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From Zdravi život (Healthy Life) magazine, no. 81/2010

By Investing Into a Marriage and Partner Relationship, We Invest in Ourselves

Written by: Ljiljana Bastaic, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, Director of the Centre for the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Communication, Zagreb

Frequently from readers and acquaintances I hear comments on failure of marriage and family. As arguments they list an increased percentage of divorce, loss of parental authority, drugs and alcohol in young and old.

The data they list are disconcerting. It is true, marriage relationship is changing and has become something unknown until now, something we have not had the chance to see or experience.

Old vertical-hierarchical way of relationship organization in the industrially developed society is no longer possible. The model according to which there is one authority in family and marriage is slowly being replaced by the horizontal way of organization in which husband and wife are equal partners. Hierarchical model is a high efficiency model, and today appropriate only in war or natural disasters. If there is an attempt to implement it in partner relationships, it alone can cause a natural disaster – from a very disturbed relationship to divorce.

Horizontal model, on the other hand, the main trait of which is equality and mutual respect, is the model which requires far more energy because it involves constant questioning of mutual roles and places of husband and wife. It is possible by establishing a dialogical relationship. Dialoguing is the most important process through which the relationship is realized.

Increased amount of energy and time needed for such organization of the relationship must be found in everyday life through constant trial and error, because this is a process for which there exists no model in societal memory nor in the experience of the partners. It is about discovering a completely new area.

When I speak of a dialogue, I have in mind several essential characteristics: listening, respect, understanding. In the past article I mentioned what is that which we gain by a special way of dialoguing, whereas this article will discuss the fact that, even though we convince ourselves that dialogue is an efficient way to improve relationship, it is still very difficult for it to turn into a habit because “old habits die hard”. Old habits and patterns are instinctive, we think of them as our “I” and we give them up with much difficulty because we are under the illusion that in that way we will lose ourselves. The truth is quite the opposite.

We can re-create ourselves
This sounds a bit god-like, doesn’t it, but it is in fact true. New technology has given us new knowledge. Thus today we have confirmation of that which thirty-odd years ago was still science fiction, and that is the realization that brain is plastic and that its matter changes depending on each individual’s experience. If we implement a certain behavioural pattern intentionally, systematically and long enough, it will result in an inscription in the brain mass which is changed in this way.

This realization confirms that, which psychoanalysis has been based on for the past hundred years. Change is possible. Firstly, insight into reasons and roots of the problem is created; secondly the attempt is made to connect this insight to reactions, i.e. behaviour; and then the work is done on finding meaningful, better and more creative behavioural patterns. These new experiences are gradually built into the brain as new brain circuits which in fact are brain matter. Thus, new experiences influence the formation of brain matter. Gradually these changes are finalized in the changes of elements of the character trait.

According to these new scientific realizations, experiences that shape us remain with us forever, but are liable to questioning and reformation. Partner is the best person with whom we can start such a journey of changing ourselves. By journeying together, at the same time we change ourselves and our relationship. This contains all the potential of a amorous partner relationship as well as the vision for the future.

And despite our increasing knowledge, today we are faced with the fact that we are “lost in translation” between the relationships that are built in deeply into us and our unclear needs for something else. The deep image of relationships in us consists in fact of relationships modelled by thousands of years of struggle for survival and “cemented” by our unconscious defence mechanisms created in the early years o our lives. Forming new relationships requires from each of us to make a conscious effort towards the change and to build into this conscious effort basic human respect for our partner.

Basic human respect implies giving up the behaviour that is metaphorically speaking represented by the Four Riders of the Apocalypse of married life:

  • Explosiveness
  • Criticizing
  • Contempt
  • Withdrawal and gradual stonewalling

All of these types of behaviour are interdependent. Explosiveness, criticizing and contempt lead easily to withdrawal and shutting down, as well as the other way around. In the relationship there is no “blame”, except in the case of violence, but only and truly mutual responsibility for that into which the relationship is turning.

And even with the best of will and conscious striving, it is not possible quickly and immediately to change all of our old habits, so sometimes we continue to behave instinctively, and with it counterproductively. What helps in such situations of slippage into old reaction patterns is also to give up criticizing and deriding ourselves. It is necessary in these cases to be understanding towards our own “weaknesses”, our old defence mechanisms, crucial for survival in childhood age. Partners who manage to cope with the shame caused by the difficulty to immediately do the “right thing” gently make fun at their own expense and this helps.

Good marriage is not a marriage without its ups and downs. It is recognized by the fact that, as the couple is working on their relationships, the downs are shallower, and ups last increasingly longer.

Conflict in relationship, no matter how devastating it is, has its positive side. It forces us to think carefully about what we are doing and to question our motives. Conflict is motivated by unconscious non-satisfied needs on the one hand and suppressed part of our selves on the other, the part that disables us to satisfy the need in our partner. In these unknowns a treasure is hidden, treasure which becomes the power engine for growth and development once their true meaning is discovered.

To face the dissatisfaction at the root of conflict requires the skill of Imago dialogue. Partners then start a journey which is in fact a life-long journey and purpose to itself. You never reach the land of perfection but on the way different landscapes are discovered which enrich the space of mutual relationship.

Longitudinal research observing happy and unhappy marriages reveals that 65 percent of conflict is unsolvable. It is unsolvable because the reasons for the conflict are situated in a different time and different space. What is possible, through processes of dialoguing, is to heal, step by step, those roots which feed the conflict on the surface until there is only a small amount of material that feeds the hurt.

Couples capable of seeing the difference between surface and long-term repeated disagreements find the solution in trying to enter below the surface and find real, deeply suppressed reasons. Couples who instinctively try to be healing for each other, the ones who look after each other as the greatest treasure, put this ability in the pack with other six skills of a happy relationship.

  • Deep unchangeable need to learn about the other with the awareness that every new day is a possibility for a renewed mutual discovery.
  • Couples who include in their relationship small indicators of continuous love and admiration to which each of us has the right, and for which the conditions are there, only if the partner wants to look closely.
  • Couples who are sufficiently focused on their partners, which makes them sensitive to small, trivial things, a safety net in which a sufficiently good relationship can cosily lie.
  • Trust in partner’s judgement, readiness for discussion while showing respect for a different opinion and acceptance of mutual influence are the “cement” for a good-quality relationship.
  • Sense of humour or some other ability helps in de-blocking tension in relationship.
  • With all this, the couple has a shared vision and majority of shared values.

By investing into the relationship we change ourselves and thus become mature and satisfied people.