Harville Hendrix’s ‘Getting the love you want’ remains one of the most useful books for couples seeking to understand their relationship at a deeper level. Recently, on rereading the opening section ‘The Unconscious Marriage’, it pointed me towards a deeper truth about why we might choose partners who are challenging to us.
He describes how a relationship moves from a period of heady romantic love to one in which a power struggle emerges, based on the unconscious expectations brought by each person. He describes the problems that emerge when one partner is used to Sunday mornings being spent in bed, with a cup of tea delivered to them alongside the papers, whilst the other expects to get up early, go to church and then lunch with friends. Hendrix explains that our unconscious expectations are set up by our infantile experience of our own parenting, and that unless these are acknowledged and talked about, they will lead to unconscious conflict in the relationship, with it moving into a ‘colder climate’.
Hendrix talks about the complexity of this struggle – think of all the ways our experience of our parental relationship programmes our expectations, our knowledge and beliefs of what it is for adult partners to feel loved and cared for. The conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious expectations placed on our partners, and the power struggles that emerge when they don’t match, means that a relationship moves from being a place of gooey romantic fantasy into a place of sometimes unbearable conflict.
What Hendrix doesn’t go into is the depth of the problems we will have if the parental relationship we experienced when growing up was deeply dysfunctional. What effect would this have on our ability to relate to our partner? What happens if the expectations we have of parental relating isn’t so much the cosy image of the cup of tea and papers being brought to the bed by the caring spouse, but of passive aggressive comments and angry raised voices, perhaps even of physical violence? And what if our expectation of our fathers is that they are not there at all, not actually present in our lives, having left our mothers and moved into a new relationship? What if our expectation of our mothers is for them to be overly smothering towards their children, and for us as children to gain our identities through the process of keeping her at bay? Hendrix’s cosy depiction of expectations not matching up, becomes a darker vision of chaos, discomfort and disassociation to survive.
As a psychotherapist it is clear to me that having constructed our own identities in relation to dysfunction, what we might unconsciously ask from our adult love relationship is a similar dysfunction. If our identity, including our strengths and our defensive survival tactics were constructed in childhood in relation to a dysfunctional parental environment, we can see why we might unconsciously lead ourselves into a familiar situations in adult life. In fact, our identity depends upon it.
So after the romantic love is over, what we might be left with is a relationship reflecting the dysfunction of our own parents – an even harsher ‘cold climate’ than Hendrix describes. No wonder so many people choose to leave relationships at an early point, and even choose to remain single.
The issue here is identification, how we see ourselves and how know that we are here. If we simply go along with the demands of our unconscious identity seeking we risk finding abuse and dysfunction when what we sought was love, simply because that might have been all we had to negotiate our identities from when we were growing up.
We might find ourselves being as overwhelmed by our female partner as we felt overwhelmed by our mothers, and our partners might find we become as absent to them (perhaps through disassociation) as our absent fathers were to us.
The goal in conscious relating then, becomes seeing the way our childhood struggles for identity become visible again in our adult love relationships, and through opening them up to conscious awareness, give ourselves and our partners the opportunity to start writing our own scripts rather than following unconscious ones, gradually replacing our ignored, worried, overburdened, lonely, or any other negative identifications with ones that we choose for ourselves.
As Hendrix suggests, in time our relationship can transform from being an arena of conflict into a space of creation and renewal, where old identities can be put to one side as we learn to love ourselves and be loved in a deeper way.
Hendrix, H. (2001). Getting the love you want. London: Simon and Schuster.
First published in 1993.