“NO, that’s NOT what I mean.”
“How could you say that?”
“I wasn’t finished. Where are you going?”
At first glance, sudden and intense misattunement between partners may indicate a need for a more disciplined approach to conflict. Perhaps both need a class to practice nonviolent communication strategies, a workshop to enhance empathy, or a therapist to work on anger management.
But what if the problem isn’t interpersonal? What if the deeper conflicts at stake are going on within—each person struggling to maintain two versions of self simultaneously, their personal self and their relational self? Look again at the arguments that confound couples and we can see they are frequently frustrated not at each other but at the delicate trapeze work required of each person to keep their own identity from crashing.
I practice as both an individual counselor and a couples counselor. A core task in both practices involves helping folks navigate the space between their personal and relational selves. The personal self is busy with the task of differentiation: remaining autonomous and whole while with others. The relational self, meanwhile, is occupied with the task of merging: deepening intimate availability for connection.
As I talk with one person, I get a direct experience of their unique worldview. Speaking again on the same topic while that person is in the presence of a loved other, I often observe that worldview collapse. Here, the simplest facts, the clearest agreements, and the most bedrock values slip like disentangled particles through their grasp. Little that is true to the identity of a person necessarily remains true to their identity while in relationship.
Differentiation: Being Oneself in the Company of Another
Pay attention to couples as they slip into a casual disagreement and you’ll see any number of well-honed techniques to salvage dignity and equilibrium. It’s a supremely complex task. Not only must each preserve a sense of entitlement to their own opinion, they must simultaneously preserve a sense that the person to whom they are attached is worthy of respect. Most complex of all, they each need to handle a temporary rupture of relational attunement.
Differentiated couples have gained some measure of confidence that their relationship will survive its everyday ruptures. Such confidence is hard-won.
Differentiated couples have gained some measure of confidence that their relationship will survive its everyday ruptures. Such confidence is hard-won. It takes no small amount of faith and a whole lot of practice to establish a capacity to be caring while experiencing a sudden collapse of attunement (“How can I be right when the one I love doesn’t get me?”).
Over time, a belief in constancy ensues and stays intact even through argument. Nevertheless, beneath the light ribbing (“There you go again, hon”), the humor (“That’s okay, you don’t have to make sense for me to love you”), and the subtle redirection (“Remember that one time we weren’t fighting?”), the remnants of early wounding remain. To understand how to love, we have little choice but to understand how we managed those first wounds.
Merging: The Urge to Return to Unity
During the first month of life, children lead a non-differentiated existence. Blissful or frightening, there is no sense of self separating them from the outside world. The attunement taking place in the touch and eye contact between mother and babe renders both in a fused state. Mothers describe being transported to a regressed world in service of the baby. Both are engulfed in feelings of oneness and a mutual sensitivity to each other’s moods and states. It takes six to nine months for babies to emerge from this fused existence and prepare to “hatch” a separate personality from their primary caregiver.
During that time, their experience of oneness vacillates between two phases of merging: autistic and symbiotic. In the autistic phase, mother is viewed as an intrinsic part of the infant, devoid of a separate existence. When deprived of their mother, babes will feel themselves to be literally nothing, empty, nonexistent. In the symbiotic phase, mother is viewed vaguely as separate but only in terms of need fulfillment. It is in this phase that babes develop their reactive capacities to cry out, push away, and demand a return to unity. Even if the child has yet to develop a sense of self, their self-preservation instinct is active and they will not kindly receive anyone or anything keeping them from attunement.
The quality of these two phases of merging constitutes the felt landscape of the longing for adult intimacy. Once the desire for intimacy is awakened in mature adults, so too awaken recollections of their primal urge for unity. The body remembers the fused state of those first months outside the womb, even if the mind holds no actual memory of it. Like a moth drawn to a flame, we are compelled to reexperience the ineffable sense of oneness that transpired there.
The quality of these two phases of merging constitutes the felt landscape of the longing for adult intimacy. Once the desire for intimacy is awakened in mature adults, so too awaken recollections of their primal urge for unity.
Spiritually, as adults, we might seek it through prayers for atonement. Sexually, it may be sought in the lust toward orgasm. Interpersonally, this urge for unity is evident when we tap into states of unbridled attraction that go beyond seeing the other as merely attractive. We don’t actually see them at all, captured in the moment solely by our own sense of selfless longing for connection.
For those anticipating the prospects of a deep merging experience, there comes a necessary softening of their power to self-regulate. Differentiation pauses as an opening occurs for fusion. When the merged state arises, we are engulfed by a return to those first blissful/frightening months of life. And when it is taken from us, we either collapse or rage.
Confronting everyday conflicts with partners soon after experiencing hopes for intimacy naturally provokes autistic and symbiotic memories of detachment from mother. (“What was once my world has been torn asunder.”) Regression into the autistic phase is marked by absolutisms: “I am nothing if you don’t see my point of view.” “I might as well kill myself if you see it that way.” Regression to the symbiotic phase is marked more by violent rejection: “How dare you!” “I want mommy. Go away!” These infantile responses get stirred in the middle of our grown-up lives, yet healthy adulthood never leaves these core feelings behind.
Do We Ever Truly Grow Up?
Our emotional development occurred not in a straight line but as an outward flowering spiral. If we could look at the core stages we passed through from ages 0 to 9 months, we would likely find origins of the most-repeated habits we employ to attain intimacy as adults. Those automatic habits constitute our “unknown knowns”—the unconscious strategies that control our most sophisticated adult interactions.
Even though we never truly graduate from the feelings associated with our core identity development, we learn to recognize them better as they arise. With practice, we also learn to soothe and express those feelings with more finesse.
Fortunately for most of us, our emotional development did not end at 9 months. Collapse and rage are not the only tools at our disposal to deal with the temporary ruptures in our intimate lives. We can look at a blueprint of the separation-individuation stages as defined by classic psychologist Margaret Mahler for clues as to how we developed the capacity to leave our merged existence with mother, eventually to carry that sense of safety within our individuated selves. In part 2 of this series, we will look at how these stages are installed over the first two years of life and how we subconsciously reexperience them as we attempt to build trust with those we love as adults.
- Differentiation/hatching (5-9 months): The infant becomes increasingly interested in discovering mother (e.g., how she looks or smells) rather than trying to become symbiotically unified with her.
- Practicing (9-14 months): Although able to explore freely, the child still regards mother as unified with child and thus explores surroundings while keeping within an optimal distance.
- Rapprochement (14-24 months): The child’s desire to be all-powerful and self-sufficient is marred by a fear of abandonment. The child reaches a healthy medium between the two extremes due to language and superego development.
- Object constancy (24-plus months): Successful completion of this phase marks the development of an internalized mental model of the mother, which unconsciously accompanies and supports the child even when they are physically separated.
Mahler, M., Pine, F., & Bergman, A. (2000). The psychological birth of the human infant symbiosis and individuation. New York, NY: Basic Books.
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