can do it, they pick up messages like “All my impulses are wrong”, “My impulses are no good”, “My impulses don’t matter.” That crystallises into “I always get it wrong, I am no good, I don’t matter.” Clearly, they don’t think like this at that age. But an agonisingly painful wound to their autonomy is laid down, which in later years will surface as such thinking.
Teenagers fight for autonomy and will win it. Toddlers try to fight, but mum and dad are big. A kid can’t fight for long against “Shhh! Quiet! Your dad is ill, he needs his rest” or “Let me do that for you, mother knows best.” Toddlers can lose. What Fiona is learning is the opposite of autonomy. She is learning to put herself second, because she (each impulse) doesn’t matter. Nobody intends this! It’s a real but unwanted by-product of, in this example, her dad’s illness. She is learning to hold herself back instead of trusting her impulses.
If you are a parent reading this, heaven knows I don’t want to give you a hard time or make yet another standard of parenting to wonder if you’re failing at. You yourself picked up some pattern or other like this from your family, so did I, so did everyone you know and everyone you pass in the street or see on TV. All your children have some such pattern, and your friends’, and all the children you pass in the street.
It’s cultural; half the people in England are somewhat like the Charlie or Fiona in my examples, in the US or Germany it’s similar but a bit different. Though there are of course extreme and traumatised versions of these patterns, what I’m talking about is normal not pathological, it is family life in this age of the world. To see fundamentally different, come back in 500 or 1000 years. Meanwhile as Gautam Buddha wisely says, “Almost all mothers are good enough mothers.” Dads too. Be reassured.
Also: you don’t always observe these stages in this simple way. When Charlie, below, grows up to Fiona’s stage in childhood things will go differently for him, because he had a different experience from her at a younger age than her.
When Charlies was a bit younger than Fiona, a babe in arms, he felt starved of love. Maybe he or his mum had to stay in hospital after birth and they were separated. Maybe twins popped out unexpectedly and love got shared thin. Maybe mum had a difficult pregnancy and was exhausted. The commonest reason is again cultural patterns of how you bring up children, because here in England, really a lot of people have some element of the love-means-I-am-looked-after pattern in their attitudes to life. It is a by-product of UK child-rearing culture.
For babies life is simple. They have a general sense of “Me need” – food, comfort, affection, gentle voices, to be stably held in mum’s loving arms. They have a sense of “Me got it” or “Me not got”, and they have an awful noise they can make to try to turn me-not-got into me-got. In a way that’s magic and mysterious, when babies get all these things they turn them into into a deep sense of closeness and union with mum and when they have this blissful closeness, they sleep and suckle and gurgle in mum’s arms in utter contentment. They know “Me loved, me lovable, my needs good, my needs gettable”. Books use words like “bonding” and “secure attachment” for this. But to me these words feels too clinical for something so sweet and human and loving. This is a contented tiny being, loved and secure in mum’s arms.
But if me-not-got is chronic or too much, then the sense of being loved and lovable gets dented. Remember, babies have no developed thoughts, just needs, lacks and contentments. (More or less, omitting a library-full or two of details.) So if their needs don’t get met enough, then the magic and mysterious sense of being loved in mum’s arms goes into reverse. The baby feels their unmet need, and it is painful. They conclude “when I have this painful, painful need, mum doesn’t come, I don’t get what I want, I must be unlovable, my needs are awful and make me weak and inadequate. My very needs make me condemned to be un-loved. If I show my needs, people will be driven away.” Clearly, they don’t conclude this as babies. But a pre-verbal wound is created which will in later life get clothed in such thoughts.
So … zoom forward to later life. Charlie meets Fiona and they fall in love. Naturally, each one of them thinks “Ah! Finally, at last, LOVE! All my needs are AT LAST going to be met.” When we fall in love, it’s natural that the floodgates of our unmet needs open up. All our longings for healing, for completion, rush forward to be met. That’s right and normal. Some needs, including the need for affection, sex, and a companion who matches our personality, are adult needs. Others are the childhood needs we’ve been talking about. Again this is natural. Adult sexual relationships do open a way to healing such unmet childhood needs – however, if and only if approached in the right way.
Unfortunately what most often happens is the wrong way and it’s painful. It goes like this.
Charlie and Fiona are living in private realities around love which can never meet. In Fiona’s private reality, love means getting the sense that “You are loved and lovable when you trust your inner voice, do what you want, live in freedom, follow your creativity and have fun. You, Fiona, matter. You are loved when you put yourself first in life.” (Fiona has a vast unlived treasure-house of fun and creativity inside her.)
Charlie has an unmet childhood need to be looked after and cared for. In his private reality love means having the sense that someone is there to look after him, take care of him, meet his needs – despite his painful sense that his needs must never be seen. Adults in sexual relationships indeed do care for each other. So Charlie assumes that such caring is what sexual relating is all about, and feels an unquestioning entitlement to receive such care.
Most likely at first neither Charlie nor Fiona is aware of their patterns. It’s just how life is.
Now their private realities meet.
For Charlie, being needy is as natural as swimming is to a fish. He takes it for granted. So he is clingy and dependent. He wants to do everything together – shopping, holidays, projects – and he mistakes this kind of permanent togetherness for intimacy.
For Fiona, this kind of permanent togetherness makes her feel like a carer, not a lover. She wants freedom to do what she wants, not what somebody else needs. She wants a lover who sees the potential in her and says “You’re wonderful, so creative, go and be the artist you were meant to be.” That’s not needy Charlie; he doesn’t want the one who cares about him to go off on her own. As a kid, her dad’s illness stopped Fiona having fun; now it feels Charlie’s bottomless pit of needs is doing the same thing. To her, feeling she doesn’t matter and putting herself second is as natural as swimming is to a fish. So while she resents the hell out of Charlie, she doesn’t take action to change anything. Action would require autonomously trusting her inner voice and freely taking action, just what she doesn’t do. But she leaks her resentment by being negative, whining, and obstructive.
I repeat, this is common. And very, very, painful. Both Charlie and Fiona are living out a private reality as to what love is. Both are re-living habits learned in their childhood. Neither one has the awareness or the guts to start to show his or her own real self to the other person. Neither one is getting their true needs met, because neither one even knows what those true needs are, let alone can openly reveal those needs. Each is certain the other person is BAD and not giving what they NEED and they’re ANGRY about that because they know how love OUGHT to be and their OWN anger is RIGHT but the other person’s angry back and that HURTS because it is so UNJUST and the other doesn’t UNDERSTAND and they’re ANGRY about that too. Plus they are puzzled because not so long ago they had love in their hands, and where did that go to?
As the Taylor Swift song says, “Now we’ve got problems, And I don’t think that we can solve them”. (Thought I guess Taylor Swift is talking about a different dynamic, involving affairs. Charlie is possibly too dependent to have an affair, and Fiona possibly too lacking in “I’ll do what I want”, so that may be one problem our protagonists are spared.)
At first, probably neither Charlie nor Fiona has any understanding of his or her own patterns and emotions. These things are deeply buried, and often only start to come to light when relationships don’t work. Even if either of them is aware of their inner emotions, these emotions can be deeply frightening to reveal. For most people it is axiomatic that “no-one must see my inner private self” because childhood has so often taught us that exactly this inner private self is un-loveable. And indeed, with such a head of steam behind such raw and primitive emotions, even if they could know and reveal their childhood wounds, it quite likely would not be useful. These things need some time and care in a healing environment. All in all, Charlie and Fiona aren’t living in real love because each is living in a private reality around what love should, ought and must provide.
Re-assurances and provisos
If this, or something like this, is you in your relationship right now: take a deep breath, love yourself as you are, and take things gently, one step at a time. Do not feel bad, flawed, inadequate or stupid for being in this situation. I too was once, and so to some degree are almost all people. It’s human and OK to feel a bit shocked if you recognise yourself. But don’t feel down on yourself, despairing, or hopeless. Some degree of such things, a lot or a little, is the normal state of life in this age of the world. You are not to blame. Not many people learn this kind of thing other than by painful trial and error. And don’t worry, there are certainly ways forward, and yes, things can be very different.
Be cautious if you think “my partner is like this, but I am not.” That can happen. But it’s all too easy to be blind to our own faults and failings! And no matter what is going on, blame and finger-pointing never work.
I repeat, take a deep breath, love yourself as you are, and take things gently. Life is a journey of discovery and learning and in this age of the world, our sexual relationships are one of the biggest opportunities for discovery and learning. It’s not just about this current relationship. Recognising and releasing these patterns will bring transformation to your whole life and all your relationships. Everybody naturally feels bad when their relationship is going badly. But if you take it as an invitation to transformation from life, you can look back and see it as one of the best things that ever happened to you.
Also, there is this. I’ve laid out a story of two kinds of hurt inner child getting pretty badly entangled with each other. This does happen, a lot. But it’s by no means the only kind of relationship issue, and even when it is a factor, it’s by no means always so stark. Also, just like a bird, in order to fly, all therapy and personal development needs two wings which you flap together. One wing is confronting and healing inner emotions such as these, safely, respectfully and fearlessly. The other is simple large or tiny steps to make everyday life different, and here is a straightforward practical exercise on doing what works. Simple direct things like being sure to do fun things together no matter what, and taking every chance to pay a compliment even if small, make a big difference. Some therapies focus more on one or the other, but you need both. Finally, relationships have a great resource simply in talking to each other, and here is an easy, helpful, research-validated exercise of watching and talking about romantic films you might like to try.
There will be many further posts on what Charlie and Fiona can do to wake up and heal and live in love. I can’t be sure, you never know how these things turn out, but me, I’ve got a good feeling abut these two. My guess, they’ll come out fine in the end. Watch this space.