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How much control do we really have over the way we conduct our relationships?


Many questions need to be asked about our interactions with others. For example, how much control do we really have over our relationships? Do we have full control over the way they are conducted, or is much of what happens between people dictated by social expectations and attitudes; unconscious motivations, or childhood events affecting our adult relationships...

...and if we became more aware of our unconscious feelings and the relevance of childhood experiences through the intervention of therapy would this help us to unlock our feelings and help us stay in control?

Case Study

Daniel was brought up by both his parents until the age of fifteen, when his father suddenly died of an unknown condition. Consumed by her own grief, his mother rejected Daniels need for love and affection, and rarely spoke about his father.

Two years later he met a young girl called Amy, and they married after she became pregnant.

When Daniel was twenty-two, he discovered he had a life-limiting condition. Despite his ill health, Daniel and Amy went on to have two more children and to adopt a fourth.

When his youngest son was ten, it was discovered that he also had Daniels degenerative condition.

In his early fifties Daniel met and fell in love with a woman with whom he subsequently had a seven-year relationship - although he remained married to Amy.

Daniels health gradually deteriorated as his condition worsened, and he died just before his fifty-ninth birthday.

Relationships within family life cycles

Carter and McGoldrick (1980) feel that a 'family life-cycle' can be viewed through progressive stages:

The unattached young adult

Cohabitation

Family with young children

Family with adolescents

Children leaving home

The family in later life - retirement and old age.

They identify change and development through these stages with factors such as family attitudes, taboos, and expectations, along with the stresses of everyday life and the unpredictable events that interrupt our life-cycles.

Within the context of the case study, Daniels early life may be seen in terms of taboos around death, low expectations of affection within relationships, and perhaps a view of family life as 'fragile and insecure'. He may have transferred many of these attitudes and beliefs into his adult life, which could have affected his relationships with family and friends. Along with everyday stresses, Daniel also had to deal with unpredictable factors such as the early death of a parent, the shock of his diagnosis and entering into an unplanned relationship outside his marriage.

Whilst Daniels experiences seem to conform to the Carter and McGoldrick model to some extent, many people may experience changing and developing relationships in a very different order, or in a very different way. The relationships we have may not simply be governed by social or psychological factors, but might also be based on our biology. For example, if Daniel had not been heterosexual but had been born with a preference for same-sex relationships, he would not necessarily have experienced a 'marriage and children' phase in his life-cycle. If he had been born with a severe physical disability there may have been less opportunities to form intimate relationships, or friendships may have been based on formal or informal caring arrangements.

Early relationships

Daniel had a very good, if conventional, relationship with both his parents, up to the age of fifteen. However, when his father died unexpectedly his relationship with his mother changed irrevocably. Daniels life became entangled in his mother's problems, and when she had a breakdown a few months later, he took full responsibility for her mental and physical health. This changed their relationship from one of 'child being loved and cared for by mum', to 'child carer' - unloved and insecure, in a new relationship, with fixed boundaries and obligations.

Early Marital relationships

After two years of caring for his mother, Daniel saw an 'escape route' in his marriage to Amy. There was an assumption that the love and affection denied by his mother would be found in his romantic and intimate relationship with his wife. However, the birth of their baby, just a few months into their marriage, distracted their attention away from developing their own relationship and towards the responsibility of parenthood.

As Cowan and Cowan's study 'Adaptation to parenthood' (1985) demonstrates their can be many problems in relationships following the birth of a baby. Their study identified a variety of stresses such as increased distance between parents; strains on the relationship; increased conflict and disagreement; potentially different parenting styles, and balancing the needs of grandparents with the needs of the baby.

Many of these factors had an impact on the relationship between Daniel and Amy. Not least, Daniels own childhood relationship with his mother, which left him with the feeling that family life could be fragile and often insecure. As a result, he developed an over-protective approach towards his first child and ensured that their needs were always paramount. Conversely, he still felt a strong sense of duty/obligation towards his own mother, and therefore felt torn between his responsibilities. This caused conflict within his marriage as he appeared to sidelined and neglect Amy.

The mid stage of marriage

Daniel and Amy went on to have two further children and adopt a fourth. Their marriage survived despite constant internal conflicts and battles. Each time they came close to questioning or examining their own relationship, other family crises/events would occur to distract them from their problems. This led to a relationship in which there were constant misunderstandings, and where there was an absence of affection, warmth, or empathy. Despite these problems, they both had a strong belief in the 'family' and the social expectations of marital relationships. To all intense and purposes they were 'the perfect married couple'.

In Richard Stevens paper 'A humanistic approach to relationships' (1996) he identifies, 'misunderstandings' within intimate relationships as 'misplaced interpretations about what the partner is feeling'. Stevens further concludes that 'our particular interpretive biases relate to our cultural background, personal history, personality, or cognitive style'. He feels that partners all too easily feel rejection even when none is intended and that human beings have a unique ability to re-fashion the world to fit what they expect to find. Communication is essential to correctly identify what the other person is thinking and feeling.

Clearly, Amy may have spent many years misinterpreting her husband's feelings of duty and responsibility towards their children and to his own mother, as a personal rejection. The way in which she responds with heated argument and battles rather than measured discussion, may be due to a combination of her own cultural background and personality. Conversely, Daniel may have misinterpreted his wife's feelings of hurt and rejection as simple aggression and animosity. Misinterpretations between both partners may indeed have led them to fashion their relationship into what they expect to find. For example, Amy expected hurt and rejection, whilst Daniel expected conflict and disagreement. It seems clear that without help from a therapist Amy and Daniel would continue to have cyclical arguments and misunderstandings throughout their married life.

Marriage in later life and the impact of ill-health on relationships

As Wetherall (1996) identifies, heterosexual relationships carry particular expectations of mutuality - of love and caring, give and take. Much of what is thought of as natural or normal is based on social representations of heterosexual relationships. In other words, the way that intimate relationships are portrayed within society, influences people's expectations of the way they should conduct their own relationships. This often leads to unrealistic expectations of what this type of relationship can offer, and disappointment when the relationship does not live up to the social representation of mutual support and fulfilment.

Daniels initial optimism that his relationship with Amy would offer the love and support denied to him by his mother, had been replaced by more realistic expectations of the type of marriage he had. And when the symptoms of his condition suddenly started to worsen in the later stages of his marriage, he found his relationship with Amy even less representative of his initial expectations.

The independent lives which they had both lived within their marriage now started to developed into a relationship in which Amy was the 'informal carer' and Daniel was the 'dependent'. As 'Pam' (1993) describes, there is a feeling of being trapped in an unequal relationship, where no concession is made for the independent life you may have led. Daniel felt equally trapped and constantly mourned the loss of his old life. Conversely, Amy felt resentful of her new role and obliged to care for a man who had almost become a stranger to her.

In his early fifties Daniel was offered formal assistance from a part-time carer called Emma, who helped him to get out of the house and to regain some of his independence. Emma had previously cared for her mother who had died suddenly following many years of severe dementia, in which she did not recognise her daughter. Therefore, Emma had a great empathy with Daniel and understood many of his problems. Daniel and Emma's relationship grew from one of formal carer into an intimate relationship, in which there was intense love and mutual support until the end of his life.

Conclusion It would seem that relationships are governed by a large number of diverse factors. We may feel that we make conscious decisions about our relationships, but as we saw in Daniels relationship with his mother, things can change overnight and we can be drawn into destructive relationships, which are out of our control. When we try to remove ourselves from this type of relationship, we may unconsciously seek out someone who can provide the love and affection we crave. Although, social representations of intimate relationships as 'mutually supportive and loving' may mislead us into unrealistic expectations of what another person can provide.

Daniels childhood experience of family as 'fragile and insecure' also played a part in his unsuccessful relationship with Amy - as he became overprotective of his children and neglectful of his wife. Although, social expectations of marriage appear to have kept them together, despite constant arguments, mutual resentment, and even a relationship outside the marriage. It would seem that perceived societal expectations of 'marriage' can sometimes override all other considerations.

Whilst Emma appeared to be everything Daniel wanted in a relationship, even this relationship may have been based on events from their past experiences, and a misinterpretation of their feelings for each other. It is possible that people who have suffered past traumatic loss and rejection will have an unconscious longing for 'any' relationship which leads to affection, romance and support.

Finally, with the intervention of therapy in the early stages of their marriage, Daniel and Amy may have begun to appreciate the complexities of relationships. They could have been helped to resolve initial misunderstandings and may have had a very different life together.

It would therefore seem clear that, although we try to control our relationships, we in fact have very little control over the way they are conducted. If we genuinely want to understand how to take back some control over them, we may need assistance from someone who can help us to unlock our unconscious feelings and explore the relevance of our past experiences.

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