Writing in his regular family column in last Saturday’s Guardian, novelist Tim Lott identified two of the most important elements of couples therapy: unpicking our own self-sustaining illusions and allowing our partners the potential to change 1. Lott’s column is always worth a read for its honest thoughts from the family front line. This week’s contribution was especially welcome for its support for the work therapists do to help families change dynamics that keep them stuck and make them unhappy. Lott writes about family therapy, where the children are as much a part of the process as the parents, but the points he makes apply equally to working with couples experiencing relationship difficulties.
Lott is no stranger to couples and family therapy, as will be apparent to readers of The Love Secrets of Don Juan, his novel of mid-life male mating. So it is welcome to read that his experience of calling in a professional listener, while certainly no cure-all, can offer profound rewards. Couples therapy offers a neutral space where we can be heard by our partners and hear them in return. What makes this necessary, as Lott testifies as both man and writer, is that most of us tend to live our lives on “a diet of self-sustaining illusions”. We believe we are the best judge of our motivations and memories, but forget that we often understand others better than we do ourselves. Frustratingly, it is our partners who understand us best, and vice versa. Yet when they challenge us we often reject their insight and resent them for it. We mistake good communication for them seeing us as we want to be seen, and being understood for having our own delusions fed back to us. A skilled therapist, like a writer, understands this. A good therapist will also know how painful and drawn out a process it can be to help each partner unpick their internal illusions and let them go.
Until we can start to shed these self deceptions and really listen to what our partners are telling us, there is tendency, as Lott correctly points out, for “people who think they know each other [to] construct a series of filters through which they choose to understand matters”. The therapist’s difficult, and sometimes impossible task, is to encourage people to admit that there might be alternative, healthier and more constructive ways of seeing their relationship. Often it is negative patterns from childhood and past relationships that, while not determining what happens today, often influence our responses to what our partners chuck at us. As the writer and therapist Adam Phillips once put it, being in a relationship is like acting in a play for which you haven’t been given a script. You think you’ve forgotten your lines and all that comes into your head are words from other plays you’ve been in. This is one of the ways, as Lott puts his finger on, that we get imprisoned in a family dynamic: “the other members have decided how you are and are therefore reluctant to admit the possibility of change”.
Relationships and families are people making machines. They force us to grow when we had rather be comfortable and safe. The safer and cosier we get, the less interesting we become to our partners. One or other of us is always pushing the boundaries, seeking something new and different in the relationship. It could a change in career that impacts us, a desire to rejuvenate our sex life, or simply being fed up with our attitude to them. Lott has, I suspect, hard earned experience of this dynamic:
“Change is desirable – or at least necessary – in all walks of life. But it can be painful so we actively work against it. To agree to change means defying your family’s expectations… To have a healthy family dynamic, you have to learn to act “as if” the other person is capable of change – or you are condemned to repeating the same behaviour over and over again while hoping for a different result.”
We have to allow others the potential for change. Lott has hit on a truth here, but only expressed part of it. It is hard to make that “as if” leap of faith unless we can hold onto ourselves in the process. We have to allow ourselves that potential too and we need enough belief that what our partner is asking for or embarking on will not overwhelm us. We try and keep our partners where they are because that is more comfortable and secure for us not them. Sometimes that is the result of patterns and delusions we find hard to let go. But it also comes from fear. Those we love are so important to us, so valuable, that we fear any change may be a prelude to them leaving us. We can resent their wish to change and we often fight to the death to keep them where they are, destroying what we love in the process. We need not only faith in our partners but faith in ourselves. As Lott makes clear, no therapist can give you that. It comes from within. A little faith in the other goes a long way in relationships. But it is also our ability to manage ourselves within the ever-changing dynamics of partners and families that makes for limitless possibilities.