Towards a Lasting Romantic Relatioship--Edith Packer
I want to point out at the outset the difficulties and challenges each couple faces in forming a romantic relationship. Very few grasp the enormity of the task ahead of them. After the initial phase of the romantic relationship, which is often fueled by a physical attraction based on unwarranted subconscious projection of values but little actual knowledge of each other, the partners have the following assignment: They are to continue to pursue their individual values in life; to get to know each other well; to sustain the highest romantic interest in each other; to continue to enjoy each other physically; to make life together exciting, based on continuous admiration for each other, while coping with the daily demands and stresses of life. Furthermore, they are charged with accomplishing all this by working out methods of bridging the differences between two individuals with different backgrounds, psychologies, goals, and expectations and thereby creating the basis for a smoothly flowing, friction-free interaction.
Mistakes in selection can occur for a variety of reasons. Among the most important are: 1) The individuals did not know or had not identified their core evaluations--namely, their basic and personal evaluations about life, self, and others--and/or they did not know their specific romantic values--values they respond to with attraction (such as a way of coming at life, a particular style--essentially the total package that one is attracted to). 2) One or both, at the time of the commitment, mistakenly believed they held a particular romantic value, but later found they did not, indeed, that they valued the opposite. 3) One or both individuals may have known their romantic values but misapplied them. 4) The selection was made to satisfy the neurotic need of one or both of the partners. In addition, in most cases an important contributing factor to such mistakes in selection is that the two individuals committed to each other very early in the relationship. Had they waited, they would have gotten to know each other better. As a result, they might have discovered that they had fundamental differences, and might have parted.
Most romantic alliances begin with intense mutual attraction. Such attraction usually occurs with little knowledge of the person one is attracted to. On the surface, it is difficult to say why one person can feel such a strong personal and sexual attraction toward someone he or she doesn't know. Indeed, it is almost impossible to trace directly the thousands of romantic value judgments which each individual makes during his or her lifetime and which culminate in such an attraction. But what we do know is that sexual attraction comes from subconscious content. Each individual forms subconscious associations which lead him or her to assume that the presence of certain physical characteristics in another person automatically means the presence of certain values he or she desires. For example, a certain look, a smile, or a way of moving may be interpreted as a certain kind of sense of life, the look of an ambitious person, the presence of extreme intelligence, etc. In the light of such subconscious associations and the intense attraction they cause, it is easy to assume that one has found the soulmate one has been seeking all along. The attraction itself seems to be the proof.
Having subconsciously endowed in this way the object of their attraction with desired attitudes, values, character, and personality traits, the lovers proceed to idealize each other and thus to act ahead of their actual knowledge of one other. In addition, they usually become sexually involved in this early phase--which means that they become intimate without a sufficient basis for intimacy. Then, as they get to know each other better, they often develop a vested interest in maintaining their subconscious projections. They continue to see similarities in their values where few or none exist. They observe traits selectively so that they see only good ones, and give glamorized interpretations to actions or traits of the partner that they don't approve of.
In this period, most individuals also do some role playing. Fearful of revealing too much about themselves, they are careful to put their best foot forward. Often, secretly or subconsciously not feeling lovable, they try to hide anything that might endanger the romance in case the partner disapproves. The result of this combination of factors is the selection of a partner based on wishful thinking and fantasy, rather than on real knowledge of one another. Yet true love requires real knowledge of one another--knowledge acquired by clear thinking over an extended period of time.
Such clear thinking, required for correct selection, must be based on self-knowledge and on the ability to judge others: on knowing and identifying clearly one's personal values in all areas of life including specifically romantic values, and on seeing clearly the values of the other. Each person has a hierarchy of personal needs and values. The hierarchy varies from individual to individual. But the more clearly a person can identify his romantic needs (what he must have) and his wants (what he would like to have but which is not essential), and provided such values are rational, the more likely he will know at the outset what type of person he likes, who is a good romantic candidate for him, whom he could be friends with, and whom he can respond to sexually.
For example, if a woman clearly recognizes that she needs to find a man who is highly intelligent, then in spite of any strong attraction to a man that she might feel on the basis of subconscious projection, she will consciously look for that quality and if she does not find it, will not yield to the attraction. Thus she will not develop a vested interest in maintaining the subconscious projection, and the attraction will soon diminish. She will know that this is not a romantic partner for her. Her conscious knowledge will win out over the subconscious projection.
In addition, selection of a partner is helped by a person's sexual maturity, which also varies from person to person. What an individual views as sexual develops subconsciously early in life, at a time when character values may not yet be an overriding consideration. Hopefully, as a result of maturation and a healthy psychological development, the integration of the two--the character values and sexual values--takes place before serious romantic attachments are formed. By maturation and healthy psychological development, I mean the development of a strong sense of personal identity, based on a foundation of rational core evaluations and a clear identification and development of one's values in the four important areas of life--namely, work, romantic relationships, family and friends, and leisure. The greater the individual's knowledge and development of his values, the stronger is his sense of identity and the easier it is for him to make his specifically sexual choices consistent with his wider personal values. As a result, the individual has a better chance of being sexually attracted to the person most right for him or her.
The matching of the hierarchy of personal and specifically romantic values is the basis for mutual admiration and respect for the partner. (I am speaking, of course, of healthy values.) Such admiration and respect can occur only as a consequence of each of the partners embodying the romantic and personal values the other holds. Thus, I want to emphasize that admiration and respect are one of the major requirements for romantic success.
Obviously, individuals do not have to match on every value they hold. But the values found at the top of the hierarchy must match. Thus if the core evaluations of the partners are completely different from each other, the couple is mismatched. If one of the partners hates life and is alienated by the other's love of life, the differences are irreconcilable. If one values character, and the other is a liar and a cheat, no admiration is possible. If one values ambition and the other hates to work, no admiration is possible. And, of course, if one is sexually attracted to the other, but the attraction is not reciprocated, no basis for a romantic alliance is present.
Each couple conducts their romantic relationship on the basis of certain terms and procedures. For a successful relationship, the terms and procedures should be explicit, objective, and rational, and agreed upon by the partners. If the terms are not identified clearly, or if they are non-objective or irrational, disappointment and hurt will necessarily follow.
Let me describe some major terms and procedures on which a successful relationship rests.
One of the most important terms the couple must agree upon is to treat each other as romantic allies and soulmates and to communicate their emotions to each other honestly. This is necessary in order to achieve trust, closeness, and intimacy.
A romantic relationship is fundamentally a reciprocal emotional relationship between the partners, who besides being lovers are also best friends--or really better than best friends, even closer and more intimate.
Through their emotions toward each other, each couple creates an easily identifiable emotional climate. One type of emotional climate is present when a couple projects tension and hostility toward one another. You can tell that there is some kind of warfare going on even when they seem to be lovingly teasing each other. In fact, they are ripping each other's weaknesses apart.
Another type of emotional climate is present when the couple exudes alienation and separation from each other. These are people who live what I call "parallel lives." They each pursue their individual values in life, divide the duties and responsibilities connected with the home, each performing his or her individual assignments, but are not involved with each other emotionally. They do not share their respective emotions. He plays golf and she works for the PTA, and they often take separate vacations. What is clear is that they do not enjoy each other.
A very different type is a positive and appropriate emotional climate, which unfortunately is rare. In this case, the partners project enjoyment of each other. They project that in an important sense they are one--that if he got hurt, she would be hurt, and vice versa, and that if one of them succeeds, the other succeeds. You know that each is the most important person in the world to the other.
A positive emotional climate is the result first of all of the couple behaving toward each other as irreplaceable soulmates. To be soulmates with someone means not only loving and valuing your soulmate, but also trusting your soulmate's love for you. It means trusting him or her to perceive you correctly, to know who you are--to know your flaws and deficiencies, but basically to perceive you as worthy of respect and admiration. Thus, to be soulmates in this sense means not to have secrets from each other; it means not to pretend. There is no way to achieve and maintain intimacy unless both partners permit themselves to be fully real, which includes revealing weaknesses if they are there. What good is it to pretend to possess a trait or a strength you don't possess in order that your partner love you? If your partner does love you because of that trait, he does not love the person you really are.
The acceptance of the partner as he or she is, is an essential requirement for being soulmates. Obviously, the respect and admiration will not be given as a response to the shortcomings of the partner. Nor does it mean that the parties have to accept their respective deficiencies and problems as an unalterable given. On the contrary, the respect will be given for being able to admit such deficiencies, with the understanding that each will assume the responsibility of working hard to correct and overcome his or her own problems, and will at the same time encourage the other to do the same. Thus, if you want to be close and intimate, you must trust your partner's love for you as you are. You must also be willing to risk being vulnerable, or being hurt and sometimes communicating something which will hurt your partner. There is no other way to be intimate. (Parenthetically, I want to caution you that this does not mean that a person should enter a relationship on the basis of a hope for future improvement. For example, it is obviously not advisable to enter into a romantic relationship with someone of bad character--for example, a habitual liar--who promises to correct the problem in the future.)
Let me give you some specific emotions and thoughts that need to be communicated between the partners if they are to become better acquainted with each other's inner life and thus increase the trust and intimacy between them. By knowing the specific emotions which need to be communicated, they can get to know each other's needs and expectations better, and thus be better able to satisfy those needs and expectations.
First of all, each partner has to continue to share his day-to-day thoughts and feelings, and in particular his thoughts and feelings concerning how his life is progressing. Obviously, this includes not only positives, such as desires and plans for the future, but also concerns, fears, and self-doubts. I don't mean that there has to be a running commentary on every single positive or negative thought; but anything that helps the partners to know each other's emotional state needs to be shared. Each has to communicate his or her needs and desires within the relationship. For example, if one partner needs more time to be alone or needs daily loving physical contact or more frequent sex--such things need to be communicated. A person cannot expect that the partner know what his or her needs are in every instance. It is futile to expect that because a person loves you he will intuitively always know what you expect and then be able to provide it spontaneously.
Second, each partner has to share and communicate his thoughts and emotions about the other. The stress here is on expressing positive interest concerning anything the partner thinks, feels, and does--to continuously stress with words and action the importance of the partner in one's life, and to express the joy in having each other and in sharing life together. Both partners have to make an effort to be romantic. All this means is that each has to be creative in inventing circumstances which stress the romance, such as dinner with candlelight, surprise gifts, etc. But again, it is important not to conceal negatives. Each partner must tell the other when his or her needs or expectations have not been met, although with complete benevolence and courtesy, and with appropriate timing.
Third and most importantly, the couple must be aware of and talk about what is taking place in the relationship and how it is progressing. Most of the damage in romantic relationships occurs when for various reasons one of the partners conceals hurts and unhappinesses concerning the way he or she is being treated in the relationship. Such negative emotions do not disappear. They wait, ready to spring up, at the least provocation. By holding back such feelings, by not honestly expressing them and resolving the hurt, the suppressed feelings become a basis for permanently negative attitudes. It is not difficult to bury love with hurt and then anger and resentment. I see this every day in my practice. Couples who basically admire each other are completely distanced from each other because they do not express such feelings honestly. As a result, even couples who did not have fundamental differences when they selected one another can often create them if they cannot agree that emotional honesty is absolutely necessary.
A sexual relationship between romantic partners is an absolute essential. If the two individuals live in complete harmony but do not enjoy each other physically, then they may be best friends, but they are not lovers and therefore not romantic partners.
Sex, of course, is not a primary. A sexual response originates in the sexual identity of one person and is a response to the sexual identity of the other person. This adds another dimension to the relationship. It is the way of joining and expressing the most profound values in a physical form. Needless to say, both partners have to be sexually fulfilled. Otherwise the relationship is in trouble.
Unfortunately, the mere fact that the couple was attracted to each other sexually at the outset of the relationship is no guarantee that sex will be fulfilling for them. There are good reasons for this.
Each person develops his likes and preferences in sex in an individual way, according to his own particular premises and experiences. And individuals have different ways of expressing their sexuality. In addition, early sexual experiences and fantasies can leave an indelible imprint on a person's sexuality. In order to achieve fulfillment, therefore, each must be willing to acquaint the partner with such particular preferences. It is essential that each communicate to the other what he or she likes and wants in sex and how each achieves the highest possible enjoyment. As you can see, true sexual intimacy, again, depends on mutual trust: that the sexual preferences each will reveal will not only not be condemned but actually be accommodated by the partner. Trust in this context also means that each partner will try to be as free as possible sexually, and reveal his or her fears or inhibitions. It means that the partners feel free to experiment in order to enhance each other's pleasure in every way. In other words, each has to feel that the other is willing to give and receive the greatest possible sexual pleasure. At the same time, each has to feel that the other is willing to assume the responsibility of pursuing his or her own pleasure without placing the burden on the partner of fulfilling expectations that were never expressed. Both have to agree that the sexual relationship requires both a selfish focus on one's own erotic sensations and a willingness to be aware of the partner's needs and desires.
Let me turn now to another underlying term of a successful romantic relationship.
The couple has to agree that the romantic relationship is to be conducted on the basis of equality between the partners.
Love between soulmates implies equality of the partners--not necessarily in knowledge, but in standing. In every romantic relationship, there are issues involving the relationship of each partner to reality and issues involving their responses to each other. The category of equality embraces both. This means that each partner has the right to pursue his or her needs and values in reality and has a right to expect support from the other partner.
Equality also implies certain equal responsibilities of each of the partners. Each partner not only has the right, but bears the responsibility, of seeking out values in the three remaining important areas of life. This means that each has to know what will lead to his or her happiness in work, what type of friends to have, and what leisure-time activities he or she wants to develop. The more fulfilled each partner is in these areas, the happier he or she can be in the romantic relationship. Self-esteem, whose role I will discuss shortly, is the consequence of the individual's relationship to reality. For now, I just want to mention that it cannot be achieved from the admiration of the partner. This, of course, does not mean that if a partner does not know what makes him happy, the relationship is doomed. But it does mean that his responsibility requires that he seriously act to find the values which will make him happy, by trial and error if necessary--such as trying different lines of work--and not by being miserable and withholding love from his partner.
Couples also have to agree that each partner has the responsibility of continuing to grow intellectually, and of promoting the development and enjoyment of optional values in which both partners can participate--both for his or her own sake and to sustain the partner's romantic interest and admiration. Unfortunately, many couples, having found each other, begin to stagnate. Finding various excuses for not planning any activities outside of watching television, they often complain that the relationship has become boring.
A good romantic relationship needs excitement and mutual enjoyment. To achieve this, each partner has the responsibility of taking on new challenges in his or her own field and sharing them with the partner. In addition, each has to embrace the values of the other. This means, first of all, that each has the obligation of acquiring the knowledge necessary to understand the partner's work, in order to be able to speak about it intelligently with the partner. Also, while individuals may have different optional values when they meet--for example, one may like opera, tennis, and mountain climbing, and the other, golf, stamp collecting, and dancing--it is important that as the relationship develops, they make a serious effort to become involved in each other's optional values, usually by acquiring more information about them. For example, if the husband has a passion for baseball, the wife should go to the trouble of learning how the game is played. In that way, she may come to understand why her husband enjoys following the game and may come to enjoy following it herself. Finally, as I said, each partner has the responsibility of developing and promoting the enjoyment of new optional values in which they can both participate. The point is that at times it is important for the partners to focus on being playful and carefree and simply having fun together--in other words, to enjoy life and each other in areas where, in effect, they can just play together.
Turning now to the role of self-esteem, we all know that in order to value and love another person, an individual has to value himself; namely, he must have a certain degree of self-esteem. Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of one's worth based on a conviction of one's mental efficacy and commitment to rational values. The feeling of self-esteem is based on the conclusion that one is a valuable person and can be perceived as such by another, and therefore loved. Self-esteem, of course, exists on a continuum, and the more an individual values himself, the easier it is for him to accept and give admiration and love. By the same token, low self-esteem not only interferes with the individual's ability to pursue his values in general, but it causes especially painful difficulties in the romantic realm. Subconscious defense mechanisms, such as repression, projection, withdrawal, and compulsiveness, which are developed to defend against the effects of low self-esteem--namely, self-doubt and anxiety--greatly interfere with the ability to trust and be intimate.
An individual may also be compartmentalized. He may believe that he is worthy enough to pursue and succeed in a profession he likes. At the same time, he may not be able to view himself as a sexual and romantic being who can be responded to as such by the opposite sex. This type of compartmentalization is very common.
Thus, depending on the degree, low self-esteem may affect the individual in the romantic area in three ways:
He may withdraw from it altogether, or he may make attempts but be so fearful and anxious in approaching a possible romantic partner that the fear paralyzes him and leads him to fail. Patients who function well in other areas and are highly successful in their work are sometimes unable to call a woman for a date. Their subconscious conclusions about themselves are projected onto the woman--they believe she will know just by speaking to them that they are not worthy of romantic admiration and will reject them.
Or, in contrast to this, individuals suffering from masculine or feminine self-doubt may go on compulsively from one relationship to another looking for conquests to give themselves boosts of the self-esteem they do not have. These are individuals who are unable to commit themselves to a long-range romantic relationship.
Romantic self-doubt may influence a person's selection of a partner. He may chose a partner who has low self-esteem; he may role play, pretending to be confident, and seek out someone who will admire him so that he will not experience the void he feels within himself. In other words, he makes his choice on the basis of neurotic need.
Or, having found a suitable partner, such an individual's psychology will sabotage the romantic relationship for the following reasons:
A lack of self-esteem causes severe self-doubt and anxiety. The inner life of such a person consists of a continuous struggle. Feeling unworthy, he lives in a chronically uncertain world in which his unworthiness can be discovered at any moment. Subconsciously, he has to negotiate his worth every minute--that is, continue to interpret every event in his life and every action on his or anyone else's part as a reflection on his worth. Thus, a hint of criticism, the anticipation of any situation in which he may make a mistake will be viewed as proof of his lack of worth--while other, equally insignificant events may be viewed by him as proving that he is worthy after all. In effect, his mind, subconscious and conscious, is flip flopping between "Yes, I am worthy" and "No, I am not worthy."
Obviously, such self-absorption makes an individual appear preoccupied. The partner feels unperceived, living with someone who is not fully there or not relating in an honest way. In addition, the self-doubtful partner, involved in negotiating his self-esteem, often misinterprets the meaning of his partner's words or actions, and often feels attacked. Or he may deal with the partner in a competitive way, struggling to be in control. Or he may require continuous reassurance. Add to this, the effects of repression, the fear of emotions in general, especially of tender emotions, and there is no way for such a couple to achieve trust and intimacy. The relationship has to deteriorate.
Thus, if both partners have low self-esteem, the likelihood is that the romantic relationship will have severe neurotic aspects. If only one of the partners has low self-esteem, then he or she, as the weaker link, comes to rule the relationship, because the focus of the relationship will be dominated by the fears and defenses of the weaker partner. By the same token, the stronger partner will feel that he or she does not have the support of the other partner. The constant internal struggles of the weaker partner prevent him or her from providing such support. Of course, where both individuals have fairly high self-esteem, each has the strength to pursue not only his or her individual values, but also to give emotional support to the other partner.