Written by: Dr. Alyson Nerenberg
In our society, little girls are raised watching Disney movies. In most of these stories they observe that a beautiful princess will overcome obstacles in order to find her own ideal true love. They believe that once they find that perfect Prince Charming they will ride off in to the sunset and have the happy ending that they deserve. As these girls get older the same fantasy of a perfect partner is promoted by romantic comedies. All the protagonist has to do is work through her own misunderstandings and erroneous beliefs and she will find the ideal partner who will provide her with everlasting happiness. Even when you watch a television show like Sex and The City about sophisticated Manhattanites, the beautiful main characters are still searching for their perfect loves.
Our culture promotes the same illusion of perfection through our use of social media. It is not enough for a couple to have a beautiful private moment of getting engaged. Now these couples need to hire a professional photographer or at least have a friend who is good at taking pictures show up to document the occasion so that it is “Instagram worthy”. Instagram, Facebook and Snap Chat are all platforms where people airbrush their lives so that their romance looks fabulous and they seem incredibly happy.
As a psychologist who specializes in couples therapy, I am frequently seeing couples who are devastated once the mask of perfection is taken off and they are confronted with the disillusionment of being married to someone who has deeply disappointed them. How do you stay in a relationship with a person who has proven not to be perfect, but is just a fallible human being? Why stay invested in a relationship after you have been deeply hurt?
In many instances, it is easier to just run. Separation and divorce rates have never been higher and the stigma of divorce has decreased. Plus, so many people come from single parent households that starting over has been modeled through the past generations.
When a couple first walks in the door for counseling, I view them as brave. They are fighting for their relationship by confronting issues instead of taking the easy way out and quickly running to avoid pain. As someone who has the urge to avoid, or at least sulk when my feelings are hurt, I deeply respect the couples who show up with their sleeves rolled up ready to “go into the trenches” and work through their heartache.
One of the concepts that I often talk about with these couples is my theory of “ruptures and repairs”. I believe that in every long-term relationship whether it is a friendship, romantic relationship or even a therapy relationship there are ruptures and repairs. Ruptures can be disappointments, misunderstandings or betrayals of trust. The difficult work is the job of repairing those ruptures. Yesterday in a therapy session I illustrated this concept by using my own therapeutic relationship with my patient as an example. Last Monday, a former patient of mine had called me saying that he wanted some support due to the fact that he has been having some recent struggles in his marriage. My day had been hectic and I forgot to call him back. The following day he called me again and my first words to him were a sincere apology for not getting back to him sooner. I commended him on his persistence in trying to reach me and we set up an appointment for yesterday. My not calling him back was a small rupture in our relationship. I could have been viewed as hurtful or insensitive. My quick apology for my own mistake was the simple repair that the relationship needed. Due to the fact that he knew me and realized that this was out of my character, he quickly forgave me and we moved on. I modeled accountability as well as my own human-ness. I also illustrated that making a mistake does not cause a person to always go down a “shame spiral.” Furthermore I brought up the concept that if he was so quick to show me forgiveness, maybe he deserves some forgiveness from his spouse, too.
Couples therapy can help each individual learn to slow down in order to listen to the other person without being caught up in his or her own feelings of shame or inadequacy. When we are challenged or criticized it is often our first instinct to defend ourselves profusely or just freeze like a deer in head lights. A Couples Therapy office is a safe place to work on communication skills such as talking and listening with an open mind as well as an open heart. It is a space where each partner can learn to develop empathy for the other person, as well as empathy for oneself and all of the pain that has been carried since childhood.
Although our child-like selves may have been seeking the perfect friendships/relationships, our adult selves know that this is not possible. The real value of relationships is not the illusion of perfection but instead the opportunity to show up, share our vulnerability, hurts and character defects in order to be seen honestly.