Thursday, March 29, 2012

Idealistic Love: The Dangers of Happily Ever After


Society's definition of romantic love
Countless fields and professionals have tried to capture the essence of 'love' over the centuries. Ancient Greek philosophers made the distinction between different forms of love, such as eros. Science has attempted to operationalize the term, associating it with neurochemical reactions in our brain which give rise to particular feelings and states we experience. Literature and fairytales have romanticized the idea, instilling within us the idea that dreams really do come true, that a handsome prince is always waiting in the shadows to rescue his damsel in distress. Current media has elaborated on the 'happily ever after' concept; modern-day music and film overflows with tortured confessions of incomplete souls who cannot go on alone.

What happens when these ideas become core individual beliefs? Our beliefs influence the way we view ourselves and others, and the way we interact with those around us, as well as how we interpret those interactions.

The dangers of 'romance'

The romantic ideal of sharing everything is not healthy. The more deeply you become attached to another, the more you become detached from yourself. This may sound harsh, but no one is espousing a cold, heartless way to live. Nevertheless, love songs about soul mates completing each other provide the dangerous message that we cannot be people on our own, that we exist in relation to our romantic partners.
That message is false. You exist in your entirety. It is normal and healthy to derive a sense of happiness and satisfaction through your relationships. But that doesn't mean you can't exist without them. You are complete in yourself.

Co-dependency and Enmeshment

Co-dependency is the tendency to allow someone else's behaviour to affect you through your constant preoccupation with that person and his or her needs. Excessive caretaking and placing a lower priority on one's own needs are hallmarks of co-dependency. Other key elements include low self-esteem, anger, anxiety, control issues, difficulties with boundaries, and repression (Beattie, 1992).
Enmeshment is similar to co-dependency and refers to a situation where two or more individuals weave their lives and identities around one another so tightly that it is difficult for any one of them to function independently.
When our sense of self is so caught up in our relationships with others, their behaviour directly impacts how we view ourselves. For example, you might perceive your partner's desire to avoid going to your work-related party as a sign that he or she does not want to spend time with you.
Children raised in an enmeshed and co-dependent environment usually grow up to have difficulties with intimacy. Interpersonal differentiation is nonexistent in an enmeshed system. Minuchin et al. (1978) state that in enmeshed relationships "the boundaries that define individual autonomy are so weak that functioning in individually differentiated ways is radically handicapped"

The importance of knowing your boundaries and values

Descartes had it right when he said, "I think, therefore I am." not "I am in a relationship, therefore I am."
Love as a house: A metaphor
Imagine you've found the dream house you've fantasized about for years. One of the essential requirements before finalizing the purchase is the inspection. The inspection ensures that the structure of the house is solid, that there aren't any cracks in the foundation. This detail cannot be overlooked. No matter how beautiful the home is, that beauty will never last if the foundation is faulty.
With regards to a relationship, as a couple you may have a great time together, and people might tell you how great you look together. But underneath all of that glamour lie your core values, such as loyalty, empathy, respect, and attitudes about financial security. Are you able to name your own, independent values? Are there discrepancies between your values and those of your partner? Shared values are like the eternal rocks beneath the beautiful house, the groundwork that will carry it through the wear and tear of the elements. If there are large discrepancies or outright conflict between the two sets of values, it is likely that over time strains will develop which will shake the whole edifice.

The need for Self-soothing strategies

Healthy independence in relationships also involves the ability to regulate one's own emotions. Developing self-soothing strategies is one way of accomplishing this. Many individuals have never learned how to self-soothe, and instead, depend on their partners to regulate their feelings when faced with difficulties. Burying yourself in your partner's arms every time something goes wrong and hoping he or she will make it all better is not going to do the trick.

Self-soothing contains the key word 'self', and means learning how to nurture and care for your own needs.
Self-soothing involves two basic steps:

  • Naming the emotion (what am I feeling?)
  • Taking care of it (what do I need?)

  • Your partner can support and validate you, but developing your own coping strategies is essential for your own well being, and will in fact, enrich your romantic relationships.

    Some examples of self-soothing strategies as they relate to the five senses:

  • Hearing (listening to relaxing music)
  • Sight (imagery, taking a walk)
  • Smell (baking something, taking a walk in the forest)
  • Taste (cooking a favourite meal, drinking a hot beverage and savouring the taste)
  • Touch (taking a bubble bath)

     Psychoanalyst Carl Jung described relationships with a beautiful metaphor about trees; the cold, distant relationship is characterized by two trees standing far apart, with little or no interaction; in the enmeshed relationship, the trees are so entwined that one tree is draining the other of its nutrients; finally, in the healthy, balanced relationship, the trees are close enough that the leaves of each tree sway back and forth, brushing against each other, but ultimately depend on their own roots.

    Counselling can help ensure that individuals are well prepared and aware of what they need from themselves and from their partner so that current or future relationships will thrive.

    Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself (2nd ed.). Center City, MN: Hazelden Foundation.
    Minuchin, S., Rosman, B. L., & Baker, L. (1978). Psychosomatic families: Anorexia nervosa in context. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    Fatima Nabi, M.A., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Montreal Canada. She has a special interest in the areas of co-dependency and enmeshment, and works with individuals who feel as though they have lost their sense of self in relationships. Her aim is to guide them to identify and communicate their values when looking to enter a new relationship, or strengthen an existing one.



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