There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston
How do we understand the complex nature of problems in romantic relationships? And what theoretical framework can help us navigate our clinical work with couples? In couple therapy, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Eric Fromm (1956) aptly stated that in a romantic relationship, one plus one equals three, similarly suggesting that basic mathematical assumptions don’t apply when examining couples. Couple treatment requires knowledge of how to understand each member of the dyad, with his or her unique history and internal world, as well as the complex system that they co-create and are embedded in together.
Classical psychoanalysts look at the couple relationship as a receptacle of ongoing transference experiences, with each individual distorting his or her perception of the partner in a manner consistent with the drama of early family life. For example, in my work with a (composite) married, same-sex couple I will call Joan and Joelle, Joan complained that Joelle was needy and dependent. Joan had grown up the only child of a single mother, who turned to Joan to meet her emotional needs. Such a parallel provided fertile ground for exploring how she responded to her partner based on childhood experiences. Elucidation of such distortions is often a necessary component of change, but not sufficient to address all relationship difficulties.
Family systems theorists, utilizing principles gleaned from biology, describe couples and families as forming their own unique systems. Along with structural components, such as boundaries, hierarchies and alliances, they elucidate ways that an individual can carry out certain functions for the system, and how partners mutually influence each other’s behavior. The systemic concept of circularity describes the vicious cycles seen in this mutually-determined process: Joan retreats because Joelle wants closer contact; Joelle wants closer contact because Joan retreats. Seeing how an individual’s behavior inadvertently brings about the unwanted response in the partner can open up new possibilities for intervention. Systems theorists also describe the notion of complementarity in couples: the more Joan is strict in parenting their son, the more Joelle compensates by becoming lenient. In its most extreme form, complementarity can lead to the polarization often seen in intractable relationship conflicts. Helping each member of the couple soften their stance can facilitate both moving closer to the middle. Yet a family systems approach fails to address the complex recreation of an individual’s internalized past within their current relationship.
The relational turn in psychoanalysis has allowed us to bridge the internal, unconscious focus of classical psychoanalysis with the external, behavioral focus of family systems theory by looking at the various ways a dyad co-creates a shared emotional system. Through this more comprehensive understanding, contemporary psychoanalytic theories allow us to address the myriad influences on relational functioning.
Unconscious mechanisms that recreate internalized object relations have been delineated by both object relations and attachment theories. Early object relations theorists who studied marital interactions (see Dicks, 1967) recognized ways that symptoms could be carried by one partner for the other. They began to explicate how the sharing or volleying of symptoms occurs via the process of projective identification, where an individual’s unwanted internal objects are projected into the other, stimulating the partner to behave in a manner consistent with the ejected object. In the case of my couple, Joelle expressed a lack of sexual desire at the start of treatment, but as soon as her sexual interest returned, Joan became anorgasmic for the first time. Understanding the nature of the projections and helping both partners better contain or metabolize the unwanted aspects of self provides a useful way to approach these often confusing dynamics. Attachment theorists describe how early parent-child experiences lead to an internal working model of relational security, which then becomes the blueprint for what individuals expect and respond to with their adult partners. Particularly relevant when attachment injuries, such as betrayals and losses, occur within a romantic relationship, the impact of the rupture can be understood with the exploration of early attachment experiences. For my couple, an episode of Joan leaving suddenly on a business trip led to an increase in Joelle’s clinging protests, an exaggeration of her insecure attachment behavior; conversely, Joan exhibited her avoidant style whenever she sensed distress in their connection.
Interpersonal analytic theorists posit less about specific unconscious mechanisms, but instead look at how early relational expectations get recreated interpersonally. Through a process of selectively attending to cues from the partner that conform to early relational experiences, then continuing to interpret as well as to subtly influence the partner to behave in ways that are consistent with those experiences, each member of the couple lives out her internal object world in the present interpersonal context (Goldklank, 2009.) With my couple, Joan was keenly attuned to any way that Joelle seemed dependent, and subtly questioned Joelle’s more autonomous actions, leading the dynamic between them to closely mirror Joan’s relationship with her mother. In a complementary manner, Joelle attended most to ways that Joan was dominant and critical like her father, and may have unconsciously invited such negative scrutiny through presenting herself as helpless or incapable. Interpersonal analysts may also look at ways individuals often choose a partner who embodies some important aspect of a familiar internal struggle.
Further developments in contemporary analytic theories have broadened our understanding of the complexities within relationships. Relational psychoanalysis has explicated the role of dissociative mechanisms in individual and couple functioning. Understanding the amalgam of self-states that each individual may bring to his or her romantic partnership can help each person make sense of seemingly disjunctive emotional reactions in self and other (Ringstrom, 2014). When Joelle felt unwanted by Joan, she became like an inconsolable child, consistent with her emotional experience following the early death of her mother. Recognition of this child self-state helped Joan react less negatively to Joelle at these moments.
Findings in neurobiology have supported the analytic notion of a shared emotional system in couples. Mirror neurons point to the ways we are wired to be responsive to others. Neuroscientists have also noted that the release of the hormone oxytocin during close physical contact in intimate relationships can provide an emotional regulatory function for both members of a couple. This knowledge helped Joan and Joelle learn to calm each other at the start of arguments by holding hands, utilizing this shared capacity for affect management.
We’ve also learned that one plus one often adds up to more than three. Extending the interpersonal and relational understanding of co-created systems to the larger social environment within which the couple is embedded helps to contextualize certain relational struggles. In my couple, delving into Joan and Joelle’s religious differences, as well the impact of being lesbian in a heteronormative culture, helped to deepen our understanding of factors that were adding stress to their partnership.
Indeed, the whole is significantly larger than the sum of its parts. Working with couples exposes us to the panoply of influences, past and present, internal and external, which inform dyadic functioning. With the relational turn in psychoanalysis, we have the theoretical framework and concomitant tools that allow us address the inherent complexities of treating romantic pairs.
Wendy Greenspun, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis Certificate Program, the Adelphi University Postgraduate program in Marriage and Couple Therapy, and at the Training Institute for Mental Health. She is a graduate of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis Certificate Program in Psychoanalysis, and also trained at the Ackerman Institute for the Family. She is couple therapy supervisor at Columbia University Counseling and Psychological Services. She has published and presented extensively on couple treatment and violence in couples and families, and is in private practice in NYC.
Wendy will be teaching a course on couple therapy for the analytically-oriented clinician as part of MIP’s 4-week seminar series. This seminar provides 6 CE credit hours.
Dicks, H. (1967). Marital tensions: Clinical studies towards a psychological theory of interaction. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Fromm, E. (1956). The Art of Loving. NY: Harper and Row.
Goldklank, S. (2009). The shoop-shoop song: A guide to psychoanalytic-systemic couple therapy. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 45(1), 3-25.
Ringstrom, P. (2014). A Relational Psychoanalytic Approach to Couples Therapy. NY: Routledge.