This work is very different to other types of relationship work in that rather than emphasising decisions that need to be made such as separating or staying together, the focus is on what’s really there in the moment, in the relationship.
Marriage, divorce, and separation are important legal constructs, but they do not accurately reflect the emotional reality of a couple. When we follow and unfold the momentary flow and evolving dance that occurs in a relationship, we connect less with it as a battleground and more with it as a dance.
It might be relieving to hear that separation, divorce, and togetherness are momentary, fluid processes, rather than rigid stuck realities – in other words, we are constantly moving in and out of these potential realities inside our own heads. From this perspective, we may be very close one moment and quite separate the next. Sometimes these momentary states indicate that it actually is time to make a decision to be married or divorced or separated, but there is also flux and change even when these major decisions have been reached.
Another key idea is that relationships have both a practical, everyday part and also a dreaming, infinite aspect. From this perspective, relationships don’t ever end. Even if the daily relating decreases or disappears, an eternal part goes on in a changed form. Postulating an eternal part of relationships has the potential to change our whole perspective on couples separating.
How Is All This Important For Conflict Dynamics?
The idea that there is no absolute right or wrong if people separate, and the idea that relationships are not fixed but always changing, are two sides of the same coin. This does not mean that we are not imposing a model of what is right or wrong, since clearly there is a right and wrong – a constructive and deconstructive path. But it does mean we move to a perspective of following the evolution of a relationship.
This conflict resolution approach is based upon placing more emphasis on the feeling-level connection between couples. Thus, legally married couples may at times feel blissfully together, but at other times may need long periods of separation or intense conflict. Heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual couples who are not legally married also experience a range of relationship needs. In this fluid perspective, couples define themselves from moment to moment. Some couples may often feel close, others may fight constantly, and both types may consider themselves coupled (or not). In this view, the power of definition lies with the individuals rather than somewhere outside such as the state or church.
We focus upon the changes a person or couple goes through so we avoid the behaviorist tendency to recommend that he change and develop new personality traits or behavioral patterns. We side with change and with awareness of what is happening in any given moment to avoid programming a person to be whole and balanced. We do not suggest change as an outer solution, but support changes as they emerge from the relationship process.
There are personal and collective shifts present in relationships. Roles present in relationships also need to shift. If both partners are not able to grow out of old roles to encounter newness in themselves then often relationship endings take place. Collective shifts around men and women issues are constantly being encountered in relationships.
As therapists, we understand the need to learn to speak of these cultural forces present–the force of tradition, the forces of sexism, homophobia, racism, the forces of mainstream thinking, the forces of liberation, freedom, and change. But we are not here to be trapped by the ‘isms’. These collective winds blow through relationships and change them, but they too can be confining and destructive forces for relationship. They need naming but also work to beyond them, so we do not feel victimised by our experiences or the collective programming.
If we approach the relationship flexibly, the part that no longer works may die, while the part with energy lives on. A couple might want to give up living together but keep their musical or physical relationship alive. In the old model, the entire relationship must end, except for certain legally prescribed forms such as parental rights. We can move beyond the all or nothing approach and we can support you to do that.
At a more esoteric level, these outer manifestations of an ongoing connection reflect the deeper dreaming process that continues after the formal end of a relationship. Relationships have an eternal side beyond ‘death’ in that they are guided by myths reflected in the early dreams and dreamlike experiences of the relationship.
For example, I remember a couple who said that their earliest relationship memory was that they were out to dinner, and the man tried to do a magic trick where he pulled the tablecloth out from under the dishes on the table. The magic only partially worked, and the dishes went all over the place and created a huge mess. These two main elements of magic and mess became two key elements that much of their relationship was organised around. The central difficulty of the couple was when there got to be too much mess and not enough magic, the woman would become disillusioned and they would have bring in more magic. When things got too orderly and not exciting enough, the man became disillusioned. This relationship was not just about two people, but about two different energy states, magic and order, interacting.
The first dream often holds the relationship myths – which are the central dreaming background to relationship. When certain myths are lived out, couples can move on from each other, or they may discover new myths to work on with each other. Some couples have myths that need to be worked on for their lifetimes. Having a myth that takes long-term work to fulfill brings up the eternal side of relationship connections. Eternal connections are not bound by convention, time, space, or marriage certificates.
Similarly, spiritual bonds are not made in the legal realm and can’t be cancelled in the legal realm. I have seen many couples who have done everything possible to destroy their connection, yet the connection still lives. This is not just codependency in which two people live off each other to form a whole. In contrast, deep spiritual connections are built on two beings who are individuals and also strongly connected.
It’s common in couples that one partner will threaten, “If you don’t do this, or if you ever do that, I will never have anything to do with you again.” Then the other partner has an affair, or makes a career change the first partner prohibited. Despite all the threats to end the relationship, the forbidden act, when processed, may lead to an even more powerful connection. Relationships that are meant to continue in some form can withstand all kinds of relationship dynamite.
This sort of endurance is not codependent, such as when an alcoholic and her partner support each other’s denial. In a spiritually rooted connection the couple has to work through all that happens. They do not support each other’s denial, but are instead intimately involved in helping each other wake up and become more aware.
Determining which parts of a relationship persist because of the spiritual power behind the guiding myth and which parts endure because of codependency is a difficult task. We help differentiate between these two possibilities by observing the ongoing dreams of the people in the relationship. For example, codependency will appear as a repetitive problem in both people’s dreaming. These kinds of dreams disturb one or both partners, irritating them into waking up.
In contrast, some relationships are dedicated to helping people become free of their personal and shared addictions, and these are very powerful connections. If a relationship like this is interrupted on the daily physical plane, through separation, divorce, or death, it will continue in dreaming. Even death doesn’t stop an eternal connection. After the death of a partner or parent we can continue to experience enormous positive shifts in the relationship.
Some relationships have no honeymoon period. From the first moment together they were working on deep issues. Such relationships not only focus on interpersonal issues, but the issues constantly challenge both people to develop their whole selves. Such couples will often say, “Why am I with so and so when they push every button I have?”.
Often from the outside these relationships appear to be filled with conflict and suffering, and external observers are often frightened by or disapproving of the intensity present. The relationship may go through many periods of death and renewal, and may need frequent outside help. People who have this as their relationship myth seem to have little choice–they either work with their connection willingly or the relationship difficulties become so great they are forced to do the necessary personal growth and relationship work that is being asked of them.
Another side of recognising the eternal aspect of relating involves accepting death and change. Buddhist teachers often say that the first lesson of Buddhism is the wisdom of impermanence. Everything changes, and our attachment to holding on to the way things are is a major cause of our suffering. Relationships are constant teachers of this principle. Couple’s often talk about how they suffer when their relationship changes, since they were sure that this relationship would last forever in its current form. People are angry at their partner, God, and everyone else when a relationship changes.
This work helps people work with their attachment, get to know their detachment, and stay in touch with the eternal spiritual background of their relationships that will continue no matter how the form changes. Relationships that welcome death as part of the process also allow for rebirth. As the old parts of the process and old structures die, the potential for the new grows. We must not avoid death states since they often hold the potential for something new and exciting to regenerate the relationship.
We can help bring awareness of both the impermanent and eternal aspects of relationship. Relationships that lack the fluidity to accept change can die of stagnation. Many couples cannot let go and embrace change without a deep personal sense of the eternal and of spiritual life.
Spiritual traditions sometimes refer to death as the great awakening. Major relationship transformations, including divorce and separation, may also provide an opportunity for great awakenings. Such changes have the potential to awaken people to their own nature, the nature of relationship and the nature of life.
These ideas on the eternal nature of relationship are not meant to replace the importance of knowing when and how to end a relationship. When relationships become physically, psychologically, or spiritually destructive, it is time for them to transform or move on. When relationships are destructive, the daily connection often needs to be broken, while something in the dreaming world will continue.
In situations where a relationship is no longer working, we look for signs that both partners are willing to work with and transform the situation. Often, one or both partners are finished but can’t let go. Letting go then becomes the teaching. The couple’s job is to learn the importance of letting go. When couples can let go, the pain is often great, and so is the relief.
Relationship addiction can also prevent people who need to separate from letting go. People stay together, even in damaging relationships, because they are addicted to each other. We are defining addictive relationship as the kind of relationship (or phase in a relationship) in which there is a large gap between the dream one person has of their partner and the reality of the partner. In addition, an addictive relationship is physically, psychologically, or spiritually harmful.
In addictive relationships usually one or both people gives their partner enough of something to keep them hooked, but not enough to satisfy. This partial satisfaction is very powerful. If someone meets almost none of your needs, it is easy to let go, and if a partner truly meets your needs, there is no reason to let go. However, someone who meets your needs in flashes or moments, or almost meets your needs, or plays with meeting your needs, offers a powerful hook.
At some point, the pain of the frustration becomes so great that it hurts one or both people. It is our job at this point to point out that what is happening is not love but addiction, and challenge the couple to break the addiction. Addiction looks like love, but it is a cheap imitation. People often don’t realise this until they enter a truly loving relationship. We might need to provide information and support in the transition until there’s a realisation of how incomplete and dissatisfying the addictive relationship is.
Addictive relationships, like any addiction, can be difficult to transform. We can bring awareness of the addictive pattern and support with continually confronting the addiction. It is easy for the couple to slip back into the old groove, but there is a moment when an addiction must be faced and broken. Outer signs of when it is time to break the addiction include when one or both partners develops physical symptoms related to the relationship; develops substance addictions; becomes depressed or anxious, or has other psychologically difficult states that become an ongoing pattern. At such times, it is important to check in with a person’s deepest feelings in order to discover a direction.
Our role as therapists is to help couples and families have the courage and awareness to follow the relationship whether the river is calm or full of rapids, whether the relationship is beginning, continuing, transforming, or ending. The emphasis is not on just reaching the end point, but on appreciating and learning from all points on the journey. As therapists, we are aware of the societal pressures couples and families face. Despite these pressures, people will be drawn to follow their own natures, and our job is to support them in this important task.
We can help you create a new relationship model that helps both individuals feel connected to the vitality within the relationship, not only at the exciting beginnings, but throughout the relationship, including at times of transition and ending.
Relationships are challenging. Creating, maintaining and sustaining a successful relationship can be hard work even at the best of times. If you don’t have the skills, you have no time because of work commitments or children then working through everyday problems that arise in relationship can get put to the side and over time this builds resentment and deeper issues.
Every relationship needs care and attention to be effective & safe. Taking care of your relationship means learning about the nature of your relationship and knowing key tools for communication and trouble shooting.
When two people have the will to go deeper with one another, not only confronting their pain, but actively participating in their pleasure, anything feels impossible. The whole is truly more than the sum of its parts.
A balance of power enables a long-term, intimate relationship to flourish. Two people in a couple do not need to be equal in everything, as they are not necessarily equal at everything, cultivating a different approach to equality is essential. A truly nurturing intimacy has the capacity to help each individual heal from the pain of the past, and to empower each one of them, in the present, to reach for their dreams.
Get in touch to see how Maia can revitalise your relationship.
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