The Undeveloped Self and the Difficulty of Relationship

When we describe the relationship between mother and infant, we understand that baby and mother are one. In that symbiotic relationship, there is merger. There are not two separate selves with their own subjectivities who are relating to one another. (One’s subjectivity is the unique way in which we perceive our self and the world.) Our selves and subjectivities develop as we grow from infant to child to adolescent to adult.  When two people come together with their subjectivities, they are relating as two different people. When the processes of separation and individuation have been problematic, the development of one’s unique subjectivity is impaired. The ability to consider someone else’s subjectivity is also not developed. This makes relationship difficult. When a self is undeveloped in a relationship, there is no “other” to connect to.

Ken has been married for 15 months to Ellen. They met when he was finishing law school and she was teaching at the local high school. Ken loved her. She was smart and pretty and Ken was excited about making a life with her and starting a family.  Ken was an optimist and nothing seemed more wonderful to him than the thought of their future together. It came as a shock when Ellen told Ken that she didn’t want to be married to him any more. She said it was nothing about him, but that she was just not as happy as she wanted to be and thought they should end the marriage. This was what Ken told me when he came to see me for therapy.

Ken came into my office. He was shaken. “How could I not know?” “How could this happen?” Ken felt numb. He was depressed and had trouble finding words to describe how he felt. It simply didn’t make sense to him that there was anything wrong. But as Ken and I talked in therapy, it became apparent that Ken had not attended to many of the tensions and conflicts that were present in his marriage. Ken reflected that he had wished that Ellen had been more affectionate and more   interested in sex, and that they could have spent more time together. But he understood that they were different that way. He thought it wasn’t important. He hadn’t allowed himself to notice that his needs weren’t being met.

Ken was overwhelmingly surprised at Ellen’s declaration of wishing to end the marriage. As he described his shock, he also began to recall that Ellen could be irritated or critical with him. But this hadn’t troubled him. He told me he didn’t mind her negative feelings and knew that everything was okay because they loved each other. Ken didn’t experience Ellen as being unhappy with him. When Ellen would make comments like, “I wish you wouldn’t wear that” or “I can’t believe you like those friends, they’re so boring,” Ken would just laugh it off. Her expressions of discontent didn’t impact on him. He remembered Ellen getting angry when she wanted to travel for three weeks on vacation and Ken only wanted to travel for one week. But Ken wasn’t concerned. They decided to postpone the vacation. Ken hadn’t felt troubled or angry about this disagreement. He was also unaware of any negative impact he was having on Ellen. He couldn’t recall Ellen expressing any problem or feeling that the marriage wasn’t working for her.  Her complaints and criticisms were no big deal. Weren’t they part of every marriage? They loved each other and everything was fine. Ken was able to tell me that it was very important to him to keep things on an even keel and avoid conflict. He considered that this might have affected his willingness to attend to the stresses that were part of the relationship.

This brings us back to the question “How could I not know? It was clear that Ken was a person who needed everything to be okay. He didn’t like to rock the boat or notice that the boat was rocking. If he could keep his perceptions of his external world conflict free, he would have no internal stresses to deal with. His attention was on his external world. He was vigilant in making sure everything was okay “out there.” As a result, there was no need to pay attention to his internal experience. He simply didn’t have to notice if his needs weren’t being met or if he felt anxious, dissatisfied or criticized. He was not accustomed to listening to himself.

Ken was a person who never developed a clear voice of his own. He recalled that when he was growing up, if he had ideas that differed from his parents and tried to express them, he was typically  told, with a very big smile from his parents, “No honey, don’t be silly, you know it wouldn’t be good for you to  play football, it’s too dangerous.” Or, when he was little, he recalled how he wanted to go to his friend’s house for a sleepover and his parents would tell him how it is best to have friends come to his house. His parents didn’t like when he put up a fuss. Since he believed that his parents obviously were right, and knew exactly what was good for him, there was no need to argue with them. Soon, he never had to think about what he wanted. He knew they would guide him in the right direction. In fact, it was his mom’s idea that he would be a wonderful lawyer. He doesn’t remember every having any other idea about what he would do. He knew from the time he was 8 or 9, that he would be a lawyer.

Ken’s experience of surprise that his marriage wasn’t working is an example of what can happen when you haven’t developed a unique, individual self. Ken had never really separated from his parents. He had not experienced the process of individuation where he had an opportunity to develop himself emotionally. This means that he didn’t know what he felt about things. He was guided by the desire to avoid conflict and anxiety and to accommodate to what other people wanted. It wasn’t that hard to avoid conflict if you didn’t have strong feelings about what you wanted or needed. If you experience no feelings of stress and tension in the world, if you see the people around you as pleased and satisfied, if you have no demands or complaints, then you believe that you are successful and happy.

Ellen’s wish to end the marriage changed everything for Ken. He had not succeeded in keeping his world functioning smoothly. His wife, whom he only wanted to please, was not happy. Somehow, his way of being in the world: to go along, to be happy and accommodating, did not work with Ellen*.  I suspect that Ellen may have found it difficult to relate to Ken. He wasn’t much of a person: he didn’t express his own thoughts, desires, or opinions. Without feeling like your partner is a person, the lack of conflict is probably not enough to create satisfaction in a relationship.

As Ken and I continued to talk about this in therapy, Ken began to understand how the absence of his personhood made relationship difficult. There was no “other” there for Ellen to relate to. It started to make emotional sense to Ken that he had avoided developing a unique self. It was scary to contemplate doing that – after all, some people might not like him or might disagree with him! Ken also realized he might not like someone or get angry too! We acknowledged we had a lot of work to do. But Ken was also excited about the prospect of growth and discovery. He hadn’t lost the optimism that has always been a part of who he is.

* The description of Ken’s experience does not take into account Ellen’s role in the marriage relationship.  While both partners always have responsibility when a relationship fails, I am only focusing on Ken’s issues.

© Copyright 2011 by By Beverly Amsel, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • donovan

    May 10th, 2011 at 4:22 AM

    it’s really sad to see some people struggle with their relationships with others like this…it’s not fully their mistake because that is how they have grown up and that’s something that’s not in their control…
    so if a family member or friend could talk to such people a lot could change.

  • trey

    May 10th, 2011 at 4:34 AM

    Not being allowed to develop your own voice as a child is something that is sure to follow you into your adult life. The question is then how do you try to find that voice? What kinds of options are there available to you as an adult to help you to find something that you were never allowed to grow and nurture as a child? This can be a very difficult journey for many people, getting to the point to where they can stand up for themselves and do what they know to be the right thing for them.

  • Defoe

    May 10th, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    This sounds like one of my friends. He always wanted to believe that everything was okay even when things were getting bad. This is not positive thinking and can be detrimental even.
    He developed this because his parents always fought when he was little and he didn’t like that. So he convinced himself that everything was fine and that nothing was ever going to change that. He revealed all this when he was dumped by his girlfriend last year. It was due to the same problem of his.

  • Beverly Amsel, Ph.D.

    May 21st, 2011 at 2:40 PM

    Trey’s question is a very important one: How can you find your own voice? The answer is not simple. Donovan suggests that a family member or friend might help. This is a good start, particularly if one is unaware that they are not paying attention to their internal voice. But once you realize that you don’t know what you want or feel, it is difficult to know what to do next. Identifying the problem and then finding a therapist to talk to is a very good way to begin the process of discovery that never had a chance to develop as one was growing up. The experience of talking in therapy opens up new ways of feeling and thinking that can make a major difference in how we experience ourselves and ourselves in the world.

  • DC

    December 27th, 2015 at 5:13 AM

    I was in a relationship with someone like this for several years–it worked, but that’s because I have the same tendencies! But I had them to a lesser degree, so I would be the “Ellen” at times, then feel horrible and take all the blame for causing trouble. It took me years to realize I’d bought into a sort of “twins” ideal where we never disagreed…not only was my partner silencing their own voice if it meant conflict, but mine as well. Eventually I became so (silently) frustrated that I ended it. And yes, they were taken aback and never saw it coming.

  • Tiffany

    February 17th, 2021 at 7:00 AM

    Truthfully, it sounds like Ellen is high maintenance and Ken might be better off without her. Boring friends, vacation for 3 weeks instead of 1… She seems like she wants things her way and it sounds like Ken acquiesced to that or felt no harm when they didn’t agree; which imo, should be the case unless it’s a fundamental rift. A 3 vs 1 week vacation (in a marriage where your partner is a lawyer) isn’t a fundamental rift, it’s a compromise. Or should be. Ellen sounds nothing will make her happy except having everything she wants.

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