These three common issues: low self-esteem, fear of rejection and lack of intimacy seem to constellate in many relationships and often cause subtle, gradual but very significant damage to the relationship.  They can act quietly, like an undiagnosed illness in the background – eating away at the fabric of the relationship.  Often, what is left is bickering and fighting – which may actually be an unconscious attempt at establishing some form of intimacy – even if it is a negative way (better than not at all!).

Let’s explore all of this further.

 

The Early Family and Parenting as Establishing Templates

We start our lives with a combination of pre-programmed expectations and needs. For things to go well, these needs have to be met by someone in a parenting role with some reliability.  We need a sense of safety, to be fed, nurtured and to feel loved. If we know our parents value us, love us and are invested in us a couple of important things happen towards helping our growth.  First is that we have a sense of safety.  This sense of safety allows us to move into the world, to explore with a sense of confidence.  We know if something happens, our parents will protect us.  These are a couple of the bases of confidence, the establishment of positive self-esteem and the ability to manage anxiety.

Feeling loved is partially made up of these experiences.  They are not the only things that make up feeling loved, but knowing someone sees you and values you, will hold, nurture, protect, and rejoice in you are components of the feeling of being loved.  They are also part of the components for the background state of a sense of well-being.  Reliably having these experiences leaves us more secure, less needy, less worried and less anxious.  It also gives us the confidence to know we have the strength, personal sense of being valued, and safety to allow us to be vulnerable enough to allow for genuine experiences of intimacy.

 

Less Than Optimal Circumstances

Of course, many people grow up under less than optimal conditions.  There could be any number of reasons.  Some are environmental factors such as divorced parents, the family enduring economic hardship and/or some form of prejudice, trauma or even intergenerationally transmitted trauma (for example repercussions of the Holocaust).  Other problems could include a parent who is unavailable due to depression, substance abuse, mental illness or strife in the parenting couple or other factors.  Parents who suffered significant trauma which has been unprocessed or has been too overwhelming to process on their own can bring their own trauma into the parenting (here is a link to a seminal article on this phenomenon).

In these sub-optimal situations, we can often predict there will be struggles for the developing child.  One common issue is that young children have an egocentric understanding of the world around them.  That means, they often think things that happened around them are caused by them.  For example, a child with a depressed and unavailable parent may grow up and create a personal narrative in which he or she is unlovable or does not have value, otherwise, ‘mommy would not have been so sad’ or ‘Daddy would not have left.’  Rather than having a more sophisticated understanding – for example, that the parent was depressed, or enduring challenging circumstances which overwhelmed him or her – the child uses the information at their disposal and comes up with a storyline.  This story or narrative, based on childhood experiences and based in childish logic very often remains unchallenged, just like much else we learned in childhood.

Coming out of these early experiences with a narrative which says there is something fundamentally wrong, unlovable, or culpable about oneself creates problems which may last for years. To add to this issue is that the psychological defenses, little tricks we play on our minds unconsciously, can drive these thoughts into the unconscious mind through repression.  That means the narrative is still running and organizing one’s thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and experiences.  However, this is happening outside of one’s awareness (it is unconscious).  Therefore, the problem becomes very difficult to recognize – or more accurately – the underlying problem and the narrative are no longer available to the conscious mind. The psychological defenses are often very good at getting us through the moment, but sometimes they complicate the situation in the long run.

 

Self-Esteem and Rejection

Attachment theory tells us that a secure sense of attachment results in a sense of safety, security, the ability to regulate emotions, to manage anxiety and to feel safe that we will not be rejected by those we love.  It is easy to see that one’s sense of personal value is intimately tied in with a secure sense that they will not be rejected by their parents and loved ones.  A low self-evaluation can result from the opposite; one might not feel convinced that if that tiger came, their parents would grab them and run.  Safety, in attachment theory, comes in part from a recognition of the parents’ prioritizing the child’s well-being – over their own if necessary.  Rejection at a time of danger is a threat to the person’s very survival.  This is why the threat of being ostracized works so well in many cultures and why banishment to a dangerous place was the ultimate punishment for many groups in antiquity.

It is not a far leap then, to understand that a person with low self-esteem would not feel valuable enough that someone else would prioritize them, and why the risk of rejection is so threatening.  Most of us may not live in the habitat where tigers roam freely, but people do not evolve as quickly as society.  Besides, being left alone in the world is, in many ways, just as dangerous now as it was in the past.

 

A Crucial Paradox

We often think something like, “when I get out of these circumstances everything will get better.”  We even teach that to our children, with all fairy tales ending with “… and they lived happily ever after.”

Unfortunately, that is not actually how things usually go.  Instead, we tend to repeat the patterns that were established in our childhood.  We do so with uncanny precision.  Sure, the externals might look very different.  This may be one of the ways in which we reassure ourselves that things will be better.  Nonetheless, since in our early life (for example) love might have felt like a distant parent, we may well pair ourselves up with someone who struggles to be available, who themselves cannot tolerate vulnerability or intimacy.  Sometimes we pair up with a person and then we ‘nudge’ them into fulfilling the challenging and dysfunctional relationship patterns we endured in childhood.  It is as if we need these problematic dynamics to occur.  If not, something does not feel right. As painful as they are, there is something (reassuringly) familiar with them.

To add to the paradox, we often do not test things out to see if we can change them. In part, the dysfunction seems familiar.  Perhaps also in part, our psychological defenses interfere with our ability to assess the situation accurately.

 

Loneliness and Isolation in the Relationship

Intimacy and connectedness require a sense of safety and some level of courage. A history of successful, intimate, loving relationships is the best guarantor of future success in close relationships.

Given a history of successful and healthy relationships is not always the case, many people come to relationships with the issues noted above, and bring issues from the past like having had an absent or emotionally unavailable parent.  Resulting from this can be an impaired sense of self-esteem and a fear of rejection.

The ‘secret self’ (if you will) ‘knows’ he or she is not perfect, not perfectly lovable or perhaps not even lovable at all.  Instead of building a sense of trust over the years in the relationship, the conviction of culpability, unlovability or lack of value remains to a significant degree unchanged.  The couple can tend to rely on something Winnicott called the “False Self.”  As the name implies, this is like a mask which one presents – but interactions with the false-self do not temper the fears of the real self.  Instead, positive interactions are attributed to the false-self one presented.  ‘You love the mask, the ideal me I presented while hiding the real, imperfect version of me.’  Thus, positive experiences under these circumstances do not grow confidence in one’s lovability and there can still be a conviction that exposing the true self is too dangerous, it will end up with the person being rejected.

Instead of building a sense of trust over the years in the relationship, the conviction of culpability, unlovability or lack of value remains to a significant degree unchanged.  The couple can tend to rely on something Winnicott called the “False Self.”  As the name implies, this is like a mask which one presents – but interactions with the false-self do not temper the fears of the real self.  Instead, positive interactions are attributed to the false-self one presented.  ‘You love the mask, the ideal me I presented while hiding the real, imperfect version of me.’  Thus, positive experiences under these circumstances do not grow confidence in one’s lovability and there can still be a conviction that exposing the true self is too dangerous, it will end up with the person being rejected.

 

A Painful Pseudo-Intimacy

As a relationship matures, the idealization of having found the perfect partner fades. The work to build a successful and intimate long-term relationship requires repeated attempts and experiences of intimacy which require trust, the strength to allow oneself to be vulnerable and a sense of safety.  The vulnerability necessary to grow the relationship is often difficult to achieve, particularly if one feels they might get ‘found out’ for lacking some essential characteristics.

In the absence of this work, as the idealization fades as the relationship continues, what often fills that space is a combination of distance, disappointment, resentment, and perhaps other things like affairs, substance abuse or other problems.  One other problem commonly happens – fighting.  There can be blaming the partner for not measuring up, not being who one wanted them to be, or who they seemed to be.  There are potentially innumerable reasons to fight.

However, fighting is a form of intimacy – a protected form of intimacy.  Think about it – there is very little that is more intimate than someone being under your skin.  The added benefit for the person who is afraid of vulnerability is that as their guard is up, they can feel safe that they won’t get hurt.

Yes, it is paradoxical: one might think fighting would offer more opportunities to be hurt, and gentle loving would seem safer.  However, in the latter, we are not busy protecting ourselves.  In the former, with our ‘dukes up’ we can feel safe in that our armor is on. Fighting allows us to have a ‘crazy intimacy’ without either partner ever even having to consciously be aware of the intimacy.  In some ways, this is a brilliant compromise created by the unconscious mind – it allows intimacy without any need for awareness of the terrible threat of vulnerability.

Yes, it is paradoxical: one might think fighting would offer more opportunities to be hurt, and gentle loving would seem safer.  However, in the latter, we are not busy protecting ourselves.  In the former, with our ‘dukes up’ we can feel safe in that our armor is on. Fighting allows us to have a ‘crazy intimacy’ without either partner ever even having to consciously be aware of the intimacy.  In some ways, this is a brilliant compromise created by the unconscious mind – it allows intimacy without any need for awareness of the terrible threat of vulnerability.

 

How Couples Therapy Can Help

As might be apparent from above, one clear advantage to having a skilled therapist is to gain help seeing what one is precluded from seeing by their own defensive processes.  Also, we tend to get into ruts and once we have tried all the ways we can think of to improve our relationship, we tend just to dig in and try the same few things over and over again; as if trying the same thing more or harder will finally do the trick.

Couples therapy is scary and it is hard work.  However, having someone help you express your thoughts or feelings, helping moderate the communication and exploring underlying assumptions (including unconscious ones coming from the past) can be crucial to moving forward.  Exploring one’s internal world, in a safe environment and in the presence of your partner can be very intimate and can be a source of tremendous growth in the relationship.  Learning about one’s self, and your partner in the presence of a skilled therapist can be the exact opposite of fighting as a form of pseudo-intimacy.

Another benefit is that since we marry or partner with people with some complimentary issue, we can see in therapy how our pasts and the unconscious dynamics each partner brings to the relationship continue the unwanted and unhealthy patterns of related.  In this context, new patterns can be explored, tried and established.  It’s not that fights will never happen again, but they are likely to be much less frequent, to be less volatile and to resolve better and much quicker.

 

 

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