Human relationships are messy.
We all enter into our relationships with internal working models of others, histories of relationships, a particular worldview and cultural expectations, and intrapsychic needs. Relationships involve a complex, overdetermined mélange of forces which interact in both powerful and subtle ways. It is inevitable that things would get messy, at least from time to time.
Even the most basic and primal relationship, the one between parent and infant, gets messy. We do not talk about it much, and it is often viewed as forbidden to acknowledge, but even that relationship can include hurt feelings, anger, disappointment, fears of rejection, and much more.
When relationships get particularly messy, feelings get hurt. Arguments may ensue, and a rupture may result. A rupture may include many different things, but essentially involves some sort of fracture to the normally positive experience of the relationship. It may be an argument that ends with bitter silence and hurt feelings on each side. It may be a comment from one person to the other that results in emotional pain for either person. It may be a failure to meet some expectation from the other.
Ruptures in relationships are unavoidable. In fact, their absence is noteworthy. I am always quite thoughtful about individual patients or couples who report never fighting. It often suggests an avoidance of conflict.
We do not always like to fight. It can be tremendously painful. It can be hard to feel anger or rage at the people that we are closest to. Sometimes we try and swallow these feelings, and sometimes we lash out with them. When a fight occurs, it can feel as if it has destroyed the relationship. If we are particularly conflict avoidant, we will take great steps to avoid a fight because we are terrified that the results will be irreparable, and we will lose our loved one.
In practice, I regularly see couples who say that they want my help to stop fighting. They do not mean that they have really challenging fights that are deeply hurtful and they want to learn how to fight better. Rather, they often have a magical fantasy that, perhaps with therapy, they can find a way to get along, synergistically, all the time. There is a deep desire to have a relationship that is “perfect.” No fights, no disagreements, no problems.
The rupture is rarely, if ever, the important part. The repair is critical. In fact, ruptures are actually opportunities to strengthen relationships. If a rupture can be repaired, it demonstrates to each person that the relationship is solid enough to withstand when things get bad and even ugly. It sends the message that the relationship will survive problems. This is important, because the relationship will have problems.
Let’s return for a moment to the infant and parent. Many parents experience a deep anxiety that they must do everything right in caring for their baby. It causes new parents an immense amount of guilt and suffering. But inevitably, something will go wrong. How could it not?! We are often deeply critical of this in ourselves or partners. Sometimes we berate ourselves when our baby calls for us we do not hear her immediately. Sometimes we can’t tell if she is hungry or fussy for another reason. Sometimes we may even know what’s wrong but choose not to fix it. And – shhh – sometimes we actually physically drop them. It is actually developmentally necessary to disappoint them a little bit. Very young infants exist in a narcissistic and omnipotent world. The world is about their experience and they do not yet have the ability to empathize with another’s needs or experience. For them, whatever they need is the most important and critical thing in the world, and they need it at that very moment. They need the parent to immediately meet their every need. They cry, and the parent comes to take care of their need, reinforcing the experience. But it is, of course, not possible to immediately meet each need. The parent will fail, as the expectation is too great. And this is okay. The infant is frustrated, but to a tolerable degree, and develops greater awareness of others and greater maturity. The baby learns that others are dependable, but not perfectly so. This is essential because this is the nature of the best relationships. The parent need not be perfect. If they needed to be, there would be serious problems.
Winnicott developed the idea of the “good-enough mother.” This meant that the mother did not have to be perfect, as Winnicott knew that this was not possible. Rather, she had to meet the infant’s expectations more often than not, try to understand what the baby needs, and give the baby what she needs as much as is possible in any given moment. That’s really all we need to be in our relationships too: good enough. Do your best, but know that sometimes a rupture will occur. Sometimes they are absolutely necessary. When the rupture occurs, be thoughtful about it. Then, come back, and try and repair it. It requires some humility and some understanding. It requires patience and perspective. It will also make future ruptures more manageable and healthy as well.