BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 2016
Relationships take hard work. We desire companionship but often are lost on achieving closeness. Intimacy can be gained through persistent and mindful work.
Relationships are complicated. Relationships often are behind our most content and turbulent moments. We are biologically programed to connect because connection enhances the quality of survival, creating security, and multiplying resources. We feel secure when given acceptance, affection, and attention. When loved, we experience more than a simple cog in the wheel of a complex society. We are important. When a relationship fulfills these personal and important needs, we feel satisfied and secure. We struggle when these needs are neglected.
A successful relationship is more complicated than whether or not a partner satisfies basic needs. Simplicity is not the nature of living—especially between complex and emotional beings. The feelings relationships generate derive from complex structures of expectations, needs, and past experiences. A partner may be caring and loving but incapable of filling a partner’s vast emotional black holes, sucking life out of intimate bonds. But good partners—two people that work towards a common goal—catapult each other forward instead of destructively dragging each other down. The nature of a relationship either creates an environment of growth or decay.
A partnership’s pattern of interaction encourages openness or suppression; trust or distrust; intimacy or guardedness. The history of communications sends messages of safety or danger. The vulnerability of openness is not always treasured and occasionally abused, using intimate knowledge for hurtful manipulations. Words, gestures and facial expressions create safety or danger, encouraging continued openness or cautious protectiveness.
Because relationships are essential to well-being, our bodies carefully measure signals and react, magnifying emotions—joys sorrows, anxieties and anger. Interdependence, relying on each other, creates new vulnerability. We must trust a partner with our well-being—at least some of it. The loss of an intimate partner is painful. Our emotional well-being is closely tied to that relationship for fulfillment.
The failure of a relationship is confusing; we must weave through the complexity of human relations to garner some articulable explanations. The dissatisfaction isn’t easily dissected into simple causes. Some relationships work; and some don’t. Maturity and experience help but not always. Some people struggle with intimacy their entire lives. Others luckily stumble into nearly perfect compatibility. Although we are biologically driven to find companions, the skill to bond must be learned. We must tame, direct and utilize biological drives in a manner that achieves our goals for connection and intimacy.
The relationships that we need also create challenges. Any time we rely on another person, we are also obliged to fulfill some of their needs. We must sacrifice harmful impulses that disrupt connection in a mutually beneficial commitment. Some attempt to by-step healthy give and take commitments, extract what they need, and them manipulate through coercion, fear or unsubstantiated promises. These alternate approaches offer short-term benefits; but the staples of healthy commitment never form—trust, security, and intimacy.
Relationship skills work towards the benefits but within the boundaries of mutual respect. The skills allow for the enjoyments of affection, acceptance, and love without being overwhelmed by the emotional challenges of vulnerability and commitment. The fortunate learn relationship skills from careful observance of mature caregivers. But many childhoods were laden with fear, rejection and punishment. Love deprived children miss critical lessons during the key moments of their development, creating life-long obstacles that complicate future bonding. The childhood frustrations with connection, confused by chaotic feedback from parents, remain prominent in their adult implicit and explicit memories. New events ignite powerful emotions. These strong emotions disrupt and deregulate the entire system, leading to faulty assessment and problematic reactionary behaviors that thwart intimacy.
Relationships struggle when one or both partner’s turbulent past burdens the present. The complicated relationship becomes more complicated tasked with integrating challenging emotions into healthy reactions. Painful memories burned into the soul shape skittish emotions when faced with connection; when pasts were hurtful and confusing, the lover is naturally sensitive to possible hurt. Instead of feeling kindness and security, the abused constantly face fear—fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, fear of loneliness.
No magic pill cures deep wounds. The emotional reactions to threats are not chosen nor simply discarded. Knowledge of the causes may help but not cure. The past injury remains (even though we know the originating force), motivating legitimate fear to the slightest possibility of approaching pain. New partners can disrupt these protective attitudes. We may have discovered balance the past and our professional life but when a new partner arrives, violent emotions return, and our private lives explode in the dishevel of protecting drives—pushes to run and hold.
Everyone is charged with scrutinizing people the let into their lives before exposing tenderness and offering vulnerability. The complex emotional reactions complicate accurate assessments. Some simply can’t differentiate a perspective compassionate partner from a dangerous one. Their exposures to intimacy are limited; and thus, their judgments are limited. Childhood observations of maladaptive interaction has been integrated and often expresses the learning by attraction to familiarity. It’s not that these victims seek violent relationships, but the benign characteristics that often accompany violence strike chords of familiarity.
People don’t purposely allow the past to destroy present joys. Avoiding intimacy or seeking destructive partners because they want more chaos. They seek joy but are misguided in the attainment, driven by fear they protect, limiting the deep bonds of love. There’s no magic solution to erase difficult pasts; history will forever be a part of our present. The right partner can assist with healing but not eliminate the fears deeply engrained in the psyche.
“If your heart is a volcano, how shall you expect flowers to bloom?” ~Khalil Gibran
Friends, family and professionals provide precious and necessary resources for recovery. Personal knowledge of biases and fears opens insights, helping to avoid some of the inevitable triggers. A patient partner that compassionately understands can provide some of the attention, affection and acceptance needed to heal. As we add new skills, we initiate small changes, inviting small moments of intimacy that we surprisingly enjoy without debilitating fear. Each glimpse of possibility provides a dose of healing, gently attending to the wounds—hurts soften, and fears subside. Each disrupting emotion that we successfully navigate contributes to our growing self-confidence. We may not immediately notice improvement but in time, as we look back at the valleys and the gorges traversed, we see the glorious heights we have obtained, and love we have embraced. Love is complicated; difficult to measure and muddied by the past. But we still can partake in this amazing gift of life—to love and be loved.