the Holy Grail of Relationship Benefits
Most people think the commonly agreeable benefit of being in a relationship is to escape loneliness. I mean, yes, there are tons of other benefits such as sharing experiences, validation, admiration, infatuation, pure sexual pleasure, financial support, family belonging, etc. At the end of the day, though, if you stripped away those individually divergent reasons and polled everyone about the most common benefit a relationship affords us across multiple diverse groups, you’d end up with a, deep sigh, proclamation “Ultimately, I don’t want to be alone in this world.”
However, I have a new proposition. And this is more of an “aha” moment for myself than anything else, a deep insight about the very deep and universally invisible “holy grail” of a benefit that aces everything else. And I accidentally stumbled upon it after helping a few hundred couples achieve bliss and harmony in their love life. Here is a little background for you.
The couples I helped as a clinical psychologist specializing in couples and sex therapy over the past 10 years ranged from innocently looking young teens around 18 or 19 years old all the way to the oldest, most experienced couple reaching their very late 70s, at times with marriage histories lasting 30, 40, 50, well even 60 years! And the most amazing, emotionally intense, and meaningful realization that I was lucky enough to witness was not the sexual gratification, the emotional validation, the affirmation of their parenting roles, the “Oh, I finally feel I’m being fully understood” epiphany, the recovery from affairs or resurrection of passion or anything of that sort. No.
What was so fundamentally awakening, chilling to my bones, even jarring and electrically zapping my entire neuro-musculo-skeletal existence was the ever so subtle development of the real truth of it all, why we need to be in a loving relationship: It is ONLY within a loving, reflective relationship that we as individuals can actually become our TRUE SELVES. My bearing witness to this amazing and hidden truth was so overwhelming for me that oftentimes I personally had to reach for a tissue and wipe away my own tears at the corner of my eyes).
Let me restate that: contrary to popular belief, it’s not being on your own, by yourself, being a single that provides the necessary safe environment to become the best version of whom you can become. NO. A BIG, COLOSSAL NO! That’s just a myth that has been maintained and reinforced by folkloric phantasies for millennia and will only make you more, well not miserable, but just more of what you are, today.
So, just more of the same old stuff. That’s all. The same repetitive, predictable thrill seeking, routine loving old self; only just chronologically older. But in terms of true growth worthy of being recognized as the proverbial “Self Actualization,” no, the key is not in remaining a single or a serial spouse forever. Being an individual, single self, avoiding the perils of long lasting, evolving relationships, will not get you anywhere close to real self actualization. The best a long term single life can provide is Ego Actualization or in other words more narcissistic validation.
And in the end, you may leave the world wondering what the hell this life was all about. I am sure many disagree with me, which is fine. My responsibility at this time of my life lies with my inner core professional who has discovered something truly amazing and worth proclaiming, which I am doing here.
Paradoxically, the perpetual single or serial dater life is actually what I personally had initially believed in. Pursuing a single life and getting as much validation (aka “fun”) I could ever get: namely tons of career development, financial success, latest cars, homes, gadgets, jewelry, wooing the sexiest girls, a doctoral degree to slap on my wall, trips to farthest corners of the world, etc. What happened then? Well, in my insatiable quest for self actualization, I got intrigued by the idea of being the best I could be in helping couples overcome relationship problems, you know, just like the ones I had in my own relationship:
- problems with making decisions
- satisfying the in-laws
- making vacation plans
- meeting financial responsibilities
- finding a supportive ear for my depressed or anxious moods
- raising a child
- finally getting my partner to understand me deeply
and so forth. I felt this itch, because that was my last frontier that I had not mastered yet: feeling accomplished in a loving relationship with another person. It seemed an impossible task and an ever elusive goal.
So, in my quest of helping my clients, a miracle happened. It was then, within the overlapping experiences of helping couples and simultaneously fixing the problems in my own marriage that I became a much better observer, not only of myself, but especially of how my couples in my private practice were evolving; in an uncanny similar way I and my partner each were evolving in our own relationships.
Slowly, a few parallels emerged:
I noticed myself morphing into a better version of myself even though I would have hated to possess some of these new personality characteristics if anyone had told me in the past that some day I would be able to or want to or even have to own such traits. To give you a tangible example: I always hated being quiet, composing myself, or refraining from saying “I’m sorry” when it came to a quarrel between myself and a given partner.
I had lived under the spell that my true nature commanded me to be verbose, express my feelings (no matter what), and quickly express empathy for the pain my partner had experienced. And I held those values for the real “truth” and moral principles for which at least I, let alone everyone else, had to live and die by.
What had escaped me were the benefits that unfolded after I gave myself the permission (and developed the skills) to evolve into a much larger, more holistic version of my own self. When I learned that pausing for a few minutes and reflecting on whether or not saying sorry could be the appropriate response, understood the more complex impact that such utterance can have on the perception of my partner, the place such a moment of empathic connection has in the
greater timeline of all moments of interactions with my partner and how they relate to each other (e.g. how consistently or inconsistently, how reliably or whimsically, how sincerely or insincerely they were being perceived in the greater scheme of things), and experientially felt the value of silence and tolerance of presence of a hurt, struggling partner, then I also grew within.
I expanded in my own psyche, I envisioned within me how my neuronal brain connections internally branched outwardly, my sense of confidence expanded, I felt more grounded and secure, at the same time I felt so much more humble and appreciative of the moment, of the world around me, of the “growing pains” my partner and I went through, of the meaning of life being much more exhilarating and invigorating when one engages with another person and evolves together than blindly seeking “fun.”
And this is the exact observation I also noticed happening in my couples coming to my office, week after week, month after month. One by one, I witnessed them become better versions of themselves, stronger, more confident, more secure, happier, healthier, more energetic, elated, beautiful, lively. What made me connect the dots between their grander self actualization and the necessity of having gone through it within their relationships is grounded in everything I have learned about human psychology and the nature of reflective social engagement coupled with resolution of transferential childhood experiences that is unique to being in an intimate relationship with a romantic partner and is impossible to occur outside it.
So, let me summarize my proposition in one simple sentence: The safest, most nurturing place to evolve your true best version of yourself is within an intimate, loving relationship! Here. I said it and and I bet my whole life and career on it. The proof for that proposition is available both in terms of empirical, evidence-based, and clinical research as well as in a realm that is much more visceral and real to the bone than all that scientific literature.
In terms of the science of it, there is a myriad of publications collected over many decades that attest to the veracity of this proposition originating from the psychoanalytic psychology spanning over various branches of behavioral psychology, most of which have been very recently corroborated by neuropsychological research showing measurable brain activity changes affected by human connection and intimate partner engagements. The field is so vast that even a meta-analytic summary would entail hundreds of pages to highlight the scientifically sound underpinnings of my assertions, which is way beyond the scope of this article.
Some resources worth looking into include keywords such as
- Imago Relationship Therapy
- Polyvagal system
- and social engagement theory
- mind-body connectivity and neurobiological models explaining interactions between partners
- Emotion Focused Therapy
- effective listening and dialogue
- Attachment theory, etc
However, from a human experiential perspective, the more tangible, palpable proof is a very age old unalterable, undeniable and almost always insurmountable need we feel to remain connected to a specific partner, a connection that is unimaginably solid, inseparable, and irreplaceable with any other connection. The most glaring example of it comes to my mind, an expression uttered by almost all of my clients:
“I don’t know what it is but I love him (her) and cannot live without him (her). Despite all our differences and problems, I want to work this out and save our relationship.”
To the novice observer, the laymen, and unsurprisingly also to many up and coming therapists, anyone who is infatuated by the spell of “singular self actualization,” my assertion would most likely seem absurd as all they can think of is the traditional concept of self differentiation, the understanding that a person is a single entity and can only be truly happy as a single, self differentiated person without any enabling codependency to another person. What they are missing is what we all are missing: a truly illuminating blueprint of our subconscious realm of functioning.
Very much like atheists with blindfolds who assert as there is no proof for the existence of god and such proof would be beyond our comprehension, let’s forget about it altogether and just focus on the data in front of us.
What I and a few of my colleagues who are willing to put up with the known unknown suggest is that the data are there, even though quite obscure and blurry; we need to sharpen our mind and focus our vision in order to make sense of it. The very gut-wrenching exclamation of the inexplicable forces binding one person to another are the very necessary indicators pointing us to the subconscious psychological forces that have manifested themselves in relation to one’s self and other significant people in our entire upbringing, the cumulative product of which we experience as our self here and now entangled in a social, neurobehavioral engagement with another human being that we are magnetically drawn to and intend to continue being drawn to as it gives us the ultimate satisfactory, meaningful outcome we need in order to feel fulfilled existentially and spiritually.
And the very examination of such invisible, yet tangible forces of bonding and intimacy is the exact recipe we need in order to become the greater version of our own self and achieve true self-actualization & self-evolvement.
To end, let’s take a look at a case study that illuminates what I am proposing as the holy grail of relationship benefits by analyzing two convergent paths that evolved out of two individuals coming into therapy as they were saddened by two divergent paths toward divorce yet wanted to give it a one last shot and see if they could finally figure this thing out.
For the sake of anonymity, we refer to this heterosexual members of a coupledom as Jane and Cyrus.
Jane had been married before and had two sons from that first marriage, one of whom had died in a car accident. She now was married to her second husband for more than 25 years with one 23-year old daughter and had come to the realization that despite more than two decades of attempts at repairing the relationship and putting up with infidelity, emotional abuse, and physical distance between them, finally there was no way the husband could fully understand her needs and therefore was about to file for divorce.
Cyrus had been also married before without any children and mainly complained about Jane’s lack of emotionality, warmth, spontaneity, and sexual desire. He acknowledged all the mistakes he had made, which were elaborately laid out by Jane, and only contested that his sole desire to make the marriage work was to receive the needs stated earlier from Jane in order to feel more romantic and committed.
And as if in a perpetual spiral of circular counter-argument, Jane would propose that if only Cyrus would become more romantic instead of sexual, she would be able to feel confident enough and cared about and thus more relaxed, spontaneous, warm, and desirous.
So, here we had two individually very well accomplished, wealthy, healthy, and intelligent people who were adamant that the key to their inner bliss was change of behavior in the other partner. And I would venture to say that almost 100% of all couples I have helped deliver one version or another of this same dilemma: if only my partner would understand/hear/listen/get/see” me truly, I would be finally free and whole in this relationship. What is additionally very intriguing is that even though each partner wants to be seen by their spouse, there is an unconscious resistance to be truly vulnerable and psychologically/spiritually naked and reveal their true selves as doing so in front of someone, who is “one foot in and one foot out” and struggles with unconditional love and acceptance, seems very threatening and unsafe.
The crux of the dilemma comes to light after a few months of therapy (sometimes sooner sometimes later) when the couple has mastered their listening and dialoguing techniques and come to realize their inner resistance to letting go of the conditionality upon their partner’s behavior. This in my belief is the true sign of “self-differentiation” wherein a person grows the psychological aptitude of becoming self-reliant and yet chooses to continue to remain in the same relationship instead of abandoning it. Once each person learns how to self sooth the need they desperately have woven into a conditional contract with their loved one, they then become more accepting of the other as well.
So, as applied to the case above, Jane had to learn how to become more relaxed, spontaneous, warm, as well as develop an intrapsychic sense of sexual desire for developing such an ability freed her from the contingency of waiting for that treatment from Cyrus. And similarly, Cyrus had to learn internally how to value commitment, romance, and simply being present in the moment with another human being in order to de-couple and untangle the contingency put on Jane’s
behavior. Once each person learned to tolerate what they had despised all their lives, they emancipated themselves from the paralyzing shackles of contingency and conditionality, hence co-dependent regulation, imposed on their partner’s existence.
As a result two benefits emerged: First, Jane independently developed skills that were now so desirous to Cyrus such as warmth, spontaneity and desire to be sensual and sexual. And Cyrus independently developed skills in paying attention to Jane, wooing her, being interested in her, showing he is capable of commitment no matter what comes. Secondly, both Jane and Cyrus became stronger individual, better versions of themselves, more secure and grounded in their own psyche. They started to feel the entire 25 years plus of struggle, misunderstanding, fights, painful loneliness within a relationship, simply had to have happened because all these years they CHOSE to make their own change of behavior contingent upon their partner’s. It had simply been an unfortunate side effect of their own weakness:
- the fear of letting go
- fear of developing such skills internally
- the need to heavily rely on the partner to mend our wounds
- the expectation that the other partner exists for that very same purpose
namely of complementing us in areas we are not strong in. And as such, the entire experience seemed worthwhile in retrospect, now, that they realized amidst all that pain, they never gave up on each other and on themselves. They continued to see the light at the end of the tunnel and as a result they also trusted that after all these years, it was time to become more vulnerable in the relationship, reveal their true selves, and take that leap of faith that something of greater benefit can emerge out of this risky proposition. It remains without emphasizing that today Jane and Cyrus and their two children belong to a very few group of families in this world that count themselves as truly happy and evolved.
In the next article, I will discuss the very complex details of how such invisible forces of bonding and intimacy that are undeniably inseparable and enigmatic, the holy grail juice of intimate relationships come to exist in the first place, why they are worth examining, ways of understanding them, and mastering their hidden secrets that give partners the power and weapon to unleash our true, greater selves. Stay tuned…