I have worked with both couples and individuals as a psychologist for over 20 years and in one way or another the theme of any difficulty in a relationship is the tension between viewing a relationship as being of separate individuals or being of one whole together. It is in the fluidity of seeing ourselves as both individuals and as one whole linked together in a relationship, which becomes the practice of growth. I have had the privilege of witnessing clients gaining strength in themselves by learning to let go of their individual fears so they can begin to approach a sense of wholeness in their relationship.
When a person doesn't feel comfortable and secure in themselves as individuals then any differences between the couple can feel like an attack. So often, one person in a couple is focused on feeling, the other is focused on outcome; one needs constant stimulation, the other needs space to contemplate; one needs order and routine, the other needs to be spontaneous; I'm sure everyone can add their own unique differences from their relationship. Unfortunately, these differences and the defensiveness of both partners to these differences lead to a cycle of attack and retribution. It is this cycle that leads clients either individually or as a couple to my office.
Relationships have this wonderful mechanism to bring a feeling of more wholeness and integration to each of us. We are unconsciously drawn to people who have qualities that we are most conflicted about, and need to address if we are to grow emotionally. It is the qualities that we find most bothersome in the other, when genuinely faced, which will bring a greater sense of integration to yourself as both an individual and being a couple. When two people in a relationship can see the other as part of one whole, then the different qualities of each individual are melded together to exponentially increase the potential of what the couple can accomplish together. It is ironic that couples will say that what has consciously brought them together is how they like the same things, or more precisely that each person validates the self-image of the other. But in truth it is the unconscious differences that have really brought them together.
Bob and Carol are a married couple who sought out my help because they were constantly arguing. You could sense the differences between them the moment they sat down. Bob is a freelance music teacher who wore his heart on his sleeve. As he told me the difficulties in his marriage he was tearing up. In contrast Carol is a high-level manager at a financial firm whose posture was defensive and wore a stoic expression with a smirk of exasperation. Their conflicts were especially heated around financial decisions and parenting issues. Bob experienced Carol as overly strict, controlling and regimented; while Carol experienced Bob as passive and indecisive, more focused on feelings and process rather than outcomes. Carol would continually complain to Bob, "if you only listened to me then things would be so much better". Bob would frequently reply, "But you are not hearing what I am saying to you, you only hear what you want".
While initially Bob and Carol sought out the other to complement their own personalities, over time and in the stress of real life the differences between them were driving them apart. I helped them see the benefit of the other's point of view to make each of them a more flexible and well-rounded person. They individually came to realize that the traits of the other that bothered them so much were traits that caused them difficulties within themselves. Carol worked on letting go of having to control a situation and honoring the thoughts and feelings of her spouse, children and workers. She let go of her fear of not being perfect and began enjoying the interaction and the process. Bob came to see the benefit of planning and gaining strength in tolerating his own feelings of rejection and hurt, so he can be more assertive in his personal and professional life. While both Bob and Carol's general personalities remained the same, each became more flexible and resilient in their interactions. I knew they had done their work when Carol was tearing up as Bob told her in a strong and assertive manner how he was not feeling heard. The journey that had brought them together perhaps based on their weaknesses had now brought them greater strength both as individuals and as a couple.
We are all striving in a relationship to be more fully connected to another person. When we feel that connection, even for an instant, we know we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are of all things but still ourselves, a drop of morning moisture that sits upon a leaf that knows the gentle beauty of itself, as well as its connection to the mightiness of the oceans. This lesson of being both a part of and connected to the whole is one of the most important gifts that relationships can bestow.