Cognitive Behavioural Therapy & Relationships
Cognitive awareness and the development of emotional intelligence are essential life skills necessary to avoid the pitfalls of the unhelpful defence / attack attitudes we adopt when a committed relationship fails to deliver the promise of 'Happy ever after'. When what was once a joyful, satisfying and loving relationship, degenerates into chronic discord fuelled by bitter resentments and open hostility, the question is not who is to blame but, what steps can we take to resolve issues.
Solving the problems, difficulties and misunderstandings in unhappy partnerships, before relations reach the point of irretrievable break-down, is the ultimate challenge for the couple and the therapist. Making wise choices in our long term compatibility that are governed, not just by the emotional brain but also with the more discerning cognitive brain, reduces the risk of discovering to our dismay that we have committed to the wrong person once the 'honeymoon' period is over.
When we look to another person for completion of our self we become frustrated if our emotional needs are not met. Total self acceptance and a respect for boundaries [where 'I' end and 'you' begin] are the first step to avoiding a crisis of unmet expectation, which can happen when we realise that our partner is not able to make up for any shortfall of self esteem we feel within ourselves. Being able to distinguish between valid complaints and those disputes that arise from a sense of insecurity or low self worth, is the first step to resolving feelings of unmet expectation that stem from a belief that someone else can fix us. A few simple changes to our communication styles can bring about rapid positive changes.
Whilst remaining in the 'I' mode, we express only what we feel about a given situation. Therefore a statement like:
When you don't help with housework, I feel unappreciated can not be disputed, as we are saying only something about our own feelings. On the other hand, if we were to say:
You are a lazy, good for nothing so and so... This immediately invites defence and counter attack. The key to improving relationships therefore relies on improved communication, although not necessarily more communication. Successful partnerships care more about the health of the relationship than winning arguments and happy couples are concerned more about finding the right way forward, based on shared values and goals.
What Is Love?
An attempt at a true definition of what is meant by love is always difficult but, understanding some of the processes which takes place in the brain when we are in the first flush of love, may help to explain why some relationships can last a life time and others falter at the first hurdle.
The event of falling in love temporarily raises peoples feelings of happiness to abnormally high levels of satisfaction but, this heady state will in time return to normal levels. This can lead to feelings of disappointment or deflation and the mistaken belief that falling in love is love itself. It then follows that, if we don't feel high anymore, then we should seek the feeling elsewhere. The desire for romantic love and the temptation of both physical and egotistical pleasures may affect our deeper spiritual growth and is often driven by the misguided belief that love, like sex is just a feeling. Loves reasons have always been subconscious, which is why to outsiders, those in a euphoric state can seem to be in the grip of madness. Whilst love is undoubtedly a most essential ingredient to our well being, unbridled illicit love however, ignited by insatiable sexual desire and culminating in reckless decision making, can lead to far reaching and disastrous consequences - for individuals families and society as a whole.
Through the practical development of emotional skills, we can begin to see the effect we have on others and how, by retaining a healthy sense of separateness, yet simultaneously extending greater emotional support, we can benefit from the considerable mutual advantages of investing in life long commitments. On the other hand, attempting to control the freedom of a partner does not contribute to a healthy loving relationship but in truth, is often a primitive response to a perceived sexual threat. It is only when we bring these hidden feelings into consciousness, that we can begin to understand the true meaning of love, which is always about helping the other person reach self actualisation [be the best they can be]. Indeed love in its purest form, is essentially an act of selflessness and ultimately self-sacrifice.
It is therefore of primary importance to reach a level of deep and profound self acceptance and wholeness if we are to gain the capacity to share ourselves in sexual relationships without surrendering to the obsessive desire toward ownership of the other. If we believe we need someone to make us happy, we suffer. If we believe we are no-one without another, we must conclude that we are no-one with another. We may tell ourselves that we are fighting to save our relationship but, we are fighting for our life because there is a sense of not existing without the other person to approve of us and validate us.
This desire to control others reveals itself only when we are not connected to our true self. In developing a sense of separateness, we can reach a deeper level of self fulfilment and completeness allowing us to extend ourselves to others in committed decision based relationships that are built not just on loving feelings but, on genuine thoughtful consideration. In recognising that we can never own another person and that love is essentially a free choice, we can enjoy the initial all consuming euphoric feelings of blissful romantic fusion, whilst nevertheless acknowledging that these heavenly feelings are nevertheless temporary illusions of perfection, that can not be sustained in the long run. Ultimately the relationship must find a more realistic level that allows balance and time for life's other obligations. Believing this 'feeling' of love means that we cannot contemplate the idea of love without the 'falling in love' sensation, which leads to the sometimes tragic belief that a relationship is over when this feeling has run its natural course.
When we genuinely love another however, this requires a commitment of action [love is also a verb], to nourish and care for that person. This involves a degree of compromise and demands loyalty and dedicated attention. The act of falling in love by contrast requires no effort whatsoever and is always a sex driven experience. This is not to say that this is not a wonderful and desirable state. On the contrary, to have loving and sexual feelings towards another human being can be one of life's richest experiences. It is however, a temporary state of being even if the powerful initial feelings of attraction are overwhelming and all consuming and we declare this 'love' will last forever.
During this head over heart phase, insight is somewhat suspended, some would say 'blinded' by irresistible, compulsive drives. Scientists at Pennsylvania University have reached the conclusion that romantic love is a biological urge, distinct from sexual arousal and is closer to hunger, thirst and drug craving. Furthermore, scientists in the recently published Neuro Image Journal, claim that the part of the brain which is implicated in social judgment, seems to get switched off when we are in love, so that critical assessments which might threaten love are blocked. All in all, it seems like humans are fooled by the brain into falling 'madly' in love for the benefit of the survival of the species, as this would create sufficient desire to encourage the primitive man to stay put and support his offspring and the mother in the short term but, in the long term, seed spreading to ensure greater number of his genes where past into the community was a more pressing necessity.
It has been said that new love is not dissimilar to mental illness. Many people exhibit the type of behaviour more often associated with neurosis. Since we are not thinking with all our mental faculties, yet are not suffering from any physical damage to our brain, to some extent we must concede that this assessment holds some truth. Whilst there is perhaps a no more blissful and uplifting feeling than the dizzy heights of romantic love, the divorce courts however, reflect the dangers of loosing complete control of rational thought - often to our dismay or regret when we fall back down to earth. What is necessary therefore, is that we attempt to better regulate our primitive drives. After all, many are no longer appropriate or helpful in today's modern society. The species is no longer in danger. It is now the quality of relationships rather than the quantity - the long term commitment to our children and their development and the ability to engage our more advanced cognitive brain in harmony with the emotional centres, that leads to better emotional health and longer life expectancy.
Is Love Conditional?
Above all else, the important thing is to be true to oneself. Soul searching questions must come to the surface if we are to find peace within ourselves. If we say we love someone, but hate the things they do - can this be love? Why are we unhappy with the actions of a 'loved one'? What concerns us most? Does this feeling come from genuine concern for our partners welfare or, is it an attempt to cover up for our own feelings of insecurity, vulnerability or jealousy?
Close Apart / Alone Together
Paradoxically, it is those couples who are most comfortable when apart that are closest when together. Creating space for each another allows time for personal growth - for breathing space fresh ideas and to reflect privately all of which bring renewed energy and deeper love to the relationship. Unlike the unconditional love we afford our children [it is interesting that we do not fall in love with our children], in marriage / partnerships, we offer a commitment and promise to an individual in return for a commitment and promise. The relationship depends for its survival therefore, on the fulfilment of those promises, the bedrock of which, have always been to love cherish and honour one another. It is the loss of these considerations that threaten a genuinely loving relationship. We would not choose mental anguish for ourselves or our loved one therefore if it hurts, hates or holds us back, it is not love, because genuine love always surrenders to the truth that sets us free to grow.
This point is beautifully illustrated in the following poem by William Blake:
He who binds himself to a joy, does the winged life destroy. But he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity's sunrise