Hello Patch readers:
A few weeks ago, I took up all the space in the posting and left Deborah no room. This week she returns the favor! I'll be commenting on this column next week.
In continuing our dialog about what to do and what does it mean if I am attracted to someone outside my marriage, something struck me that has a different slant. I have begun reading Wired For Love by Stan Tatkin. Although I have not gotten too far with it yet, it has me pondering this question: Why are we in relationship? Is it “about me” or is there a process to be served by being in relationship that is more important than I might know?
Tatkin, a psychologist working with couples, has taken the current discoveries in three fields: neuroscience (which shows us the physiological basis for some of the impulses and reactions that drive our relationships), attachment theory (the biological need to attach and bond to others,) and “human arousal” (defined not as in sexual arousal, but as our “moment to moment ability to manage our energy, alertness, and readiness to engage”) and has integrated them to provide advice and suggestions to help couples grow healthy, secure, happy relationships.
Why am I talking about this here? Because, according to Tatkin and others, these studies tell us that we are wired to be in, and benefit from, secure relationships. That absent the secure relational base of an intimate relationship we are missing that which helps us function and feel better as individuals. He says: “Who among us doesn’t want to be loved? Finally to be able to be ourselves just as we are, to feel cherished, cared for, protected - this has been the pursuit of humans since the beginning of recorded time. We are social animals. We depend on other people. We need other people.”
This is a real change from the perspective that has been maintained in the past several decades, wherein an individual’s needs, preferences, and drives are the priority, and relationships are meant to serve the individual. This is a huge paradigm shift.
When a woman or a man is attracted to someone outside their relationship, it could be a flash kind of interest (perhaps more true for males). But it can also be serious enough that it raises significant questions about their relationship. Someone may measure their happiness, satisfaction, and the way they experience themselves in their committed relationship against this new attraction. It can look like: “I’ve changed, you haven’t, and I don’t think you fit me anymore.”
Old paradigm: the “how I feel and what I need” is my guiding principle. “I don’t feel fulfilled here; I love you but the relationship isn’t giving me what I need....” In this paradigm, we assign alot of what isn’t working to our partner. We begin to withdraw, look elsewhere, grow resentful. Rather than understanding relational patterns, and the relational wounds that underly them, we leave, be it physically or emotionally. We look for our individual well-being in what is, perhaps unconsciously, a backdrop in which “I ultimately stand alone”, and must act on my own behalf.
Emerging paradigm: In order for an individual to be happy, we need our relationships to be secure places in which both individuals can heal and thrive. We are learning that the benefits that come from having a secure, connected, caring base give us the opportunity to heal “relationship wounds” that come from childhood and interfere with our capacities for mature, healthy relationships in adulthood. This is the potential of committed relationships. Understanding this, I want to take care of my relationship, learn about it, and be an ally to be my partner, even when it is challenging. I am learning to find my best well-being, fully as my individual self, through the process of being in relationship.
I think that we rarely consider in a conscious way “Why am I in relationship”?Aside from who I like, what I want, and how it feels to be together, what do we believe about relationship? What is it’s purpose or potential? Think about it: we know exactly what to do to have healthy oral hygiene, but what do we understand about this most significant relationship in our lives?
In your recent comments, you said: “I am preaching here a doctrine of truth and trust. Trust the truth of who you are. Trust that you really did choose the right person to be with and if you share yourself fully with him or her, you and your relationship will grow as a result.”
I think that we need to know why we are in our relationships and marriages. If we believe it is to enrich our lives, but with the sense that underneath it all “I” comes first and last, we will make decisions following that sense of self-preservation.
If we believe, as Tatkin and others are saying, that caring for and growing our relationships is ultimately the way to care for ourselves, then our decisions will align with your perspective: that honesty and authenticity will maintain respect and vitality in our relationships, and that a healthy relationship is an essential kind of self-care.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deborah Leeds, MFT, is a couples and individual therapist with offices in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, CA. Visit her website at deborahleeds.com
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.