Tales from the Therapist's Couch

'They desperately wanted their marriage to work, and couldn't understand what was going wrong'
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The couple sitting in the room with me look at each other cautiously. This is our fourth session together and, not for the first time, I am struck by their uncannily similar mannerisms and clothing, both of which seem to blur their essential differences. Their cautious glances are tinged with anxiety. It is a big deal, sharing details of a private life with a virtual stranger. And perhaps the biggest deal of all is that some of the things being said have never been heard before by their "other half".

The couple sitting in the room with me look at each other cautiously. This is our fourth session together and, not for the first time, I am struck by their uncannily similar mannerisms and clothing, both of which seem to blur their essential differences. Their cautious glances are tinged with anxiety. It is a big deal, sharing details of a private life with a virtual stranger. And perhaps the biggest deal of all is that some of the things being said have never been heard before by their "other half".

My patients are both in their mid-forties. They have only known each other a few years, but have been married for more than half of that time. It was, they tell me, very much love at first sight. Both had been lonely. Both had found the world a difficult place to engage with. But now, with each other, they feel defended against the insecurities that dogged them.

Hearing about their early histories illuminates the causes of these insecurities. Between the ages of 12 and 16 the woman had been sexually abused by her older stepbrother. She had, as so many victims of sexual abuse do, kept this secret for too many years. When she did finally and courageously articulate her trauma, she was disbelieved and ridiculed by her family. Her husband's insecurities originate from a less traumatic but nevertheless deeply wounding early environment. He was brought up by a very unhappy mother who continually undermined him with criticism.

Because of these early experiences, neither had been able to sally forth easily into the world as confident individuals. Both had avoided relationships, preferring the safety of retreat from the risk of vulnerability and pain. Until they had found each other.

All had gone like a dream until a few months ago, when what had felt easy became suddenly fraught and in danger of disintegration. They both desperately wanted their marriage to work, and couldn't understand what was going wrong.

As so often in analytic work, the cause of their problem was present in the descriptions they each gave of their emotional worlds. Each experienced the marital disharmony from a slightly different angle. For the husband, the early wonderful relief at no longer feeling lonely had recently given way to claustrophobia. His wife, he confessed guiltily, had begun to irritate him. They spent all of every day together, and he longed for a bit of space. But even going for a short walk alone was taken by her as a sign that he no longer loved her.

He tried to ignore this rising claustrophobia, as he was terrified of hurting her. But his wife had, of course, picked up on his irritability. Terrified of losing what she had spent her life searching for, she had become clingy and needy. Which of course only increased his sense of claustrophobia.

At the root of their mutual neediness and current distress was a misunderstanding about the nature of intimacy. As neither felt very robustly secure within themselves, each had found within the other solace from their own emotional fragility. Falling in love had flooded them with a wonderful sense of completeness, of being understood. But they had failed to move on from this stage of emotional merging and find room for the separateness that is vital in a healthy relationship.

The husband's need for some degree of solitude was a healthy desire. But it was experienced by him as guilt, and by his wife as a sign of rejection. What they now needed to do was to learn that intimacy wasn't about being two peas in a pod, but about two different people coming together in love.

Most of us are hopefully less wounded in this area of intimacy, yet any close relationship continually wrestles with fluctuations between merging with the other and separating out.

And all of us need, at times, to redefine that space where one's sense of self ends and a sense of the other begins. When it gets too blurred, as it so easily can, individuality gets sapped. Then irritability and depletion can so often seep into and taint a relationship. When an effort is made to see the other as just that, essentially "other" rather than an extension of our own needs, then intimacy can occur and recur, and the relationship is then about a repeated coming together of what can also be healthily apart.

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the clinical material above refers to specific cases

elizabeth.meakins@ blueyonder.co.uk

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