Intimacy and the second law of thermodynamics:
Love as the solution to entropy in close interpersonal relationships
Intimacy is that state of affairs that exists between people who share a common environment over extended periods of time, either by choice (e.g., marriage or cohabitation) or happenstance (e.g., birth into a family, accidental roommates, prison).
Simply put, intimacy is the result of being with someone on a regular basis for a long time. The notion that intimacy describes sexual habits between life partners is regarded as colloquial and will be seen as such in this work. Sexual intimacy is viewed as one aspect of intimacy, separate yet related.
The second law of thermodynamics
(also referred to as the law of entropy):
Energy spontaneously disperses from being localized to becoming spread out, if it is not hindered.
Simply put, everything in nature will decay unless some form of work or energy is applied to the system to prevent that decay.
Energy in the form of action directed toward establishing and/or maintaining order.
The act of providing energy (work) to an interpersonal relationship with the sole intent of benefitting the other.
Although existentially intangible and metaphysical, a relationship is an entity that obeys the second law of thermodynamics; i.e., a relationship is a real thing that, if left unattended, will decay. Work in the form of love is required to stave off the ravages of the natural processes of erosion that will inevitably occur over time. One difference between the physical universe and the metaphysical entity of intimacy is that the work done to maintain the relationship must be mutual between partners (exception: the relationship between parents and their offspring).
This is an article written for those of us who don’t understand people very well.
Throughout my career as a psychotherapist, I have had occasion to work with a number of people (usually, but not exclusively, men) who, when it comes to relationships, just don’t “get it”. Often these clients are engineers, doctors, accountants, scientists or other straight-line thinkers who function professionally and personally as problem solvers. Over the years, I have observed that in nearly every case of dysfunctional intimacy involving highly rational people, there runs a common thread: I.e., this highly logical and straight-line thinking person leaves him or herself out of the analysis of the problem.
Those readers who are familiar with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle are aware that the energy it takes to observe a system will in fact change the total energy of that system; thus, the observer is not able to see what would be seen if he were not looking. It is the same with relational systems in a person’s environment: the fact that the observer is present within the system will affect the system’s overall functioning. Thus, any understanding of the system that does not include an understanding of the nature and effect of the observer will be in error.
This essay is an attempt to show the reader that a better understanding of the self will lead to a more complete understanding of the intimate system (family), and will in the end lead to more healthy functioning. The material included is laid out logically with the intent of bringing rationality into what have heretofore been apparently illogical and irrational situations (i.e., relationships and intimacy).
This short work will look at the “metaphysical science” of the development of the human being from a helpless mass of breathing protoplasm into a thinking, feeling adult man or woman capable of working and living in the world, and capable of living and loving within a working family system. This developmental model will then be applied to the rigors of marital and familial intimacy.
The End (The effects of entropy):
This is a story that starts out at the end, where most people enlist the aid of a counselor, therapist or attorney to address the condition of their relationship. Those of you reading this article could well be experiencing problems in your relationship(s) right now, or have experienced problems in the past. If you have not overcome the obstacles that have wrecked your last relationship (or nearly wrecked this one), then you are likely to be on your way to a repeat performance of whatever it was/is that had/has been going wrong.
Imagine two really strong and good people who came upon one another ten years ago. They were in love; couldn’t stand to be away from one another. Two people who fit together so well that they became the envy of their friends and families. They now have good jobs; good friends; nice things; beautiful kids. Only now, they can’t stand to be a room together. They sleep in separate bedrooms, or one sleeps on the couch in front of the TV; they don’t talk; they don’t go places together or when they do, they are not together while they are there. They haven’t laughed with one another in a good long time. Inside themselves, the other is “dead.”
In the relationship, each is miserable and each is blaming the other for that misery. Both go around telling friends and/or family: “if only he would listen to me when I talk;” “she never lightens up with the demands for me to do things;” “he is never satisfied with anything I do;” “she makes me feel like an idiot;” “he drinks too much;” “she complains about the kids all the time;” “he won’t lift a finger to help me, but expects me to drop everything for him;” “she charges too much on the credit cards;” “he thinks only about being with the guys;” “he wants sex every night;” “if I had to wait for her to want to have sex, I’d never have sex again in my life,” and so on and on and on.
By the time a marriage is on the verge of breaking apart, both partners have lost their ability to be a whole person in the shadow of the other. Both are at fault; both are wrong, yet both are right. Both know in their hearts that the only thing left for them is divorce and then possibly a new and “better” mate. Both have experienced their own psychological erosion in the wake of the other’s decompensation. Each believes his or her only hope for happiness is to get rid of the object of their misery…the other.
The fact is, in most cases that would be a waste.
The process of a successful marriage starts the day a person is conceived.
Trust and Infancy
It is, of course, no surprise that infancy provides the basic foundation for all subsequent development for humans. The quality of the inputs during infancy clearly affects the outcome of the adult person. Virtually all computer programmers know the rule of GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.
Human infants, particularly those who are raised in households by loving and concerned mothers, are subject to the constant infusion of the mother’s love from the first day forward. It is presupposed that the reader of this article is likely to have had a mother who was “good enough” in the sense that she was able to provide the basic necessities of life, while at the same time providing love and emotional availability. If it turns out that this was not the case, then the reader will have all the more difficulty doing the work that will eventually have to be done to achieve a sensible and balanced emotional life as an adult.
The very first and basic ingredient to any successful relationship between and among people is the matter of trust. Trust is at the center of all human transactions and intimate relationships. Consider that without trust one would not be able to muster the courage to drive a car on a city street for fear that the person coming in the other direction will not stay on his side of the road; or consider that without trust a person would not be able to sit in a classroom full of people for fear that someone will do something harmful; or consider that without trust we would hesitate to purchase a home or a car for fear of being cheated, nor would we be willing to use the ATM to obtain cash or make deposits for the same reason. Without trust there would be only negative skepticism, cynicism and mistrust; much of what we take for granted on a daily basis would be gone, and we would be reduced to live in a state of perpetual paranoia.
Trust must be the starting point for understanding intimacy and later for the understanding what can go wrong in intimacy.
A noted psychological theorist, Erick Erickson, observed and treated emotional problems for much of his life. He theorized that infancy is that stage of development where trust is learned within the human organism. Further, he theorized, if trust was not learned in infancy, then mistrust would be learned in its place. When the latter is the case, the ability to enjoy the successful negotiation of intimacy as an adult is severely compromised and in many cases impossible.
Trust/Mistrust… ones and zeros:
Trust and mistrust are opposite sides of the same coin and can be viewed as a binary system. Trust and mistrust represent an either/or situation. There is no such thing as trusting a little bit, because this implies that there is mistrust at work. Where there is trust, there is not mistrust; where there is mistrust, there is not trust.
The infant child lives in three apparent states of being: need, pain and relief (pleasure). These three states are the essential raw materials for the evolution of trust within the developing child.
It has long been taught that trust is the byproduct of the timely gratification of needs as they present themselves coming forth from the child. These needs are apparent by the revelation of discomfort evidenced by crying and fussing. It is also well known that when a crying child is left unattended, the child will escalate her response from crying to angering; if left further unattended, the child will likely become severely depressed and symptoms of “failure to thrive” syndrome will set in.
Trust is the human result of a stimulus-response conditioning process. When we look at the situation of the very young infant (less than two months), we see that the child is gratified by the efforts of the mother (or mother surrogate) who is external to the child, and we therefore conclude that the mother is the object of that trust. However, the very young infant cannot identify the mother as part of the trust equation because the child has yet to develop the cognitive and emotional functioning that allows for the recognition of external objects. Rather, it is more accurate to posit that trust is learned internally by the child within the experience of relief as it follows crying and angering.
Arithmetically, the process will look something like:
Pain + crying (angering) + relief = Trust (especially when offered in an attitude of love)
Thus, if one looks at what is going on internally for an infant, it becomes clear that it is not the mother that is the initial object of a child’s trust, but rather, it is the process of crying and angering (“throwing a fit”). It is only later, as the child’s cognitive functioning develops more fully, that the child learns to associate the mother with gratification and thus, transfers the trust associated with pain and relief over to the mother. The human infant is essentially trained to know that crying and “throwing a fit” are the accepted ways to get needs met.
Also, it can be posited that when pain, crying and angering result in successful gratification of a need, the following can be held to be true:
Pain + Crying (angering) + relief = success, and then according to law of transitive equality (i.e., a=b and b=c; then a=c); then …
Trust = Success
Consider once more: For the infant human being, crying and angering lead to relief; relief leads to trust; trust is a good thing; therefore, crying and angering must be good. Remember this and hold on to it for later.
The successful outcome of infancy yields psychological attachment between the mother and the child. The typical human being seeks to repeat this attachment with “significant” others in adolescence and adulthood. The quality and health of the initial attachment to the mother will greatly affect the quality and health of the subsequent attachments later in life. Simply put, the healthier the relationship between child and mother, the better the chances for a healthy relationship with others in adulthood.
Toddlerhood …The Fall:
The successful completion of the major emotional tasks of infancy (i.e., attachment and trust) will result in a progression toward the natural processes of toddlerhood (i.e., emotional separation from the mother and formation of self). Per theorists and practitioners, Margaret Mahler et al, it is the nature of the healthy toddler to proceed in the direction of separation away from the mother toward the development of individual identity. This separation process is enhanced by cognitive advancements that result in curiosity and a desire to explore the world; paradoxically, the movement toward separation occurs best when psychological attachment is strong and healthy.
It serves to note here that toddlerhood presents advances in cognitive development not present in infancy (i.e., the ability to synthesize thought) that will promote emotions that are different from the simple pleasure-pain experiences of infancy. The child becomes aware of him or herself in the world, and with that awareness will emerge feelings that arise according to the theories put forth by Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioral Theorists (i.e., RET/CBT).
RET/CBT: The truth is what you think.
Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioral Theorists hold to the notion that visceral responses (feelings) are a result of intellectual constructs; further it is held that these feelings motivate behaviors. Within the realm of RET/CBT, feelings arise when a perception of an Activating Event (A) is cognitively registered and this perception results in the stimulation of some belief (B). It is this belief that results in feeling which then prompts the person to act in a manner Consequential (C) to the Activating Event and the Belief. These theorists maintain that, without the ability to think, the human being is reduced to an animal that is at best reflexive in its responses and at worst non-responsive all together. One need only consider the condition of a person who is suffering advanced Altzheimer’s Disease to see what a non-thinking human looks like, or observe any active animal to see what is meant by a reflexive being.
It is hypothesized by this writer that an infant does not experience emotion beyond pleasure and pain until the emergence of more advanced cognitive functioning (thinking and perceiving). Once the ability to think and reason takes hold (albeit minimally in toddlerhood), it is logical to conclude that the most simple, and therefore one of the earliest manifestations of awareness, is that of either success or failure. For the small child, this is manifest in the notion of either getting or not getting what is desired.
It is at this juncture that we must momentarily revisit Developmental Theory as put forth by Erickson as it applies to toddlers. Erickson theorized that, just as infancy yielded either trust or mistrust, toddlerhood yields its emotional milestone as the appearance of autonomy (i.e., identity, individuality, independence, success) or shame (i.e., failure, self-doubt and psychological despair). This emotionally formative “crisis” is dichotomous, that is, it is another binary situation; the child will either be autonomous (i.e., “okay” with self) or shame affected (i.e., “not okay” with self) at various points in time.
But to understand how this will lead to character development and ultimately to intimate interactions, we need to undergo a change of key and begin an examination of the very basics of another theory of human behavior (Affect Theory) and how this will apply to ongoing emotional development.
Affect Theory… the thumbnail:
Simply put, Affect Theory poses that human behavior is motivated by feeling.
Affect Theory, spearheaded by Silvan Tomkins via Gershen Kaufman postulates that human behavior is motivated by nine basic feeling states (i.e., joy, interest, surprise, anger, fear, shame, distress/anguish, bad smells and disgust). In the world of psychology and psychological theory, the notion that humans are motivated by feelings rather than drives has at times prompted vigorous debate. However, in the interest of simplicity, the reader need only know that Affect Theory is one theory as to what motivates people to do what they do; the resolution of the debate will be left to others who like to argue. For the purposes of this examination of the human condition, it will be held that Affect Theory is a viable construct for understanding human behavior. It is compatible and “linkable” with Rational Emotive and Developmental Theories.
If one accepts that human beings are motivated by feelings, a new equation can be garnered from the material contained in the Affect Theory model. This equality is the result of pulling joy and shame from the feeling array in Affect Theory (i.e., behavioral motivators) and viewing them in light of Erickson’s developmental theory. Doing so will bring into focus two things that are often overlooked at the most basic level of character study…1) the emergence of shame in toddlerhood and 2) the power held by shame for shaping defensive behaviors.
How it works:
Per Erickson, shame naturally emerges in toddlerhood as the inherent response to some perceived failure on the part of the toddler child. (This assertion is also supported by elements of RET/CBT which purport that feelings result from thoughts, i.e., perceptions.) Shame is a feeling experience that is neither overwhelming nor debilitating , however, it is uncomfortable (i.e., painful), and it is reasonable to conclude that it is the pain of shame (and the accompanying self-doubt) that is a major cause crying and “temper tantrums” in small children. When it is accepted that the feeling of shame is at the root of many crying and angering behaviors in toddlerhood, it can be surmised that the feeling of shame is the seed from which almost all future characterological defense grows.
This writer asserts that any occurrence in a child’s world that is perceived as a failure by that child will bring forth the feeling of shame. It should be noted that the shame referenced here is the simply the feeling of shame; this is not to be confused with guilt or feeling ashamed (i.e., shame with some object). Shame is simply one of nine feelings (affects) that occur routinely within the human being; shame is the affect (i.e., visceral feeling) that is attached to the notion of failure.
Mathematically represented as:
Failure = Shame
It is very difficult to understand that there is a difference between shame as a feeling, as opposed to the notion that shame is the feeling of being ashamed (or guilty). One of the ways to understand shame as a feeling is to realize that there is every bit as much shame functioning in kindergarten as there is in a prison yard. When a kindergartner experiences shame, he or she is likely to feel badly, avoid eye contact and cry; but when a prisoner experiences shame, the inmate will vie to retaliate toward the person he believes caused the shame. Some effort will be made to strike down that other in order to “save face,” or not appear weak. In both situations (kindergarten and prison) shame is the underlying motivating feeling to the reaction; however, the reaction is not the feeling. Guilt (i.e., being ashamed) is a reaction to shame, as is retaliation; neither is the feeling itself. Guilt and other responses to shame are essentially cognitive constructs (rational interpretations) that result from the experience of the shame feeling in combination with the life experiences and internal predispositions of the individual.
It is important to differentiate the feeling of shame from the experience of guilt because it helps to understand that reactions to shame can, and will, be different. Just because someone appears to “have no shame” does not mean that this is necessarily so; rather it means that there are differences in the way shame is experienced and revealed by various people. When someone appears to “have no shame,” it is highly likely this experience of shame creates so much tension from the fear of exposure, that he or she disavows shame completely, as though it does not exist; thus, sparing that person from the excruciating pain of humiliation.
As previously stated, the feeling of shame is painful. It is likely the most painful of all the feelings that are available to the human being, because the pain from shame can ultimately be directed back at the self. When a toddler experiences an event that is perceived as a failure, that youngster will experience the feeling of shame, and with it the accompanying pain. As noted earlier, this hurts, and there are scant few ways that a toddler can deal with such a feeling except to lower the head and appear shameful, cry, and/or get angry. Afterall, the human child is conditioned to do so in infancy. It is unreasonable to expect that a small child will be able to verbally relate the shame experience in a cogent, coherent manner, because for the most part, doing so is often a remarkable achievement for adults.
As noted, infants will resort to crying and getting angry as a primary response to dealing with the pain they feel when in the pain of need. Now in toddlerhood comes the advent of refutation and frustration of desire, emerges the pain of failure. Only a few short months earlier in infancy, crying and angering were the accepted means of dealing with painful situations, but in toddlerhood something has changed. Somehow, in less than a year, crying and angering are no longer considered acceptable, they are deemed to be “bad,” or at least, a undesirable. Now the child experiences threats, belittling, and outright punishment on the part of parents to stop the child’s crying and angering.
Note: for those of you we’re not good at mathematics, you may find the following section to be confusing. A cursory attempt at simply understanding concepts being put forward will be sufficient to move on.
This is a good place to revisit the trust equation of infancy:
Trust = Need + Pain + Relief
Success = Need + Pain + Relief
Trust = Success
Recall, if you will, the notion that in infancy “bad” behavior (throwing a fit) was “good” for getting needs met, and good for the formation of trust. Now consider the toddler who, as an infant, had been conditioned to expect relief from crying and angering, is now being taught that crying and angering are no longer desirable means for getting needs met. Thus, what used to be good and useful (throwing a fit) is now bad and unwanted.
So, in many cases, the following toddlerhood equation replaces that of infancy:
Shame (i.e., bad feelings) – relief = need (desire) + pain + crying/angering
Once again, back to an algebraic representation of what is happening:
Failure = Shame
Trust = Success
Infancy: Relief + Need + Pain + Crying/Angering = Trust
Toddlerhood: Need + pain + crying (and angering) = Shame – Relief
Shame = Trust = Success = Failure… An irrational conclusion
This algebraic conclusion is the result of a shift in adult attitudes about children’s behaviors after infancy has lapsed. This irrational conclusion represents the experience of the young person who is on the receiving end of that shift and an internal conflict is generated. The notion that what was once “good” and healthy (crying and angering to get needs met) becomes “bad” and unhealthy (Shame). As noted earlier and as will be noted again, the natural transition from infancy to toddlerhood presents one of life’s greatest of difficulties for many human beings (aside from the angst that must must be faced later in life with regard to matters of adolescence, aging and death).
There is another aspect of the terrible two’s situation that reveals how much our society frowns on “childish” behaviors, and that is the tendency of some parents to indulge children who are crying and angering just to get them to stop. This system of development brings with it a whole other set of dynamics which helps create children who quickly learn to use parental shame for their own benefit. These children know that their parents do not want them to act badly, and use this knowledge to emotionally blackmail parents into giving them what they want. These children are gratified with indulgence in the interest of obtaining and maintaining “peace and harmony,” as well as not letting the child suffer pain.
Both of the above responses to normal childhood acting-out behaviors reveal that as a people, we don’t like it very much when our children cry, and we will go to some lengths to stop that crying. It is here, at this point in the development of many children, that dysfunctional and maladaptive coping behaviors on the part of parents will lead to subsequent maladaptive coping behaviors in children and in the end will result in dysfunctional families and unsatisfactory intimate relationships.
The mistakes that we make:
There tend to be three very different methods that adults employ for dealing with the presence of shame induced behaviors (usually anger and sadness) in children: as noted above, two of them are punishment and capitulation (indulgence); the third is tolerance (steadfastness). Two of these responses are mistakes: punishment and indulgence. All parental responses to children’s behaviors fall into one of these categories (or some some variation that blends them). The response that a parent chooses is usually the same method that the parent experienced as a child (or sometimes the exact opposite); therefore, the shape of the child’s character will in some manner reflect that of the parent. It is the opinion of this writer that many, many children are being parented incorrectly, and that not enough children are raised by tolerant, steady parents. Thus, a large portion of our population is comprised of intolerant and unsteady adults.
It should be noted that the mistakes parents make with their children are not usually one-time mistakes that are simply rectified and forgotten, but rather they are mistakes that occur over and over again as part of a process. This process results in the installation of a core operating program within the developing child that is a combination of the child’s basic nature and the inputs from the environment. Therefore, it will be this core operating program that will dictate behavior as the person grows, and eventually the adult person will find him or herself operating in of a sort of “auto pilot” mode, often behaving in self-defeating or undesirable ways regardless of how much an alternate behavior is desired. An illustration of this dynamic is revealed in the person who vowed as a youngster he will never treat his children as his parents treated him, but then as an adult, finds himself doing those very things.
Upon reflection, the overall emotional developmental process for human beings can be summarized as follows: The infancy and toddler years are years of firsts; it is during these years that the original seeds for future coping mechanisms are sown. The years between toddlerhood and adolescence (approximately, ages 5 through 12) are years of acceptance and reinforcement of the coping behaviors that have already been set in motion. The years of adolescence are years of rejection and testing of the basic operating programs which have been internalized as a result of ongoing interactions with parents and others in the environment. The years of young adulthood yield an internal reconciliation with the original operating programs, and an apparent reconciliation between the youngster and the parents; the cycle is complete, and will now repeat with the next generation.
Tying it all together…
At this point the reader is probably wondering, “what does this have to do with my marriage or my relationship with my significant other?”
The answer to that question is embarrassingly obvious: People have become adults on the outside, but because of faulty parenting, remain children on the inside. When people are at work, at the store, in a restaurant, on the golf course, at a concert, or engaged in a multitude of other social enterprises, they tend to represent themselves as though they are grown-ups because that is what they have learned to do (often out of fear, and an avoidance of punishment).
Meanwhile in the home, partners get upset with one another over little things like how to stack dishes in a dishwasher, how to squeeze a toothpaste tube, where to put dirty clothes, how to make a bed, whether to make a bed, how to drive a car, how much money to spend and on what, how much to eat, when to eat, if and when to have sex, and so on and on. Slowly, over time, due to an ongoing process of disappointment and disenchantment, they begin to see one another as willfully unaccommodating, coolly aloof, or bitterly connected. They begin to notice that the little things that used to be supplied by the other are no longer provided. They start to feel unloved.
When a person feels unloved, it is quite normal to feel worthless, and to perceive that he or she is a failure. As noted earlier, whenever a failure is perceived by a human being, the resultant feeling is shame. Also, as previously mentioned, shame is a painful experience, but what’s more, shame is at its most intense in response to the perception of not being loved. Naturally, a coping mechanism for such a devastating feeling is required, and from where does this coping strategy come? Childhood and parents.
Coping Mechanisms for The Shame Experience
There are essentially two realms of coping behaviors for the feeling of shame: Adaptive and Maladaptive. Adaptive behaviors are those that result in successful, healthy outcomes, while maladaptive coping mechanisms result in ongoing failure and frustration. Within each of these two realms there are also three “sub-realms:” Psychological (thought), Physical (action), and Interpersonal (interactive).
Self-rightness – the tendency to deny responsibility, blame others, or rationalize intentions in an effort to avoid being wrong. The upside to this method of coping with “bad” inner feelings is that the one who is defending will create the delusion of having “no problem” (a form of self-righteousness). The downside to this is that those who are intimate with the psychologically defensive person often find themselves “forced” to accept responsibility for what the defensive person denies in order to maintain harmony.
Addictions and compulsions – the practice of excessively employing some relatively convenient and easily repeated behavior is intended remove the feeling of shame (e.g., alcoholism, drug addiction, workaholism, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors). The use of these types of coping behaviors tends to leave the user numb to, or unaware of, the pain of the inner shame experience. These behaviors do not compensate for shame, but rather they tend to create the illusion that no shame exists.
Power and control– the use of one’s influence in relationship to the “weaknesses” of another to exert one’s will over that other. The use of power as THE way to compensate for the inner experience of shame is first learned in toddlerhood, and is refined throughout the developmental process. Power and power techniques are regarded as maladaptive coping mechanisms in that they inadvertently resort to the control of another, and are often rooted in anger, fear, deceit, and manipulation; the end result of which is victimization.
Interestingly, the person who is victimized in a relationship can use that sense of victimization as justification for his or her own manipulation (power tactic), and subsequently victimize those seen as the aggressors. This occurs both consciously and unconsciously, and is often part of the passive-aggressive personality style.
Self-Respect/Self Affirmation – to hold on to ideals and standards out of the belief that the self is valuable and worthy. This must be accomplished in association with the ability and willingness to accept personal responsibility for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (especially those that affect the intimate partner); especially when one is wrong.
Striving/Achievement -exercising the willingness to learn from mistakes and strive for success by way of persevering, and not giving up until a particular goal is achieved. This includes such activities as healthy eating, exercising, and the development of healthy functioning, and healthy habits. These compensatory behaviors are performed within the awareness of an existing shaming experience.
Included within this rubric is the moderate use of healthy compensating activities such as doing art, writing, landscaping, woodworking, cleaning, and various other tasks as a way to divert attention away from the shame.
Love and Acceptance – experiencing the acceptance of another in an attitude of love whenever one attempts new things, and whenever one falters in those attempts. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough the importance of acceptance in the growth of the human being. Rejection and misunderstanding are likely the two most serious of all shame generators in the developing child, and the perception of rejection by a loved one will tend to be one of the strongest generators of shame in adulthood.
Most of us are still children on the inside,
and this supposition is revealed in intimate relationships.
If one accepts the notion that most people are simply grown-up children (as opposed to mature adults), then another hypothesis can be constructed. This thesis suggests that people relate to one another in intimacy as though the other is expected to be the perfect parent. The perfect parent is defined as that one person who loves the other no matter what, and beyond that, the perfect parent never loses touch with empathy, understanding, willingness to give of self, and the absolute tolerance and acceptance of the other.
Consider the following example: A man’s wife gets angry with him over the way he has scolded their nine year old son for spilling orange juice on the living room carpet. The man turns around and gets angry with his wife because she never takes his side in things that pertain to the children, and she is going to ruin the children by teaching them that their father has no real authority in the home. The wife escalates her anger about the incident over the orange juice to encompass her feelings about her husband acting like a child himself, because he won’t admit his mistakes. She refuses to talk with him for the next two days except when it is absolutely necessary or unavoidable. As time passes, thoughts of the incident slowly fade, and eventually the couple relates as though the incident did not occur (until the next episode at which their memories of past mistakes become razor sharp).
The above scenario is not uncommon among middle class couples; many couples that squabble, often do so in some similar manner. What the example illustrates is that each member of the couple resorts to childish behaviors in relationship to the other’s shortcomings. When this happens, each is blaming the other for the problem at hand, and justifying his or her own behaviors with the notion that it is the other who is wrong. What is implicit within this dynamic is the thought that the other is supposed to be better able to remain steady and accepting in spite of the errors made by the one in the situation. In the case above the husband secretly expects the wife to understand his motives, identify with his feelings, and accept his actions in spite of the fact that he has may have made a mistake; in other words he expects her to love him (and demonstrate that love) no matter what. At the same time, the wife expects him to be able to tolerate her protest toward him with gracious dignity, a moderated temper, and full acceptance of her position regardless of his feelings on the matter. He is supposed to immediately consider her feelings, process them, then realize his mistake, and then be “big” enough to be loving toward her in spite of the fact that she is angry at him. Each, on an unconscious level, is wanting the other to be the perfect parent in the form of the ideal mate.
The Resolution…strive to become the perfect parent
So what can be done about the notion that members of couples are looking for their counterparts to be the perfect parent?
Realize that the only real way to make a marriage or intimate relationship work satisfactorily is to endeavor to become that perfect parent for the other. This means that each partner in a relationship will learn to work to become a better person for the other, rather than demanding the other to be the one to make the improvements. This one shift of focus in an intimate relationship is probably the single most important thing that each member of a couple can employ to remedy most relational difficulties.
As can be seen from the material presented throughout this essay, people grow to become childish adults because of the inherent deficits in the parenting they experienced while growing and developing. Also, as noted earlier, these deficits are mainly revealed in the inability of a person to successfully identify and acknowledge shame as the motivator for the majority of one’s own negative and undesirable behaviors. When a person is able to look inside of him or herself, and see that the vast majority of their undesirable behaviors are actually motivated by their own hidden shame, he or she will be in a position to start to work on the notion that a relationship can be changed by altering the self, not the other.
Love…the work of relationships
It almost sounds trite to claim that love is the work that needs to be done to improve a relationship, but the very basic truth of success in a relationship is that if one person loves another, this will be revealed in the manner in which “the lover” behaves toward the loved.
The definition of love in American culture and society has been skewed by the way that love is portrayed in television, movies and music. For the most part, it seems that the kind of love that is professed and sought after throughout modern American culture is the the kind of love that is ideally pure, completely shared, heartily stimulating, unfailingly uplifting, and unswervingly accepting. What most people seem to seek is the experience of “being in love;” a state of being induced by biochemical processes in the brain and body in which one feels warm, accepted, appreciated and adored. For many in our culture, love and bliss can be used interchangeably; love is often pursued in much the same manner as a drug or similar addiction.
The harsh truth about love is that love is much more a way of being than a state of being, and that this way of being is often not very blissful at all. Love, true love that is, should be viewed as a choice of behaviors that must be exercised by the lover. Many adults find that love does not come easily, nor does it occur naturally or spontaneously, and choosing to love another in the face of some adverse emotion emanating from the other can be excruciatingly hard work. Most intimate relationships fall apart due to adherence of a “being in love” ideal rather than a more realistic “love the being” endeavor; where the difference between the two is the difference between “being” and “doing.”
Variations of loving Behaviors
There are numerous and varied behaviors that can be included on a spectrum of loving behaviors; what follows is a partial list of those that are the most important when considering intimate relationships.
First, and foremost, failure to respect the other under all circumstances is the probably the most common failing in marital, familial and intimate relationships. There tends to be an unwritten law that there are two sets of rules for behavior in our culture: private and public. Usually, it is found that most people are on their best behavior in public, while they give themselves license to behave poorly in their intimate environments. If anything, however, people should treat family better than “outsiders;” after all, most of the people we see in any given day will be gone from our lives much more quickly than a family member.
Loss of respect is often revealed in name calling, belittling, cursing, yelling, threatening and manipulating. Many people have learned that in order to give respect they have to receive it first; this is exactly opposite from the truth; respect must be given in order to be received. There is also a difference between commanding versus demanding respect. It is extremely difficult to command the respect of others when one demands that others give it.
As noted earlier, one of the most painful aspects of interpersonal intimacy is the absence of, or separation from, another’s acceptance. Acceptance is about validation and listening; about giving the message to another that he or she is still “acceptable” regardless of the situation or circumstances at hand. Of all the processes that will help heal the feeling of shame, the practice of acceptance is likely to be the most powerful. When one knows that one is “okay” with another “no matter what,” self-respect and self-worth grow substantially faster and stronger within that person.
Compassion, Empathy, Concern for the other
The ability to feel for another and to have have some idea of what is going on inside the other is an accepted definition for empathy. Usually, empathy is easy when one is listening to another talk about a third person, but when one is the object of the other’s problems, empathy and understanding become very difficult. One of the more difficult tasks a spouse will face will be when the other is telling him things about himself that the other does not like; things she wants him to change.
When two people start dating and then talk with one another about their troubles, most of those troubles have to do with other people, usually family members. But as a relationship develops, and two people spend ever increasing amounts of time with one another, each tends to become a problem for the other. Thus, when one talks about problems, one is now referring to the other; this can be painful, especially for those who are not adept a hearing things about the self. Shortcomings are not what most people like to discuss about themselves. Again, embracing shortcomings is a shameful experience, and shame is painful.
Appreciation and Assistance
Stereotypically, men tend to seek appreciation, and women tend seek connection; both of these tendencies are often disrupted when partners fail to notice what is being provided by the other. Often this is the case because people forget (or never really knew) what life would be like if one had to do everything for oneself.
Men are often expected to take care of things that need fixed, maintained or built. Women are expected to do the things that compose a daily life (e.g., dishes, cooking, paying the bills, vacuuming, grocery shopping, looking after everyone else). A basic western societal stereotype goes something like this: Men like to build things, they like to fix things and they like to feel the results of a job well done. Women, on the other hand, don’t like to clean up after others, they don’t like to do the dishes, and they don’t like the apparent fact that they are expected know where their children (or husbands) have “lost” their shoes; in fact, women can be down right resentful about their “job” around the house.
Here’s the rub. When a man does a job, he typically doesn’t want help (unless it is handing him a screw or holding a board while he saws it), but rather he wants appreciation and praise after the job is done. Women, however, aren’t much interested in appreciation or praise, they want help. They want their husbands to pick up a dishcloth and wash the dishes, clean the hair out of the shower trap, make the bed, dust the furniture or pitch in with dinner, and they want their kids to empty the dishwasher, take out the trash without having to be asked, put their shoes where they belong, or clean up after themselves when they make a sandwich, and etc. Most women are not interested in doing what men do and that’s just fine with a man, and most men men are not interested in doing what women do, and that’s just not okay with a woman at all.
The resolution to this disparity between the sexes has be a two sided shift. If a man loves a woman, then it is incumbent upon him to help her with her “chores;” he must be willing to realize that he too shares in the responsibility for maintaining daily life; he must understand that simple, yet mundane tasks are not particularly rewarding, but are necessary for living.
This area of “expertise” may well be the single greatest failure among intimate partners. John Grey in his book, Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus, warns that men must learn to listen to their spouses and to remember that women talk from feelings. He recommends that men learn to stay away from problem solving, and he definitely encourages men to learn to experience and display empathy.
Listening doesn’t stop there, however. Many men complain that their wives do not listen to them. Over the past years men have been encouraged to learn to talk about their feelings, and to learn to represent their feelings to their wives. What often happens in these endeavors has not been what one might expect. For the most part, women and men are really no different when it comes to being sensitive to criticism, and whenever one partner shares a feeling about, and with, the other, there is the risk that the other will become defensive as a result. Many men have attempted to talk about their feelings only to have their words rejected by their wives. Consider the man who tells his wife that she has hurt his feelings by using his car without letting him know, and then she tells him that he has a problem because he is self-centered and non-sharing, and he wouldn’t feel hurt if he was a more generous person.
There seems to be some sort of myth that just because women tend to be more feeling oriented than men, they are somehow better able to deal with those feelings. It seems that women have just as much trouble handling feelings and feeling situations as do their male counterparts; otherwise there would be no need for “couples’” counseling. Yet, it does seem to be true, women tend to be more feeling and men tend to be more logical, at least at the beginning of many discussions. Difficulties arise when discussions turn into arguments and the man fuels his logic with his anger and the woman fuels her feelings with her logic. When this happens, listening prevails only long enough for each to formulate the next item of debate, and the couple falls into an irrational argument that neither can win.
Listening has to be about respect and concern for the other person rather than about hearing enough to win an argument. One of the hardest accomplishments in an intimate relationship is to be able to listen to a complaint about oneself without becoming defensive and accusatory in return. A good thing to tell oneself (a mantra of sorts) when the other approaches with some matter of importance is this: “I have to keep quiet and let this pass, I can always come back to this later, but right now, I must listen.” And one more thing to remember… “just because someone has a problem with me, doesn’t necessarily mean that I am the problem.”
Giving in without resentment
Most couples find themselves in disagreements over minor matters on a somewhat routine basis. Anyone who is married can reflect on the myriad of situations that have resulted in resentful feelings. Resentments occur when one feels that, whatever one is doing, should be done by or with someone else. Consider the simple task of taking care of the family dog in the morning. If one partner sleeps in each morning, and the other is feeding and caring for the dog (as well as making the coffee and getting the kids up), there will be a strong likelihood for the more active partner to become resentful of the other.
Resentment is often a behavioral symptom of feelings of guilt or obligation feeding the thought that one has no options other than to give in. Resentment presents itself when a person wants to say ‘NO’ but feels compelled to say ‘yes;’ and wants to say ‘YES,’ but feels compelled to say ‘no.’ Usually, it is the fear of retribution or loss of love that guides the resentful person. The key to living without resentment is mustering the willingness to be true to oneself, especially when doing so is going to be difficult.
Being able to identify resentment and work through the fears that accompany it, is one of the more important elements for changing one’s habits and improving one’s overall character.
It is believed by a preponderance of people that a healthy sex life is the sign of a healthy relationship. Consequently, one or the other partner in an intimate relationship might equate love (i.e., a healthy relationship) with the quality and frequency of sexual activity. This single belief can set a series of attitudes and behaviors in motion that in the end will result in a great deal of dissatisfaction, disappointment, anger and shame.
The act of sex is a combination of emotional and physiological components that have to come together in just the right way at just the right time in order for both partners to appreciate the other (and the sexual experience). Sexual gratification is a selfish experience at its core, yet each partner is responsible to consider the other’s experience. Many partners (men and women alike) are highly motivated to provide pleasure for the other. The fact that the other is enjoying the experience is a sexual turn-on in itself. However, this can get old when the favor is not returned in kind. Couples need to be able to talk abut their sexual experiences with one another before, during and after their experience.
The last bastion of successful intimacy is the willingness for each partner to be able to accept the reality of his or her character and personality in relationship to the other. Throughout the above paragraphs, the notion of personal responsibility has been implied, but not explicitly identified.
At the very heart of personal responsibility is the manner in which a person deals with the shame that will naturally arise in daily living. No one gets his or her way all the time, and no one is perfect. Thus, shame will be inherent in intimate interactions. There are few things in the intimate world as frustrating as the notion that one can plainly see a flaw in the other’s character, only to have the observation denied, rationalized, minimized or projected back onto the observer.
The acceptance of personal responsibility is difficult for many partners in an intimate relationship. Often, a couple will be composed of one partner who readily accepts his or her mistakes, and openly works to rectify them, while the other hides behind defenses that drives the more accepting partner out of his or her mind.
It usually takes effective couples counseling/therapy to resolve disparities of stye with regard to owning one’s thoughts, feelings, motives and behaviors.
To quote a line from Al Pacino in the movie “Sea of love,” “relationships are work.”
The notion of an “internal world” can be new concept for many people in an intimate relationship. Many partners (usually men) struggle with changes that have emerged over the past sixty years. Yet at the very center of the intimacy dilemma, lies the unspoken reality of shame, and its effect upon individuals in relationship to one another. When partners become aware of the existence of the feeling of shame operating within, they can then remedy that feeling internally, rather than trying to control the other. In the end, it will be love (for self and the other), that will prevail in healthy family development.