When I hear people distress about their relationship, I get an image of two people sitting their backs to each other, on opposite sides of a small island, sullenly awaiting a passing ship. By their attitude they see their relationship more like an imposed state than a mutual venture; intentionally diminishing their possibilities for happiness. In reality though, relationships are not entities, but jointly brought into being by two individuals who have been influenced by previous jointly formed relationships, such as family, and past romantic relationships. These influences shape a person and the facets of their relational tendencies, or, parts. Meaning, all relationships are the combined sum of the individuals’ multiple, and constantly moving, parts. In romantic relationships especially, if individuals don’t recognize this they can get stuck reacting to the effects of their partner’s parts, not taking into consideration the effects of their own. Appreciating a relationship then requires not only understanding the cumulative effects of the two people’s combined parts, but for each person to open-mindedly recognize how their parts contribute to the dynamics of the relationship, and in turn affects the parts their partner contributes … while both sets of parts are moving! The trick though is to consider the parts relating as cause and effect, not right and wrong; or keeping score.
Take Ollie and Rose, a couple I see in my practice. Ollie was raised with alcoholic parents who gave little consideration to how their drinking affected him. As a result Ollie gets uneasy around drinking, especially when it involves someone he is emotionally close to. When Ollie initially met Rose, she sometimes drank to excess, although not alcoholically. Because didn’t want her to see his uneasiness around alcohol as a deficiency, or for her to feel uncomfortable drinking around him, he gave her only a generalized overview of his history. Yet as the relationship became more serious, Ollie became uncomfortable with Rose’s drinking, especially if she became intoxicated. To avert this , Ollie would try to dissuade her from drinking. For example, he might remark at her ordering a second glass of wine with dinner, or become distant if she did. Unfortunately, Rose was raised by a very moral and controlling father, and experienced Ollie’s remarks similarly. Because she resented Ollie’s control, as she had her father’s, Rose reacted by ordering 3 or sometimes 4 glasses of wine. Ollie would then shift from distance to disgust; and Rose from reaction to entitlement, and arguments almost always resulted.
On the surface their arguments could be summed up two ways: 1) Ollie experienced Rose’s drinking as inconsiderate and disrespectful when Ollie made what he considered a reasonable request of her not to drink.; 2) Rose experienced Ollie’s disapproval of her drinking as a replay of her father’s disapproval of her choices, which she had equated with the threat of father relinquishing his love. Because Rose had experienced her father’s attitude as hurtful and unfair, she rebelled against it to feel she had power over her vulnerability. Unfortunately Ollie experienced Rose’s insistence on drinking like a replay of his parent’s drinking — he wished that they had loved him enough to consider how their drinking might’ve affected him. Both were being hurt by the other’s parts, even though neither consciously intended to do this. More accurately, their reactions were meant to prevent each from being hurt by the other.
To resolve this dynamic, Ollie and Rose need to be aware of their individual parts and recognize how they are interacting with their partner’s and the effects these have on the relationship as a whole. Ollie doesn’t want to control Rose’s ability to let go and enjoy herself, but in reality just wants to direct circumstances so that he actually can let go and enjoy himself. While this can appear controlling to Rose, especially given her history, it isn’t intended to. Ollie needs to recognize that his association of his parents’ drinking is getting replayed in his relationship, and isn’t in actuality applicable to Rose. What compounds this is that rather than accept Ollie’s discomfort, Rose associates it with her father’s disapproval, and reacts by defying it. If Ollie could risk being more honest with himself and Rose, and take ownership of the influence his parents’ drinking had on him, Rose could recognize that Ollie’s discomfort with drinking isn’t explicitly due to her drinking. While they have similar vulnerabilities around drinking with regards to love and acceptance, they stem from different causes. Ollie’s vulnerability is tied to his fear that someone he loves can’t distinguish their regard for him and for a substance; and for Rose, it’s distinguishing Ollie’s regard for her from his disapproval of a behavior. Rather than covertly trying to direct Rose’s drinking, whether by distancing himself or with a disapproving attitude, Ollie would be more effective if he would openly explain his feelings and associations around drinking, make a request regarding the amount Rose drinks when they are out, and leave it at that. Feeling that she is being recognized as an individual adult, Rose can then choose whether to limit the amount she drinks in consideration of Ollie’s feelings; or see Ollie’s discomfort as belonging to him and, if she can do so respectfully, consider her own wants, and appreciate that Ollie may just have a reaction.
It isn’t about setting aside either’s experience or the feelings they bring about, but addressing them individually and then within the context of the relationship. Understanding it this way, Rose can see that she isn’t being controlled or manipulated by Ollie’s judgment of her drinking or the threat of him withholding love, rather that he experiences discomfort around drinking in general. In turn, Ollie can recognize that while Rose may want to drink, it isn’t to the exclusion of considering him like he experienced with his parents’ drinking.
Having a relationship is more gratifying if one recognizes that they bring particular aspects, or parts, that will understandably react with the parts their partner brings. Consider too, these parts and their preceding momentum are circumstantially interchangeable. Meaning, imagine if Ollie had met a woman, Brett, who didn’t drink, but who’s parents had a hard time acknowledging her independence and wanted to spend more time with her than Ollie liked. While this wouldn’t have had the same poignancy as Rose’s drinking, it might have had similar effects correlated to the relationship Ollie had with his parents. For example, seeing Brett’s parents’ focus on her, might trigger his resentment over his parents’ inability to consider him, and in the same way he tried to dissuade Rose from drinking, he might try to limit the amount of time Brett spends with her parents. This might in turn affect that part of Brett that is conflicted about loyalty, so that she might insist on spending more time with them out of guilt. Regardless of how it plays out, Ollie’s parts are the same. They are just reacting to the effects of a different set of parts—Brett’s. Either Rose’s or Brett’s parts will affect Ollie’s parts, and expose his vulnerabilities, but understanding and recognizing these parts and how they might interact and affect a partner can make resolving conflicts easier and more productive.