Why does love so often get so difficult? Just about everybody wants a good relationship, so what goes wrong? As with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet we often believe that our love will be so powerful that it will override all the family history and conflicts that it is born into. And as in the 1964 pop hit, (Just Like) Romeo and Juliet, we think that our love will be written down in history. But instead we often find that it either ends in tragedy or comes to a tragedy of monotony.
The theme in Shakespeare's masterpiece was around long before he wrote his play, and it continues to reappear in contemporary depictions as varied as West Side Story and Taylor Swift's Love Story. Among other things, the story describes a recurring pattern: the tragedy that conflicted backgrounds wreak in our relationships. This isn't just about family history, it's also about the conflicts inside us that haven't been resolved that we bring to our relationships.
Romeo and Juliet may be our culture's most powerful love story, but there are other ones we cet caught in. These are described in the myths and stories that have been expressed in many incarnations. Mythology provides a sort of map of the territory of relationships, and with some attention we can avoid the dangerous places.
Sometimes, in the euphoria of new love, we feel that we are the heroes and heroines, the gods and goddesses, and that we can overcome any challenge that love poses for us. At other times we become identified with their tragedies and take on their roles. In either case love has a better chance of enduring if we know what we are in for and learn from the stories that have been developed and handed down.
It might look to you like the Juliet you married is dead (remember, she swallowed a potion to make her look that way), but she's really in a self-induced emotional coma, ostensibly invulnerable to you, and actually trying to save herself for the Romeo she married. Don't put too much stock in appearances.
Myths show us the struggles that love encounters. Good love stories are never simple. There is a tension of opposites that fuels the flames. If our heroes and heroines of love had nothing to push against with each other, we couldn't feel their devotion, and nor perhaps could they feel it. Love not only triumphs over adversity, it also needs a healthy dose of it.
Some research indicates that couples that have personality styles evenly mixed with similarities and differences tend to fare better. Other research implies that couples need to have one spat for every five good exchanges. I wouldn't suggest counting good exchanges and staging the spats, but I would respect the value of conflict in helping to keep love fresh.
But just a cautionary note: conflict only works well if the fights are clean. When we attack out partner in any way other than speaking our own peace, the only response we can expect is defensiveness and escalation.
What I've noticed in my work with couples is that we can sometimes get stuck unconsciously playing out a dramatic role of the sort found in myth. We unwittingly look for, play out and sometimes invite our partners to live out a tragedy with us.
Was your marriage like that of Persephone and Hades, a rescue from a little-too-close relationship with your mother, or even your father? Or like Eros, do you refuse to let your lover Psyche see you? Or like the artist Pygmalion, did you think that you'd sculpt and change your partner into a beautiful wife or husband, but now that isn't working out so well?
Myths outline patterns, tendencies of behavior and experiences which can lead to bliss or disaster. It's inevitable that we fall into the power of these patterns, but it's not inevitable that we continue to live them unconsciously and disastrously. Understanding the meaning inherent in these patterns can help us move toward wholeness and fulfillment, both within ourselves and within our relationships.
Gary Trosclair, LCSW, DMA, is a certified Jungian analyst and psychotherapist practicing privately in Manhattan and Westchester County, New York. He works with individuals and couples on a wide variety of issues including depression, anxiety, and relationships. He serves on the faculty of the C.G. Jung Institute of New York, where he has also served as Director of Training. He has presented at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and the Jung Foundation of New York.