I have been thinking more about that dark matter I discussed two entries ago. As I listen to my patients and friends, as I observe my own life, and as I read the literature, it seems that this dark matter may be a useful way to think about what goes wrong in relationships. Not just romantic ones, although that is where the problems are usually most evident, but all of them.
As we discussed in that first entry, the dark matter is the vast range of personal experience and feeling that lurk underneath everything we say and do. It is the stuff we usually try to remain ignorant of, to work despite of instead of with. That, of course, is the problem. Look around you at those you consider most well-adjusted, happiest, fulfilled, and the least intrusive. See if these are people whose outward behavior and words match their inner needs. John Cleese, the writer and comedian, put it in good simple terms what he said that after much thought and personal experience with psychotherapy he concluded that it is a process by which feelings and thoughts are made to move into closer harmony, to match up better. Over 100 years ago, Freud said something similar, and it has been put in many different ways over the years.
There is a vast literature on “countertransference” and “transference” in the worlds of psychoanalysis. These are the processes in psychotherapy – in the patient and in the therapist – whereby all that dark matter emerges. Both patient and therapist say and do things that come from the “inner child”, things that inadvertently express or give vent to our less-than-conscious agendas. What makes the therapy and the therapist unique – assuming he knows what he’s doing – is the processing of all this chaos, all this dark matter, so that it becomes conscious and ultimately no longer at odds with conscious behavior, thoughts, feelings. At the end of treatment, you want likewise to be able simply to pursue what matters to you, to cease getting in your own way or letting others block you (much the same thing, when you stop and think about it), to stop engaging in behaviors or feelings that in your better moments you know don’t make sense and only gum up your life. Modern psychoanalysis has drifted away somewhat from discussing “transference” and “countertransference”; now the terms are “intersubjectivity”, “relational psychoanalysis”, and many more. But the central phenomenon being addressed by these terms is largely unchanged.
This gumming up of one’s goals and life because of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that aren’t under conscious control is also what happens in romantic relationships, as well as in friendships and even work relationships although people don’t talk about it as much in those arenas. How much of all that measuring of the prospective lover’s displays of affection and attentiveness are simply the foot stamping of the inner child who still wants that blissful parental “yes!”, that attention? One conflict arises when someone genuinely is that attentive; but then once the relationship is comfortable, once the inner child is reassured, suddenly the recipient wants their “space”; more about why that happens in the next paragraphs.
In the worst cases, the ones that are most written about and most reach the therapist consulting room, we have the borderline personalities. These are the people whose early damage was more particularly severe; the pain is much closer to the surface, much more piercing. These are the people whose relationships are often described as stormy, unstable, erratic.
The idea of dark matter comes in because most people try to deny all of that turmoil. But just under the surface there is a very painful experience of 1) desperately yearning for that blissful reconnection, and yet 2) stark terror of the connection being lost – again. I say “again” because the great fear is not the loss of an adult, present tense, incipient or even established relationship. That kind of pain is awful but tolerable. No, the real horror is the less conscious terror of a separation which will cause the kind of horrific helplessness and despair that can only happen to a small child.
This can play out in the real world in the following way. A and B meet, A is attentive, charming, seductive. B is flattered, warmed, excited, and returns the frothy, giddy attentiveness. If A becomes preoccupied or busy one day, B may respond with panic. However, that panic is often pushed into unconsciousness, if only because experience has taught B that feeling it leaves one feeling empty, despairing, helpless, awful; also, B has perhaps learned that expressing it in any direct way turns others off. (This last point is especially the case with men in our culture who are so strongly socialized – yes, still – to deny all emotional need or pain.) So, instead, B complains to friends that A is awful, may start pushing A away with anger or, depending on how strong the defenses are, with a very reasoned excuses despite the simple fact that A and B are in fact still quite enthralled with each other. B may also go out and have affairs; B may come to my office astounded that because of this perplexing, sudden, and seeming irresistible craving for other partners which always arises just as things are looking good, s/he ruined what was starting out to be yet another promising relationship.
If A and B manage to make it through this period, here’s another frequently seen outcome. Let’s assume B is the borderline personality and that A is a reasonably attentive and consistent partner. B is deeply in love, by all observations and self-report. Yet B becomes subject to episodes of fury or sudden feelings of being completely unconnected to A; later B will be the first to say these feelings were preposterous however powerful. Episodes of bizarre and unfounded jealousy are common here. Eventually B will end the relationship just as A was most clearly committed to it and B most clearly in love! The reasons offered for the termination, to each other and in the therapist’s office, never hold up to scrutiny. What’s really going on is that dark matter terror. I once saw a couple who were enmeshed in this way. (OK, I’ve actually seen many over the years.) When the woman revealed that during the years of their marriage she had entertained thoughts of suicide, her husband’s response was striking. He didn’t even look at her at this point but looked down at the floor, sad and self involved, and said in a somewhat scolding tone: “Man! And you never even told me”. Here we see an otherwise quite responsible, thoughtful citizen, a good father to his young children, who never-the-less in his most personal relationship is dominated the intensely selfish neediness of a very young child – so much so that he could not even notice how cruel he was being by ignoring his wife’s pain; like a very small child, his only experience of the moment was his feelings about being left out.
A master therapist I have consulted over the years for supervision in my own work with couples once said to me about romantic relationships that people always fall in love with the other’s inner child. (This applies of course to those relationships that are not limited to the surface, to those not based entirely upon division of labor, shared sexual or material tastes, or flat out bartering of services.) He confirmed to me that indeed the problem in relationships is all that dark matter, that unspoken, often unconscious feeling that pervades our lives but which – like dark matter to the physicists – usually lies outside of our awareness.
There are many of course who push aside talk such as this about inner lives, who tend to say “what’s the big deal? It was just a joke. I just don’t see it.” (I was once in an acting class with a girl who turned to me and said “I don’t get monologs; people don’t talk to themselves”, as if the inner storm never rises to that level.) If you’re one of those, maybe this will help: Have you ever been around an adult friend with his or her parents and noticed, particularly if your friend was a young adult, odd prickliness, irritation, and what you would describe as “overreaction” by your friend to his or her parents? What seems like innocent behavior to you and perhaps to the rest of us somehow drives your friend nuts. Why? Is it because, as your friend complains later if asked, “they always do that”? No, because if that were the only problem your friend would know even better than the rest of us how futile it is to get exercised by the parents’ annoying habits. Your friend has lived with them for a very long time, has many times over seen that the best way to handle them is either a stern “none of that!” or to just let it roll off the back. Your friend would have long accepted that “Yep, that’s just how they are sometimes”. But that isn’t what happens. Instead, your friend is agitated, even enraged. Why do those parents’ behaviors irk your friend so? Dark matter.