Being in a couple relationship can be very rewarding, but is not always easy! The ability to be part of a couple – whilst still maintaining a sense of individual identity – is challenging for all of us. At the heart of it, being a couple means grappling with a core dilemma: between being too close on one hand, and too far apart on the other. Being too close can bring claustrophobic feelings of being engulfed or taken over by the other, whilst being too far apart can lead to powerful fears of abandonment.
All couples negotiate this core dilemma in different ways, coming up with their own unique solutions that, in an ideal world, suit them both. Some couples, for example, spend almost all their spare time together and would never contemplate taking separate holidays; other couples happily agree to prioritise their own interests, careers, and friends. Similarly, some couples feel comfortable knowing everything about the other’s thoughts, feelings, and bank accounts. Other couples can experience this as a terrible invasion of their privacy.
When couples struggle to find a solution to the ‘too close – too far’ dilemma, the result is often an escalating experience of chasing, or being chased. One partner’s push for more closeness makes the other partner pull away more, resulting in the first partner seeking closeness even more desperately – which leaves the second partner feeling increasingly encroached upon. The feelings that each partner experiences in this situation are often painful to acknowledge, and can be difficult to talk about. The partner wanting more closeness may feel vulnerable and needy, and expressing this need brings with it a powerful fear of being rejected. The partner wanting more distance may worry this means they don’t love their partner enough, and may be reluctant to express their need out of fear of being considered cold or rejecting. The unspoken, and frequently unacknowledged feelings then manifest as complaints (“you never want to do anything with me”) or anger (“just leave me alone!”).
Each partner’s early experiences of close relationships, typically with their parents, can have a profound effect on their feelings toward their partner. Someone whose caregiver was unreliable (sometimes available, but other times unresponsive) is likely to be sensitive to any signs that their partner may be pulling away from them, and may try to keep them close at all times. Their partner, on the other hand, may have experienced a smothering parenting style, or alternatively, may have been neglected and learnt to be self-sufficient from a very early age; either way, their partner’s need for closeness feels overwhelming to them.
A further complication (what complicated creatures we are!) is that both partners may unconsciously struggle with their need for closeness, but the way this is managed between them can be deceptive. One partner often feels and expresses all the need for closeness in their couple, whilst the other partner guards the couple’s need for separateness: thus between them maintaining a distance which both need. However, unconsciously managing distance in this way is likely to create quite some conflict along the way. Only when both partners begin to feel safe enough to acknowledge their own needs, for both closeness and separateness, do things start to improve.
Not being able to resolve the ‘too close – too far’ dilemma at the heart of their relationship is one of the most common reasons couples come to therapy (even if the presenting issue seems something quite different, for example an affair). Sometimes this is because a couple have never been able to resolve this core dilemma to both partners’ satisfaction. More often, it is a change in circumstances that has thrown a previously acceptable solution into disarray.
Take Paul and David, a professional couple in their early 60’s who have been together 25 years. For a long time, their successful individual careers, and the fact they did not have children, meant they both enjoyed a high level of independence and separateness – and this suited them both. However, just over a year ago, Paul was forced to take early retirement from his job due to ill-health. As a result, his sense of personal identity and his social life have changed dramatically. He would like David to be more supportive and understanding of this, and to spend more of his time at home with him. Paul feels abandoned and rejected by David, and blames his decreasing self-esteem on him, rather than on his loss of social status. David loves Paul and wants to be there for him, but finds himself feeling increasingly ‘claustrophobic’, and is becoming afraid that he is just not cut out for dealing with Paul’s needs; which he has not realised is, partly, because they make him have to face his own ageing and increased dependency, which he is not ready to do.
Changing circumstances can shake even the most stable couple relationships, causing insecurity and pain. At these times, being able to talk to a couples counsellor can bring new understanding, allowing a renegotiation of the ‘too close – too far’ dilemma to suit the new reality, and enabling the couple to confidently move into their next phase together.