It’s nothing ground breaking to say that when we fall in love, it is initially with an idealized version of the other person. And once that idealized version, or influence, of love has worn off, it is sorely experienced by having to face, and potentially even accept, the “real” person with all of their imperfections.
Obviously, these imperfections existed long before the relationship and continued to even while all that idealizing was taking place. So, how do they get overlooked? Similar to individuals who are addicted, individuals in love also instinctively seek, at times by any means necessary, to ensure their supply. Under the influence of instincts, and high on the experience of love, it’s easy to overlook the other’s imperfections. Because love requires reciprocity, the favor of overlooking imperfections of the other is returned in kind, and then some. In fact, both are so eager to overlook the other’s imperfections, they not only willingly distort their own imperfections, but willingly distort how they reflect the other’s as well. Think of it like doing improv. You’re given a scenario and induced to improvise in the hopes of continuing it to best ends. But, alas, they inevitably come to realize the scenario has an ends of its own, and they are merely hapless participants, left abandoned on the steps of reality.
The consolation often given is this is when the “real” relationship begins. The couple has run the gauntlet of the honeymoon stage, run ragged by disillusionment, but now by having established a realistic baseline, they are—theoretically—supposed to feel secure believing that each genuinely knows, and accepts, the other for who they really are.
Yeah-no. If this were the case, more therapists would’ve opted for business school, and many couples would spend their date-nights at the movies, and not in those therapists’ offices.
You’d think that, after all a couple goes through post-idealizing they could just call it a day. Not really. The bad news is that they just continue cycling through idealization and reality; but the good news, the real consolation, is that accepting and working with this cycling leads deeper individual and mutual understanding and intimacy. Plus, the willingness to continually revise our understanding of ourselves and our partner helps anticipate and cushion the blow of when reality overtakes idealization, and better navigate the ensuing conflicts.
Take Doug and Stephanie, a couple I work with. During a session, Doug tells Stephanie, “I want to try playing Rugby.”
“Have you ever played?”
Almost immediately, Doug gets defensive. “No. But it’s something I’ve always wanted to try.”
Stephanie draws back slightly, but responds reasonably, “You’ll get hurt.” But Doug ignores her concern, reacting. “I can handle it!” keeping his face to hers, intending, it seems, to be communicate betrayal.
Yet even though Stephanie recognizes this and calmly explains, “Rugby is such a rough sport.”
Doug cuts her off, “I’m a big boy!” and proceeds to shut down. He continues to treat her resentfully for much of the session.
What happened? Rugby is no doubt a rough sport, and Doug has never played it, so we can safely assume Stephanie was just genuinely expressing concern. Nothing off there. But why did Doug react to this concern so strongly? Having had the benefit of previous individual sessions with Doug, he isn’t only reacting to Stephanie’s concern, but to the internalized doubts regarding his abilities that his mother conveyed throughout his childhood, which now he is projecting onto Stephanie.
Each of us creates relational templates, or composites, based on previous experiences within emotionally significant relationships, especially parents. It’s no surprise that parents are commonly a primary focus of psychotherapy. This is because a parents’ role is so instrumental, due to both its nature and function. Starting from birth parents are a child’s world, and he is dependent on them for his survival. Even though a child’s world expands, his dependency can last into the teen years and possibly beyond. So at least in the early years, it’s in the child’s best interest that his parents appear to be powerful, capable, and right; even if it means the child has to idealize or overlook their imperfections, in order for this to take place.
When Doug needed to develop physical skills for independence and autonomy, his mother’s over-concern for safety, which Doug interpreted as doubting his abilities, hindered this, and created feelings of shame and uncertainty in how Doug saw himself. While, it is typical that despite a child’s disappointment with a parent’s capabilities, he will often unwittingly compromise his own emerging capabilities in order to protect his parent’s, and maintain equilibrium. Too young, and not powerful enough to risk demonstrating his emerging capabilities, he has to abide what capabilities his parents have to offer. This may’ve served Doug’s survival needs, but it impaired his self-confidence. If Doug had reacted or rebelled, and his mother responded with disapproval, it may’ve resulted in a pervasive sense of guilt. For example if Doug were to express wanting to try out for Pop Warner football, he would’ve not only had to witness his mother’s dismay, and suffer the guilt, but also feel despair at his capabilities being doubted. So, pushing the matter only offered more of the same, and eventually resulted in Doug’s resentment towards his mother, and later, Stephanie.
This became apparent during adolescence, when Doug was navigating the social life of high school. He began to openly challenge the limitations his mother imposed in order to exercise his developing capabilities and independence. Parent-child relationships during this stage are especially tricky. Regardless of a parent’s personal limitations, raising an adolescent requires an expanding capacity to allow them to gain experiences necessary to become competent adults. Otherwise, the risk is that the adolescent will be stunted going into adulthood, and experience self-doubt. The risk parents face is acknowledging that competency is more likely achieved by making mistakes and correcting them, and the challenge is then determining the appropriate level of experience their child can manage before intervening. Too much in relation to the child’s capabilities and there’s a risk of failure and perceiving themselves as incompetent; too little and the risk is that the child’s capabilities won’t be fully realized. But for their part, adolescents are eager to take on new experiences. Although the experiences they are drawn to aren’t necessarily always geared towards developing competency in adulthood. The draw is instinctually necessitated as a part of individual survival—i.e., independence. What complicates this further is that it takes place while both are in a state of betwixt and between: The child is still under the parents’ authority by necessity, and parents are ambivalent about relinquishing this authority. Given the disparity, the conflict might not be fully resolved before the child enters adulthood.
This is, in part, what’s happening with Doug and why he reacts in such a way to Stephanie’s concern around his wanting to try Rugby. Doug is still struggling to exercise his capabilities and prove that he is competent. The problem is that he is responding to Stephanie like he did with his mother: bristling at yet remaining in conflict. In order to resolve this pattern Doug needs to recognize there’s a difference between the relationship and the dynamic he had with his mother and now with Stephanie. In the dynamic with his mother, Doug actually had something to react to: the threat of her hindering his capabilities by responding with dismay which Doug experienced as doubting his competence. Yet, in his present dynamic with Stephanie, she may have no intention to hinder his capabilities, but is simply expressing concern that he could get hurt playing rugby. By projecting an old dynamic onto a new one, Doug’s running a story without checking the facts, and prolonging his belief that he is perceived as incapable by others.
To help individuals and couples avoid the trap of running stories, I came up with the “Text Test”. For example, let’s pretend the exchange between Doug and Stephanie took place outside of my office and Doug storms off. For Doug, Stephanie’s saying “You’ll get hurt,” implies she doubts his capabilities, or thinks he’s so athletically incompetent that if he tries Rugby he’ll wind up getting injured. Stephanie didn’t actually say, or even suggest, any of these; so essentially Doug is running with a story. Typically when we encounter emotional subjects, we revert to thinking in black or white terms, not capable, or incompetent, rarely something in between. These become anchoring points to justify our story and give it momentum. Understandably, because in his past, if someone he’s close to expresses anything resembling caution, like, “You’ll get hurt,” it conjures up doubts regarding competence, which are connected to self-esteem and desirability. To break this, Doug might ask himself, what is it about me that causes Stephanie concern? It may be a variety of things, like care, or nothing at all. I introduce the Text Test by suggesting to couples that when either reacts, or catches themselves running with a story, they come up with a single, clarifying, question to test the assumption their story is making. For example Doug could ask, “Do you think I’m competent?” or “Do you think I’m athletic?” and text it to Stephanie. No additional information, apologies, or explanations should be included. Using the Text Test, Stephanie then is to simply, and honestly answer the question also with no additional explanation. Doug can then compare Stephanie’s answer to story he was running with. There’s no guarantee the answers will differ, but this isn’t necessarily the point of the exercise. Stephanie could answer, “Well, I’ve never seen you play any sports,” or, “I’m just worried about your back.” The point of Text Test is to avoid running stories without checking facts, developing these, and then injecting them into the relationship and using them against their partner. For the individual, like Doug, it offers the possibility of providing counter-evidence, and the opportunity to change his own, internal story. In addition, by doing this in the context of his relationship, and involving his partner’s thoughts in his considerations introduces deeper closeness and confidence.