This book is addressed to anyone, lay or professional, who seeks to understand more of the shared unconscious processes that bind and/or destroy couple relationships. It explains how and why couples are drawn to one another in the first place and how the bond is then sustained or eroded by pacts made and broken without either party being aware they exist. Bringing these “deals” into the pair’s awareness is a significant part of couple therapy.
The reader is guided through the joint psychological aspects of courtship, commitment, the early years of mutual adjustment, and then the issues affecting the middle and last years of a pair bond. The tensions between a particular relationship’s potential for both growth and decay are examined at each stage in the couples’ developmental cycle, highlighted with material from literature, the consulting room and everyday life.
The author is a psychodynamic therapist who has worked with couples for over thirty years. In this book she eschews technical language, translating psychoanalytic concepts into plain English without diluting any of their power or importance – just as she would with a couple in the consulting room.
The opening chapters explore the way in which childhood, from birth onwards (our attachment to our mothers being the first “marriage”), shapes our attitudes, preferences and needs, as an adult looking for a mate.
Our first divorce from our mother’s body, then her breast, then the realisation we are not her whole world, just part of it, are major but normal losses which can reverberate in marriage later on. How such developmental features are experienced, then processed, by the child and the family, will affect how safe or dangerous future relations with a loved one are felt to be. In an adult special relationship, defence mechanisms to cope with the dread of loss will be dug up from past experience and recycled. When two sets of defences collide and conflict, neither party comprehending what is occurring, discord reigns. Getting to grips with one’s own and one’s partner’s psychology marks the beginning of relationship repair.
This early section on childhood experience goes on to demonstrate the many ways in which children react to the impact of a competitor, in the shape of dad. Learning to become three instead of two has deep implications for the future, when emotions such as jealousy, hatred, fear of rejection, passionate possessive love, immense loneliness or insecurity may be reawakened at the prospect of having to share, or even keep a hold on, a loved one. When he falls in love, or attempts cohabitation, the most ordinary, “well adjusted” person can find himself trapped in a rekindled blaze of conflicting emotions he’d left as ashes decades ago.
Alongside this “triangle” stage, the child has to come to terms with the need for bodily control, learn how to measure up to authority, who the other gender is, how to socialize, give and earn respect. Eventually he must face the struggles and pleasures of being a teenager. The possible effects of these growth periods on adult intimate relationships is illuminated by actual examples.
Everyone has unresolved or only partially resolved grievances or disappointments from the past. Imagine someone so drugged by the gratification of their every need they never have to confront separation, or fear, or pain. How would they cope with life at all? What resources could they draw on? The perfect parent has yet to be invented, thank goodness. For parents must fail – not too much, just enough for their offspring to acquire the motivation for independent living and hence perpetuate the species.
In any case, once the child is grown up, the hunt will start for someone who is going to put all those errors right! First time round, the child could not choose his mum and dad; but now he is free to find his own soul mate, how can he go wrong? He does not appreciate yet how many factors are already at work that will propel him toward a particular person. Not for nothing do romantics feel they are destined to be with this partner. The choice has not been as free as was supposed.
The true (but disguised) stories exemplify how partner-choice is powerfully driven by forces other than sex and relief of loneliness. There is an implicit demand that the chosen one both repeats good experiences since lost, while making up for deficits in previous family relations. The fight is then on to see which partner’s agenda dominates, whether “turns” can be taken, and if a method can be found of tolerating the inevitable – and necessary – fury and wretchedness when the loved one lets you down.
Necessary disappointment can lead – especially with therapeutic help – to a more accurate perception of the partner and better tolerance of his or her imperfections. The realisation that the partner cannot be tailored to suit one’s own requirements, and that they have to some extent been selected to repeat original let-downs for which they can then be blamed, even taken revenge upon, can clear the way for a more mature and happier mode of relating.
One of the central concepts in the book is that of the couple unit, rather than its two separate components, constituting a third element, a “joint personality”. Each partner has a relationship to that personality as well as to each other. By means of simple diagrams and a case study, this part of the book shows the couple (and any subsequent children) as a social system, a dynamic force field. The feisty but sad wife and the tempted vicar illustrates this way of appraising couple problems, demonstrating how the approach might assist a self-examining couple, or a therapist working with a couple, to desist from making unhelpful moral or ethical judgements.
After following the complete life cycle of the couple, with illustrative vignettes for each stage, describing how a particular couple dealt with that period in the consulting room and at home, the book concludes with some thoughts on who might benefit from couple therapy and what personal qualities are likely to contribute to a positive outcome.
Wyn Bramley was Senior Psychiatric Sister at the Cassel Hospital (one of the first psychoanalytically oriented “therapeutic communities” in the UK). She then moved into Student Counselling. Over a fifteen year period, she set up and headed the counselling service at what is now the University of Westminster, before transferring to a similar role at University College, London. During this period she qualified at the Institute of Group Analysis and Family and Marital Therapy (now Institute of Group Analysis), whilst setting up in-service training programmes with colleagues, for what was to become the national Association for Student Counselling. She then moved to Oxford, working as a trainer and clinician in both the private and NHS sectors, before setting up and then directing the Master’s Programme in Psychodynamic Studies at Oxford University. She has also published two books expounding her non doctrinaire view of psychodynamic therapy: Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered: How Couples Really Work (Karnac Books) and The Broad Spectrum Psychotherapist (Free Association Books). Currently, she runs a small private practise in rural Oxfordshire.