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Relationships: Ingredients for Success

Part II of an interview with Paul J. Hannig, Ph.D., MFCC, CCMHC, NCC

Q: It seems that not only is reciprocity and confirmation important in a relationship but so is mutual problem-solving and commitment. Reciprocity is necessary in a relationship if it is to grow and mature. Once a couple enters the real nits and grits of relating, in which family history arises and enmeshment is possible, they will need that reciprocity in problem-solving areas in order to facilitate the growth of their relationship to more stable stages. What is your opinion of that?

A: You bring up a very good point. I think most young people today entering into relationships have not been exposed to healthy elements of relationship making. They also bring their family history with them. They may be trying to get needs satisfied with one another that were never satisfied in their own family of origin. If they are not clear and straight with these needs, then they will try to get them met symbolically by indirect ways, so few people are going to connect and be in tune with each other. Therefore, I see that an integral part of therapy is the ability for people to "clean up" their past.

What I mean by cleaning up is the uncovering of unresolved feelings from childhood. Once a person starts cleaning up those painful issues, he or she becomes a more integrated individual and is be able to relate to another person who is also integrated. Oil and water don't mix; oil mixes very well with oil and water mixes very with water. I don't know if this is a proper metaphor, but it makes sense in terms of an integrated person. One who has integrated the past with the present and then becomes attracted to and falls in love with a person of equal integration will have an integrated relationship. That is not to say that there will not be differences. Everyone has differences. But, couples who know how to solve problems and iron out their differences will know how to be happy with one another.

People who survive in marriage today deserve the medal of honor. As an institution, marriage is enormously stable, although in reality many people never obtain stability in their relationships. There are people who do obtain stability in emotional relationships and they are able to function with each other in a very happy and fulfilling way. That does exist. The American Dream is not dead. There are people who are realizing the dream in their personal lives. They may be rare. Research has not indicated what number of fulfilled and happy relationships exist. It is necessary to also look at short-term, fulfilled relationships. Somehow, in these relationships, disillusionment sets in and the bonds that had existed in the beginning start to erode and break down, causing people to go their separate ways.

Q: Why do you think that happened? Were the bonds initially weak at the beginning?

A: Every day you need to reconfirm to yourself the worth and value of the relationship. Most people are seeking confirmation from their partners, rather than confirming for themselves the value of their relationship. Confirmation is a daily requirement and you have to do it with conviction and sincerity. "I really see the value of this relationship...I love my spouse more than anyone else on the face of the earth...he/she is the most valuable human being in the world to me." Confirm and nurture that every single day but, if you are passively waiting for your partner to give emotional nutrients, then the relationship will become starved. That is where mutual reciprocity comes in. If both people are capable, in a very mature way, of providing mental and emotional nutrients for each other, then they can help stabilize a mature, loving relationship.

Q: What about communication?

A: It is obvious to me that being in touch with your feelings helps you to better understand what you are thinking and experiencing. When you and your partner are able to express and convey feelings, then communication is going to be very clear. Conversely, it can be very discouraging and debilitating when people talk to each other without saying or communicating anything from the deepest parts of themselves. The words are heard coming out of their mouths but the essence of the message is absent. What are they trying to say? When both you and your partner are able to tap into your real selves and communicate to each other what you are feeling so that both of you understand what is going on, then you have a great advantage. Your partner can now understand what is going on. Communication is art, and as long as it is, it can be learned.

If you only learn communication processes with your head, you will leave out the heart and soul of a relationship. Communicate from the heart and soul. Unfortunately, many couples can't do that. They tend to operate out of fear or from a defensive position. Whenever there is fear and defensiveness in a relationship, there will be distance and dysfunction.

Q: Not only is there fear and defensiveness in relationships, but some couples will operate out of a need for excessive safety. In other words, they do not want to risk being open and vulnerable to one another. I have seen couples who are really afraid of exposing their vulnerabilities. They have all sorts of mechanisms to keep their safety needs and defensiveness intact. To change this not only requires communication, but risking being vulnerable with each other and communicating from that vulnerable place. It ultimately requires a shift in the relationship. Is that true?

A: That is very true. You cannot be stingy with your emotions. A person who holds back his or her feelings is going to leave the other person wondering about the relationship. That could eventually be dangerous. A person who is very generous with his or her feelings is loving, kind and compassionate.

Remember, when you are giving of your own feeling you are also receiving. Feelings and emotions have a life of their own and sharing those feelings and emotions with your partneris a very healing, nurturing experience. People who are reluctant to share themselves in this way will have starved relationships. Eventually, when there is a starved relationship, people are going to "eat" someone else.

Q: That's a phenomenal process if you think about it--giving of oneself and one's emotions. I have heard people say "I give, I give, I give and I get nothing back!" In reality, the deeper  aspect of that is when you give, you are actually receiving back—you are receiving back more of yourself and the deeper expanses of who you are. This process operates from the heart and the soul. That is something that people overlook.

A: You are not really giving if your giving is contingent upon getting. If you are giving and in the act of giving you are receiving, then it is a true giving.

Q: What do you mean by "You are not really giving?"

A: Well, there's an old saying, "Quid Pro Quo"—you give in order to receive. But the expectation of giving only to receive is based on a condition. It is not an agape love, an unconditional love. An unconditional love must be present in all relationships if those relationships are going to function. That doesn't mean that we have to ignore eros, libido and philos. If you are giving only to get, it is going to be conditional. There's a hook because your partner may be a victim, an unsuspecting victim, unknowing that he or she is receiving so much, but it is all based on what he or she can get back. Besides, there is an anxious component to that. If you are giving, giving, giving, I suspect that it is anxiety driven. It is a dysfunctional, self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are people who don't know how to get their own needs met. These people are called codependents. As children, their own needs were never met. They were always unfulfilled. The only role that they can see themselves in is that of a caretaker, a rescuer or a nurturer. Then they figure, "Well, if I nurture and take care of him/her, sooner or  my ship will come in and I'll be cared for." There's a feeling of emptiness from childhood because of a vacuum that never got filled. So, I think that once you're able to feel that pain and resolve all those issues from childhood, you have all of yourself back. You have a sense of total acceptance of who you are while coming to terms with your parents and your own family life. Now you can live in a stable, loving, caring and reciprocal existence with another person. But if you are a caretaker, a giver or a rescuer in a martyred, self-sacrificial sense, then you are only projecting misplaced needs onto your partner. He/she becomes the bad mommy or bad daddy who never took care of you as a child. He/she also becomes an unsuspecting victim. It is like turning the tables around—reversing the cards—you are now the victimizer, even though you make it appear that you are the victim because of unfulfilled needs.

When you are relating to someone and you keep getting a certain feeling over and over again and that feeling leaves you negative, you had better start looking somewhere else. That relationship is not going to change for the better without some kind of massive intervention. There are just some people who are not good for you.

Q: That's hard! It is very hard to be that aware.

A: It is important to be aware of the whole question of self-image. How do you see yourself? Do you see yourself as a loving, caring and good, decent human being who is capable of fulfilling a relationship or do you think that any relationship is better than none, so you better stick it out? Why would you be messing around with or attracted to someone who doesn't feel good about him/herself?

Many times people get into relationships out of hope, the hope that the other really cares about them and that the relationship and the person can be changed, if need be. They spend the rest of their lives trying to change the other. This type of unreal hope does not work. It can be heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, there's no way to do a relationship check ahead of time to find out about that other person's self-image. It is like trying to look inside a black box; you can't really see the interior. However, you can safely assume that everyone, including you, has a dark side and that that dark side will eventually become visible.

Assignment:

Go back inside of yourself. See if there is any guilt from childhood that keeps you from asking your partner for what you want and need from a relationship.

List your beliefs that inhibit the achievement of more fulfillment in your relationship.

Sit down with your partner and practice, in a non-accusatory and noncritical way, saying "I want...", "I need from you ...", "I feel..."

Identify your thoughts and resistances to doing the preceding experiment. Talk about them. For example, "I can't tell my partner what I want or feel, because I was taught that wanting something for myself is selfish."

Identify ways that you and/or your partner undesirably provoke each other.

Identify three to five ways that you can show more caring to your partner.

Make a commitment to being more straight, honest, open and vulnerable with yourself and your partner.

Institute caring (confirming) times in your relationship.

This article appeared in the Winter-Spring 1994 IPA Newsletter.

 
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