It has been my great pleasure over many years to talk with people about their unique paths toward inner growth and integration. Sometimes I talk with people individually and sometimes I talk with people who are couples. I have been enchanted recently to see that some couples evolve from seeing their partners as objects to seeing them as persons. I had not quite thought of this change in this way before. This shift is evidence of a deep kind of growth for each person. I will have to pay attention and see if it is usually in tandem with each other or if sometimes one person makes this jump before the other person does. Currently it seems to me that it can be either co-created or individual (one-sided).
In psychotherapy there is a set of theories that are called “object relations.” In these theories, there is a recognition that we cannot have a self without early reflections from an other–primarily mothers. So these theories understand human distress as a disturbance in the person’s learned process of creating relationships with other persons, who are designated as objects. Object relations theories were a huge step forward from Freud’s view, in which there was little interest in the other people or the relationships, but just in the internal “drives” in the infant and adult. But even though these theories were better, there is something odd about calling a person an object.
Earlier I wrote about Aristotle’s view of friendships. Aristotle thought there were three kinds of friendships: Friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of admiration. This third kind of friendship, where we want to come to know another person because we admire their values and their ways of going at life, is really about wanting a real understanding and interaction with that other person–regardless of ourselves or the effects on us. It is about wanting to have a relationship with that other person as they really are, and not as we need them to be. This kind of relationship is based on a deep respect for who the other person really is, in their own life, separate from us.
There is often the assumption early in a relationship, with friends or lovers, that we are going to make each other happy–because that is what happens in the beginning of a new relationship. We feel so happy to have found each other. So we assume that is its function. But the drivenness of infatuation fades, and the other person turns out to be a real person and not a cardboard character and not the fantasy we have in our heads, and the rubber hits the road. When this happens, some couples are disappointed but figure that is just life, no one is perfect; some couples give up and divorce or separate and look for the next infatuation rush; and some couples try to regain the illusion of infatuation between them.
But sometimes, when I am sitting with a couple, as we are talking through the disappointments, hurts, missteps and unskilled actions, a couple will have the courage to question their own assumptions.They will stop blaming the other persons for making them unhappy, and they will genuinely recognize that they themselves are the authors of their own unhappiness. They will begin to recognize how they are using each other as objects and not allowing themselves or each other to be real, flawed, human, human beings. And they will also recognize that they are each seeing themselves as an object who has to be what the other person wants or needs them to be.
When this shift begins to happen, it is sometimes as if they see each other for the first time. Not as how the other person makes them feel and not how the other person provides functions for them, but as a vulnerable person in a challenging world, sometimes magnificent and sometimes petty. And then there is a point where they have freedom from the expectations of each other. And then they can truly decide, even every day, to stay together as partners in life–not merged, but joined hand in hand– or they recognize that their initial decision to join forces was based on a terribly inaccurate illusion and that they cannot co-create lives in tandem. And that’s okay because it is real, and it frees them to be themselves. And for me, because I sometimes have the privilege of sitting with a couple when they begin to make this shift, it generates this profound sense of awe. There just is no other way to explain it.