Whether a relationship breaks up or remains together, the things that the people in it will be confronted with, and the work that they’ll be called upon to do (if they’re up for it)
is pretty much the same.
Source unknown – found on the internet
Why do we have relationships?
Whatever the reason, it appears that we do have relationships and they seem to be very important to most of us. Some explanations can be found in evolutionary biology, some in the processes of our psychological development, some in the mystery of our spiritual unfolding, and some in the complex social structures we are part of and live within. In all probability the answer will be a dynamically structured system of all these components. This Bio-Psycho-Spiritual-Social composition means that working with relationships is complicated, nuanced and often unfathomable. It is perhaps telling that, in societies regarded as civilised, the highest level of punishment available is solitary confinement. This is the enforced withdrawal of all relationships – a form of psychological torture.
In psychosexual and relationship therapy we focus on our most intimate relationships. Most often, but not always, this means couples. The therapeutic approaches cover the full spectrum of gender, sexuality and relationship diversity. Typically, but not always, these are the relationships within which sex plays a significant role.
Esther Perel (Perel, 2013) suggests that long term committed relationships (of which marriage is perhaps the prime example) have been an economic venture designed to protect lineage and property. It’s only in the last few generations that the expectation of happiness, enduring love and sexual fulfilment has arisen. This additional burden on relationships widens the range of problems that can arise and be addressed in therapy.
It seems that relationships offer us the chance of intimacy, love, connection, sharing, security, financial advantage, safer sexual expression, social conformity, parenthood and synergy. It is also evident that relationships seem to be inherently difficult to maintain, and contain many pitfalls. Why is this? Could it be that relationships actually provide the specific environment required for humans to develop their personhood? Do we like this? Typically no! Often we’d rather that our problems were someone else’s fault, and this can lead to friction in the relationship.
What do I mean by developing personhood in relationship?
One theory (from Ken Wilber) suggests that the trajectory of our lives is characterised by Growing-up (maximising our state of conscious awareness), Waking-up (seeking enlightenment and insight), Cleaning-up (working through our disowned aspects which have been banished to our unconscious, often referred to as Shadow work) and Showing-up (bringing our gifts to the service of mankind). Some people are motivated to pursue this on their own, others prefer not to engage unless they are receiving feedback that implies its necessity. It is precisely within long term committed relationships that such feedback arises, and often our first instinct is to ditch the relationship and find one that’s easier, or blame our partner for the problems. How curious that exactly the same issues seem to arise in the new relationship, and often more rapidly? It’s as well to remember the phrase: “Wherever I go, there I am”
Given the complexity of relationships, various therapeutic approaches have been developed that are, in essence selecting one of the multitude of doors into the relationship. This makes sense as we have to start somewhere and it helps if that start (or orientation) is meaningful to the therapist. Even better if it’s also meaningful to the client(s).
Therapeutic approaches might work on a possible mismatch of personhood development within a relationship, how to negotiate different viewpoints, what the ‘feedback’ is really telling us about our unfinished development, whether our childhood experiences are playing out in the way we relate (attachment style), whether we are doing the things that help or undermine a relationship, and how we cope with the paradoxes that most relationships throw up.
As David Schnarch points out, two of the most powerful human drives are our wish to control our own destiny, and our urge to be in relationship with others. When you get together with someone these two drives can come into conflict. Who’s dreams do you follow and who’s dreams do you give up? Are there new dreams that only emerge within the relationship?
As Esther Perel suggests, desire is in the ‘wanting’ and love is in the ‘having’ (or possessing). If people have a close committed relationship how do they then create the necessary distance that can allow the desire to sustain?
The objective of the relationship therapy
All of this presupposes that the objective of the relationship therapy is to repair the alliance or reinvigorate the sex life. This is not always the case. Sometimes the objective of the process is to manage a controlled ending of a relationship (now often called conscious uncoupling).
A Pluralistic Approach
My view is that the clients and their relationship are the experts of their particular situation and objectives. The job of the therapist is to the help the clients gain clarity about what they seek and then offer approaches that the clients find fitting and helpful. The Bio-Psycho-Spiritual-Social nature of relationship work is difficult to contain in just one therapeutic orientation. In some ways, the relationship itself is the client. I would hope to facilitate constructive communication between the relationship partners, rather than acting as a conduit. This requires a resourced, informed, and impartial stance.