While listening to the news about Israel and Gaza over the past week I have also been
thinking about writing this blog. Trying to process the enormity of the events meant I found it difficult to know what to write. It is hard to imagine the impact of the suffering and loss of life, and the extremes of pain, trauma, and fear. At times I have felt such a sense of despair and helplessness. How can one comprehend the extent of the the brutalities and the levels of violence and hatred that have been unleashed. Is it possible that escalation can be prevented and the bombing will stop? Can relief, water, food, fuel and medical supplies get through to those in desperate need? These are very dark days and it is difficult to see how this devastating crisis will end.
I was struck by an interview with Sharone Lifschitz whose parents were taken hostage on October 7th. While she still does not know the whereabouts of her father, her mother has just been released. She described the nightmare of the ‘huge darkness’ of loss, pain and sorrow, but also insisted that there has to be hope that a way through will be found. Her parents were peace campaigners who worked to bring Palestinian and Jewish communities closer together and lived in hope of reconciliation and accord. Extraordinarily, as she was being released, her mother turned to say ‘Shalom’ to her captors.
The belief in ‘Hope’, despite everything, rang loud.
All human beings need hope in order to keep going, thrive, keep growing and developing, but helplessness and depression can bring a despairing loss of hope.
As a relationship therapist I have witnessed that it is often when a couple loses a hope that change is possible, loses hope that things can be different and that improvements can happen, that they turn away and a relationship ends.
When there is hope, however, somehow they can persist in their search for a pathway
through their trouble and strife. Hope can bolster their motivation to stay, despite the
difficulties, and engage in the struggle.
But it is painful challenging work so it has to be a realistic hope that is based in the
couple’s understanding of the value of their relationship.
Hope may reside in their memories of their past shared history of love, fulfilment, care and understanding – enough to sustain them in the present atmosphere of disappointment, resentment, rancour and blame.
I believe that human beings are relational and have a profound need to form attachments. This can find expression in so many different ways but, ultimately, we need each other: ‘No man is an island’. No matter how introverted and self sufficient we may be, or how much we may celebrate a solitary personality, everyone feels distress with experiences of exclusion and isolation.
We ourselves can also be capable of betraying even the people we love when we do not act as our better selves. We can coldly sever a connection with another, we can be distant and withdrawn, be demeaning and hurt partners, family, friends.
There is a story quoted by Rick Hanson in Making Great Relationships:
An elder was asked what she had done to become so happy. She replied: ‘It’s because I know there are two wolves in my heart; a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. And I know that everything depends on which one I feed each day.’
I have also been reading relationship therapist Stan Tatkin’s book ‘In Each Other’s Care’.
He reminds us that a Venn diagram can be useful in understanding the dynamics of a
couple relationship. In a secure healthy relationship each partner is a separate, fully
autonomous individual choosing to sign up to an interdependent relationship with another. They both form a team for their mutual benefit; to thrive as individuals as well as as a couple. It’s a ‘win – win’. However, if somehow there is a stuck imbalance, it becomes a dysfunctional relationship. When one partner is repeatedly ‘on top’, victorious at the expense of the other, it becomes unsustainably about ‘winner- loser’.
Every couple will always organise their own unique relationship in terms of dependency, autonomy and differentiation according to their needs.
But, however fat or thin each segment of the Venn diagram, they need a shared
agreement that includes an equal commitment to taking care of each other in order to keep the whole ‘couple bubble’ in balance. Equal value and equal attention should be paid to the wellbeing of the ‘us’ as well as the ‘you’ and the ‘me’.
The success of a couple’s interdependence has a basis in trust. It means they can rely on the agreement that the relationship they are developing together is special, important and valued.
However they structure it, their relationship involves a contract where both are full
participants in their particular couple culture (‘This is who we are and this is what we do.’), and where both share a purpose and a vision of the future. It is a
‘turning towards’ so that both protect and benefit from the relationship.
It may not have been openly discussed (and, if not, can lead to painful
misunderstandings), but each partner will hold an understanding of the terms of getting together, and what is required for them to feel safe and secure. As well as their own particular special idiosyncrasies, the list will often include such generally understood positives as affection, care, respect, sensitivity, compassion, concern, equality, fair play, honesty….
Some requests will be harder to meet and agree to than others, and accepting the
limitations and sacrifices that come from choosing to be in a relationship is not easy, but it is the intention to do one’s best and accept the role of equal investor, shareholder, benefactor, protector and guardian of the ‘us’ that is the bedrock of what Stan Tatkin calls ‘secure functioning’.
Unfortunately, couples often do not nurture the needs of their ‘us’ as much as they do their own individual needs.We can all be self-centred, particularly when under stress, but it means a couple can quickly lose secure connection. It is possible for the middle overlap of the Venn diagram, the ‘us’ part, to become very slim indeed with partners trapped in a competitive ‘you’ v ‘me’.
Each can be convinced they are not heard and both feel neglected, misunderstood, and deprived. The focus switches to differences and the good gets downplayed, with a consequence that the other becomes the problem that needs solving.
Hurt and aggrieved they can withdraw from the centre and even begin to look outside the circle, taking a singular path off on their own direction. As they pull away, their relationship house begins to look shaky and the very foundations
begins to crack – it is no longer a safe haven.
The knock-on effect is painful. The wellbeing of an individual is intricately entwined with the wellbeing of their relationship. Relationship conflict, separation, divorce all impact on physical and mental health, on family, on energy, on careers, on creativity
Whenever a relationship hits the buffers, however righteous one may feel, Tatkin advises putting a stopper on the blame and resentments, prioritising the repair of the relationship, and stepping up to make amends.
Jointly engaging in making amends is a powerful way to start the healing. It will mean
sharing their vision of a peaceful outcome and counselling can help initiate the discussion and negotiation in a safe manner.
They will need to work to rebuild trust and concessions will need to be made.
’How much do you need to be right over being happy?’ ‘Which wolf in your heart will you feed today?’
At its worst, when a conflict seems irresolvable, it is sometimes the counsellor who holds the confidence that a problems can be worked through. But, reinforced by mutual gestures of generosity and goodwill, defences can lower enough for a reconvening on common ground. Space can open up to allow for a return of a flow of love and affection.
Tatkin reflects that a relationship in trouble has accrued a bank of bad memories and
leaves a snail’s trail of hurt in its wake, The past needs acknowledgement and cannot be erased but alongside they have a shared history of good memories. The stakes are high (the loss of their past investment in one another and the loss of a potential for a better and stronger future relationship) but, if a couple commit to tackling the problems together, then rapprochement becomes a possibility and they can move back into each others care.
‘Sometimes the centre does not hold – in a body, a marriage, or a nation. And still… And still…people love each other, go out of their way for a stranger, and marvel at a rainbow. We keep putting one foot in front of the other one. Lifting each other up along the way’
(Rick Hanson Making Great Relationships)
We all need hope. We are all in each other’s care.