“I’ve forgotten all of young love’s joy…” Amy Winehouse.
I recently watched the documentary “Amy” on the tragic life of singer, songwriter, Amy Winehouse. She was, simultaneously, extremely talented and extremely self destructive. For most of her life, she battled an eating disorder. For most of her life she battled alcohol and drug addiction. Sadly, she experienced deeply painful emotions resulting from a sense of unworthiness and a lack of self love. She consistently internalized feelings of hate and pain. And like many of us, she struggled to effectively manage the swirl and intensity of human emotions. The more famous she became and the more pressure she felt to be what others wanted her to be, the more she used destructive coping strategies (bingeing with food, alcohol or drugs) as a way to deal with the pain and fear being triggered within her.
As a couple therapist, however, the aspect of her life that stood out to me most was her relationship with her boyfriend, who she eventually married. Just as she was finding her way in the world, and establishing a sense of self through her music, she became entangled with Blake Fielder. Once in this relationship, she lost all perspective and became obsessed with him. She had to be connected to him constantly and when she was not, she spiraled into deep depression, feeling lost and unsure of who she was without this other person by her side. She stopped doing the things that made her Amy. The most disturbing scene in the documentary for me was when Amy and Blake went on a drug binge and he cut himself with a bottle. In order to feel exactly as he did, Amy cut herself too. This is a most extreme example of feeling as if the only way to love someone or be in a relationship is to have the same thoughts, feelings, desires and experiences. And while many couples do not live with such dramatic and extreme forms of merging with each other, the idea that being “in love” means we must be the same is a very common one and also becomes one of the most challenging things for couples to address.
When we first meet someone, we are filled with excitement and the desire to spend all our time with them. We think of them constantly. We are filled with longing when not with them and eagerly anticipate the next time we will be together. This is the sweet spot of falling in love and, as Amy Winehouse wrote, it is “young love’s joy”. It also serves a very important purpose in the life of a relationship: it creates a strong foundation and vibrant connection that supports us during times of stress and difficulty. Without this early bonding, couples will not have a well defined sense of who they are as a couple. Without this strong foundation, during times of stress and misunderstanding, couples will not have resources of trust and essential images and memories that remind them that their partner has their best interests at heart and genuinely desires to support them. Ellyn Bader, PhD and Peter Pearson, PhD of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California, define this important stage of couple development as the “symbiotic stage”.
However, couples cannot remain in the symbiotic stage forever; for couples hanging onto symbiosis meet all kinds of trouble. No couple can healthfully stay in a phase of constant connection, agreement and merging, indefinitely. The documentary “Amy” was a very dramatic example of what happens when couples try to remain merged and encapsulated in their own little world to the exclusion of everything else: individuals lose their sense of self and eventually, the self disappears. Without a self to bring to a relationship, the relationship quickly withers. Therefore, symbiosis must evolve and transform into something more sustainable as time goes on. And through this transformation, a new and different way, a more mature and sustainable way of relating, opens up that allows for an ever-deepening intimate connection. This transformation becomes possible when each partner learns how to establish a strong sense of self while simultaneously being intimately connected to each other.
I see couples wrestling with this challenge all of the time in my office: the struggle to find a way to maintain intimacy while each partner creates a strong and separate self. I see people get scared that they will either lose their sense of self if symbiosis continues, or they will lose their partner if they make room for their unique self to emerge. Sometimes, one partner is ready to express their individuality before the other and this creates tremendous anxiety for the partner hoping to maintain the merged state. Sometimes both partners are trying to maintain the merging and resisting individual growth.
And this is why I tell my clients that couple therapy is not for the faint-hearted. What is required from each partner to move into a more sustainable, mature and intimate relationship is the courage to fully accept, honor and know their true self. I believe the ability to define one’s self while deeply connected to another, comes from a place of self love and self respect. If we do not love who we are, we can not be authentically ourselves in our relationships. If we do not love who we are, we will be far too anxious to step into the vulnerability required in the risk of self expression. And without a willingness and the courage to be authentic and vulnerable, we will most likely hide our true self. Hide ourself by not expressing our thoughts and feelings and desires; hide ourself by agreeing just to keep the peace; hide ourself by being passively aggressive because we do not feel safe to directly and openly ask for what we really want. Defining ourselves requires us to first love and respect ourselves and to accept the truth that we are different than our partner, no matter how much we love someone, we are not the same person. Contrary to the words in the traditional Judeo-Christian wedding ceremony, it is not true or healthy that “two become one.” The irony is, the more couples take the chance to express their deepest self and create space for each to be a separate being, the more intimacy grows. We can all fool ourselves into thinking that intimacy grows from the sameness and perpetual agreement between two people; but in truth, intimacy grows in the fertile ground of difference and separateness. It is difference and individual time in personal development and growth, that actually fuels interest, intrigue, and curiosity in intimate relationships. And not surprisingly, these are also all of the things that fuel sexual desire and erotic energy. As sex and couple therapist, Esther Perel states, “When people become fused – when two become one – connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with.”
When we stop giving our body nutrition and water, our energy levels drop or we get sick because the body cannot function and thrive without the necessary nourishment. The same is true in our marriages and significant relationships: each partner provides nourishment to the relationship by cultivating their own individual growth and development. Without this, our relationship cannot receive the fuel it needs and soon becomes stagnant and lifeless. When we don’t embrace our differences as the gifts they are, we are depriving the relationship from the very energy that sustains it and allows it to strengthen and mature over time. No couple can stay in a state of symbiotic merging and experience growth at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive states of being.
So if you are challenged in this way in your relationship, just know you are not alone. There is nothing “wrong” with your marriage or within yourself. Growth and new life for your relationship is available and possible. Begin to reflect on this idea: in order to create a strong, intimate bond that will have a chance of lasting a lifetime, and that will have vibrant energy, passion, intimate connection and enduring love, you must be willing to take the risk of being your beautiful, unique and authentic self. You must begin to honor, embrace and explore the differences between you and the one you love.
It is also more than ok to seek out help with this. The challenge of relationships are sometimes best addressed within the context of couple therapy. In therapy, couples get the benefit of a professional who understands both the complex interpersonal and intra-psychic processes and can guide couples in what can otherwise be a fearful, dark, unknown territory. Couple therapists understand that often your current challenges are based on past experiences: a lack of secure attachment with your primary caregivers, or other painful experiences growing up. With the help of a couple therapist specialist, individuals can heal the sources of unworthiness and self hatred that prevent us from self expression. They can encourage you to grow and push yourself to find the path of self love and self acceptance. Your relationship has every chance of thriving and entering a lifelong process of growth, the more you authentically claim your beautiful and unique and loveable self. When you do this, you nurture not only your own soul, but the soul of your relationship. And that is worth all the effort.