A Differentiation and Fusion View of Relationships and Relationship Conflict
Our human experience of others and ourselves are formed in social and loving relationships with other people in which each person becomes intimately known to each other. This requires us to be vulnerable to the other person to be open and available to the experience of the other person in us.
Taken to extremes this notion comes close to the idealised experience of romantic love in which somehow we are expected to ‘fall in love’ as though we are out of control and not mindful of what we are doing and with whom we are doing it. This is where we can blur our boundaries and confuse the other person for ourselves.
Remember Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’? Well, they got it wrong. Read further and you will figure it out!
On the other hand, our sexuality is a deep and primal expression of ourselves, an expression of the one who must constantly become us, the ‘I’ that must be. When we have sex with someone, or make love with someone we are fundamentally being ourselves in private audience with another person who is able (and willing) to fulfill our desires and we are able fulfill theirs.
In contrast to intimacy, sexuality is very much an experience of being ourselves and erotically speaking very much an experience of being ourselves when we are not on the public stage.
And here we have the essential tension within a relationship. That is the need to be oneself in order to be sexual with another person (otherwise how do you know there is another person) in tension with the need to be connected with another person to feel the intimate and vulnerable relationship in which one’s boundaries of self are blurred.
This is where conflict often occurs, when people are not differentiated enough to be themselves in a relationship and too fused with the other person often to the extent they can no longer recognise themselves as an individual in the relationship.
Some people have great difficulty identifying themselves as separate from others. This can lead to intense conflict, especially when they cannot separate themselves from their children.
Is Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ making more sense now?
Relationships can sometimes become conflictual because one person in that relationship is overly intimate and demands from the other person more identification through them than they are able to give. Alternately, one partner in a relationship may be too separate from the other person to the extent that the other person is not in the intimate connection with their partner that their partner wants them to be.
This goes part of the way to explaining the big risk in relationships is of confusing the other person with ourselves, by demanding from them the validation and intimacy that we should in fact get from being ourselves. We know who we are and in some respects construct who we are both by our internal conditions of worth that define our notions of self and by being identified through the human mirror of another person in an intimate relationship.
A balance tipped the wrong way can make a relationship overly intimate in which sex can be difficult or overly separate in which intimacy is compromised. Either way, conflict becomes inevitable.
How do I work with this? I work on the premise that each person must fundamentally be himself or herself and that the relationship must allow, encourage and celebrate the emergence of individuality and evolution of each person in it. Sometimes this results in being present with high anxiety and conflict. When the relationship is on the edge of irrevocable breakdown, both partners have reached the edge of who they can be without being the other person.
At this point, they feel the fear and anxiety that the relationship may be over forever. It is only at that point that change is possible and that change must be that each person experiences the other person as a separate worthwhile and evolving individual whom they then choose to love or to separate from amicably.
In this way a relationship can create a sense of ‘we’ that is greater than the sum of the parts of ‘you’ and ‘me’ and where a relationship can heal individual and relationship injuries. This is where each person in a relationship can celebrate whom the other person can become, how they evolve and can share in the joy of experiencing themselves and the other person in each other’s human mirror.
And if they cannot, at least they can part in an amicable manner.
And sometimes the most important thing that a couple can learn is that there is no longer any intersection between them. Then they face the question of how to let go of the other, enable them to travel their own road whilst collaborating for the best interests of the children. Do not wait too long! Conflict does not magically disappear-it simply goes underground.
Now check out Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ from a different perspective.