Loving adult couple relationships

by Jesper Juul www.Family-Lab.se

The ambition to keep our adult relationships alive and vibrant until death or divorce do us part is new. There have always been couples who managed this, but never before have our expectations been so high and so much in the foreground as they are now. Even if we take the somewhat childish notions of the “perfect” marriage and ever experimenting and exiting sex life with multiple, wet orgasms off the table there is a new dimension to what couples dream and talk about.

Throughout history marriage and monogamous couples have made sense in different ways. Procreation and caring for our offspring is one, which still makes sense to a majority of adults. For centuries it was a social necessity, without which neither women nor men could live. In the upper classes marriage had to make financial as well as political sense. Life as a single was until recently considered morally and socially dubious. My own generation, who married or just lived together without the blessings of church or State, opened the door to partnerships, which were striving for equality and based on emotions. Partnerships had to make emotional sense and satisfy our need for closeness, dialogue, empathy and feeling seen and recognized.

Today approximately half off all marriages are dissolved within the first fifteen years and as a reaction to this somewhat depressive figure many are now trying to convince each other to endure more difficulties and emotional pain for the sake of the children. Although this is a very legitimate reason I doubt that it will reduce the number of brake-ups. In combination with a moral demand from sociaty it might delay them.

I my work I meet very few couples who are giving up easily. They are all searching and asking for valid reasons and preventive measures, by which they might avoid the emotional and existential pain of divorce. On the other hand they all do the same calculation: we never see each other; we have become spectators to each other’s lives; we function well as a family but have lost closeness and passion as a couple; we argue and fight all the time.

As a psychotherapist I have always avoided using my professional experiences and insights to suggest a “meaning of life”, because I don’t feel that it has anything new or significant to contribute to this eternal search and longing for meaning. I do however have a strong feeling that my profession can offer some vital pieces to the puzzle, when I comes to suggesting a contemporary meaning of love based relationships between adults. In Family Therapy we have been utilizing and drawing power from a very specific source in our attempts to help couples stay together and enrich their relationship as well as individual existence as “Menchen”. Therefore I’m prepared to risk my professional image by suggesting that:

The meaning of having a close emotional relationship with another adult is twofold: enriching the relationships within the family through individual, personal development.

As the reader already knows I consider the relationship between parents and children to be a valuable source of mutual psychosocial growth as well. By personal development/growth in this context I mean replacing the patterns of behavior and thinking, which we learned in our family-of- origin either by copying our parents or in order to adjust as well as possible to the ways and values of our family. I call this our survival strategy. As we grow up and form new, close relationships we often discover that part of this behavior does not serve our own needs and/or the needs of our loved ones as adults. I’m not referring to any of the more fashionable self-realization projects - I must follow my dreams, no matter what! Nor do I mean in a strictly individual, spiritual sense. Nothing is wrong with that, but in this context it is rarely on the agenda as a natural consequence of our close relationships.

The idea is to mature in such a way that we gradually become our own person and develop our behavior in ways which our loved ones can experience as love and which we can claim full personal responsibility for. As long as we are on this path, we can be as authentic as possible, which again is a prerequisite for the kind of personal presence, which is necessary for close relationships with adults and children. With a little luck and a lot of love from our partners and children we can grow up and become as valuable for our close ones, friends, workplace and society as we possibly can-i.e. realize our full potential. If we feel a desire to expand beyond this - art, meditation, prayer, dedication, education and role models we choose along the way are often very helpful.

A loving partnership is also the arena for developing our communicative skills. The state of loving harmony does not teach us much in this regard – we need conflicts, crisis as well as mutual projects for this. We must experience our limitations in order to grow.

Learning through conflict, dialogue, observation and play has always taken place in couples and people have always changed and matured – even when staying the same all through life was a masculine ideal. The difference is that now it can become a process in which we take a voluntary leadership. Since the beginning of family therapy, therapists have encouraged both partners to become aware of their destructive patterns and guided them in the process of supporting change instead of demanding it or criticizing existing behavior. When a relationship goes through what feels like World War 3 it is wise to invite the assistance of a therapist but as long as a feeling of friendship and love is still within reach people do fine on their own.

It is interesting how this corresponds with our deepest desire: to be of value to the people we love. As long as our loving emotions are visible and audible when we talk and work together there is only one sensible thing to do: enjoy how your mutual love makes you feel completely okay about yourself. Maybe for the first time in your life. After approximately 6-8 years both of you will experience some frustration either with your own habitual behavior or your partners. For most couples this culminates in a partnership crisis and this is the time when “we” develops into “You and I” and we see each other more clearly and this is the time to begin deliberate changes.

Human beings are tricky! We cannot change just because we want to. Personal growth depends very much on timing, the present quality of our relationship and our overall focus, which might be somewhere else. When change does not just happen it is time to learn how to appreciate each other and ourselves. We cannot change each other and we will never become perfect.

In order for this process to happen a few rules must be observed:

  • You can never demand that your partner change or grows as a person.
  • We can only change when we feel recognized and loved as we are and are able to accept ourselves as we are. Love and acceptance are prerequisites for change.
  • When you are unhappy about your relationship change your own behavior. This will always inspire change in the others. Maybe not the change you wanted, but it will keep the family dynamic.

Ask your partner how you can be of help and do so if you can.

If we manage to accept this as the meaning of family we can avoid the most destructive parts of our stubbornness and a lot of freezing isolation.

by Jesper Juul www.Family-Lab.se

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