Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Familiarity Meets Contempt.

I put a question up on my Facebook to see if my friends had anything they wanted to ‘ask a therapist’ and this is what came up: “Why do people in long term [resentment filled] relationships often end up treating their spouses worse than they'd ever treat a friend? And how do you turn it around? I was having this discussion with a friend going through a divorce, and would love to hear a therapists take on it”.

Answer (a simplified version of a complex answer):

Familiarity breeds contempt. There was a study by Norton, Frost and Ariely in 2007 that came to the conclusion,  “the more information people had about others, the less they liked them”. It’s a nice way of saying that we like it when we can project our sub-conscious desires and split-off parts of ourselves onto the blank spaces of an unfamiliar person, and that too much familiarity clogs the screen and kills the projection….and so we dis-like and then critique the screen.

A lot of us enter relationships with some idea or fantasy that the other person is going to make us happy. Eventually there is a discovery that the magical other you married is really just a person and not a solution to an un-named problem. That person doesn’t really have magical offerings in store. Real intimacy is what happens between two people when they absolve the other of providing the magic and instead collaborate to bring riches to the relationship, share core values, and tolerate/support the other’s separate and sometimes divergent needs. When I see couples, they always come in with the idea that all that has to happen is that the other person has to become who they want them to be, and then they’ll be happy.

Intimacy is the discovery that the other person isn’t an extension of your needs, and that your relationship to yourself drives your relationship to your partner. This is what Ranier Maria Rilke meant when he wrote that “Love is the first great aloneness”. When you’re close enough to someone there’s  no escaping that your partner isn’t a screen to use to fill in the missing parts of the self. It’s a kind of co-dependency that hits a wall when your partner can't satisfy your needs.

So there’s that. There’s also the sort of inverse-narcissism involving the person receiving the grief … I’ll get into that in another thread as the covert part is going to take a little effort to explain and I’ve got a patient in the waiting room for  the next session.

The fix involves identifying the projections and putting both people into ownership of what’s really theirs. It’s a process of differentiation, self-awareness, and honesty…
But the truth is, by the time most people come into therapy, there’s so much scar tissue to cut through that for some it’s too late… especially if the origins of the relationship are designed to deny one’s own growth. That being said, I see a lot of people wake up in the process.

Another way in for some...is that we accept the love we think we deserve. Denegrating the person that loves you is a way to avoid yourself.

I hope that helps start a conversation...