RELATIONSHIPS: Dealing with the Source

By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.

Last month we explored the connection between early and current relationships with others. We concluded that replacing old relationship patterns with new desirable ones can be beneficial. Now we will explore how present day changes can take place. While this will be a brief look at a curative relationship phase, it exemplifies the process of psychotherapy and personal change. Significant personal change is rarely easy. Permanent changes in engrained behavior, thoughts and feelings are truly difficult.

A common problem experienced by men and women alike is the maintenance of intimacy within committed relationships. It has been recognized that intimate, or potentially intimate, relationships consist of a "dance" or ebb and flow of closeness. This is a natural phenomenon which, in and of itself, is not problematic. It becomes troublesome only when extremes in the shifting of closeness become either lopsided or excessive.

As an example of this sort of problem, let's imagine that Heather and Eric meet, find themselves attracted to one another and begin spending increasing amounts of time together. However, as they begin sharing closeness, Heather feels tense and gradually begins to pull away. She finds reasons to feel irritated with Eric and looks critically at his imperfections. This results in her feeling less enchanted with him and she continues to feel an increasing need to create distance.

In the midst of the stress caused by feelings of rejection Eric also begins to distance himself and both begin having familiar experiences of past relationship struggles. Each brings into the relationship old hurt and concurrently old ways of coping with the pain. The resultant fear leads them to struggle for control in the relationship, which develops into a constant perception of irritation. Consequently, the relationship begins to deteriorate. They each flash back to other relationships and notice certain similarities between the past and present. Eric's earlier pain comes into play and he responds in ways that are destructive to the relationship; ways that come from earlier life experiences and consequential decisions made during childhood. Heather's distant relationships with her alcoholic parents are the driving fearful force for her. For both of them, childhood experiences resulted in once adaptive decisions regarding emotional distancing. But as with many childhood and adolescent resolutions, they cease to be helpful when adulthood is reached and being in control of one's own life and relationships is the objective.

As soon as Heather and Eric reached the conclusion that their new and treasured relationship was endangered, they sought outside help. Their couple's therapy helped them to identify troublesome conditioned patterns of interaction and through this exploration and the practice of new adaptive intimacy producing styles, they were able to become closer rather than let their relationship continue to disintegrate.