How does it happen that two people who fall in love and who may even decide to get married end up hating one another or feeling very disappointed in the other? How does it happen that so many marriages end in divorce? Is it just that people make the wrong choices or give up too quickly? What other factors play a role in this happening? In this article I will discuss some of the factors that contribute to this complicated phenomena.
Freud became aware of a process he called transference. What this means is that people interpret other’s behaviour and relate to others in ways that are not necessarily realistic, but relates more to people who were significant in that person’s life as a child. For instance, if a girl grew up with a mother who was unhappy and who had strong unmet needs, this girl could have known that her mother is emotionally overwhelmed and in need of care. The child could then have developed a strong impulse to make things better for her mother . This child often placed her own emotional needs second (to those of her mother) and felt intense concern for her mother and made every effort to make things better for her mother. Later, when this little girl grows up, she gets married. In marriage this adult woman easily asumes that her partner is overwhelmed (even when he does not really feel that or when he feels manageable anxiety) and she goes out of her way to make things better for her partner, denying her own needs. This woman can later end up feeling resentful, feeling it is always about the partner’s needs and her own needs are not met. In reality she had set up this dynamic herself by unconsciously assuming that her partner (like her mother) is very needy. She unconsciously repeted this dynamic in her relationship with her husband – putting her partner’s (previously mother’s) needs first and denying her own needs. It is impossible for this woman to see her husband for who he really is because unconsciously she becomes confused between her husband and her mother.
Another example of transference in an adult relationship is a man who grew up in a relationship with his mother where he felt rejected and less loved than his brother. When this man is later in an adult love relationship he very quickly assumes that his partner (like his mother) is rejecting him and loves someone else more (even when this does not realistically happen). When this man’s wife feels too tired to make him coffee he interprets this as rejection and he ends up withdrawing from her in anger. When she goes to the movies with her best friend, he interprets this as her loving someone else more than him (in the same way that he felt his mother loved his brother more). In reality the wife of this man loves him very much, but just felt too tired to make coffee and also enjoys spending some time with her friend. The man cannot see this for what it is because of the transference (looking at the current event as if it is the same as his earlier experiences with his mother). This process is not conscious and there are many themes and hurts that play an enourmous role in transference. With transference it is difficult to see the new person for who he/she is, the unconscious assumption is that the new person is the same as the people who were important in the child’s childhood (this could be a mother, father, sibling or other significant person). You then reinact your old story as if it is happening again in the new relationship. The difficulty with these transference responses are that they often evoke a negative response in your partner, e.g. if you withdraw because you are feeling rejected because your partner simply felt too tired to make you coffee, your partner will be aware of your withdrawal. This can easily lead to a negative response on her side. She can feel rejected when her partner withdraws from her and her response could be an outburst of anger.
Another factor that plays a role in relationships is that we might get involved with someone who is in touch with emotional aspects that we deny in ourselves. A woman might grow up in a house where she was treated very harshly by her father, unconsciously she is a very angry person because of her early experiences. If she denies her own anger and is not consciously in touch with it she might marry a very angry man. When a man’s strong dependency needs were not met as a child, but he denies his dependency needs and consciously feel very independent, he could marry a very dependent woman. He marries someone who is in touch with the aspect of himself that he denies. When we marry someone or are in a relationship with someone who is in touch with aspects that we disown in ourselves we could either be very caring/positive about that aspect in the other person or it could irritate us and we can become very critical/attacking of that part in the other person. What you cannot stand in yourself you locate and attack or nurture in the other (your partner/spouse). In order to resolve problems in such a relationship it is necessary to re-own aspects of yourself that you deny and only acknowledge in your parner/spouse. This is often very difficult because these aspects are unconscious.
Particularly when people had disappointing relationships in childhood they could have very idealized hopes for their marriage. It might be difficult to accept their partner/spouse as a human being with their share of issues and shortcomings. Such a person could hope that their partner can make up for all the failures of the past. Such an expectation is bound to be disappointed because and adult partner cannot make up for all the failures of your parents.
The aspects discussed in this article can be very complicated because they are not conscious. The next time you think: “Why did I marry this person?” or “If I can only change my husband” or ”I wish I could get rid of my wife”, it might be worth considering the following questions:
How much does transference play a role? How much are you irritated or angered by the aspects in you partner that you cannot own and acknowledge in yourself? How much could your expectations of the other be an unrealistic hope that this person loves you perfectly and make up for the failures of your parents?
Intimate relationships are very complicated and things might be influencing your relationship that is not covered in this article. Yet, the aspects of intimate relationships covered in this article often play a major role in relationships.