I am currently reading Leslie Greenberg and Rhonda Goldman’s wonderful book “Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy: The Dynamics of Emotion, Love, and Power.” Their complex formulation of the structure of intimate relationships is a very worthwhile perspective. They posit that couples’ relationships have 3 important components: attachment, identity, and interest. The emotional responses of each person can arise from any of the three components.
Attachment is the experience that the relationship is safe and that it is a haven in times of trouble. Attachment relationships are initially created and modeled on those with parents, but other relationships can have attachment functions as well. When we have difficulty, we turn to the people who care for us for reassurance, support, and protection. These attachment relationships are fundamental to a sense of well-being. Without a feeling of safety, we do not have the courage to explore the world and take risks to try new things. Most therapy for couples focuses on the attachment component of the relationship.
What this book adds is an explanation of the importance of the identity, or autonomy, component. While the experience of safety in a relationship is crucial, it is insufficient for optimal functioning. Identity is about who each person is separately from the other. One of the important parts of relating to any other person is being willing to know that person as he or she is, endorse and promote his or her ideals and aspirations, and allow that person a separate life. This entails allowing that person to own (have) his or her own struggles, challenges, pain, and failure as well as accomplishments and success. It involves being available to understand that person’s experience as a separate experience; offer whatever reflection, reassurance, and support that he or she wants or needs; and standing apart as an accurate and encouraging witness.
Relationships are about the balance between intimacy and autonomy. Each person has unique wishes for involvement and separateness, and part of the art of relating is knowing about these individual wishes and allowing them to regulate the relationship. There will be mismatches to be sure. One person may want more involvement and the other may want less. This may result in negotiating and experimenting. The good will of assuming good intentions and bringing good intentions goes a long way. Allowing the other person to be as he or she is and trusting that person to be responsible for his or her own ideals and growth frees us to enjoy getting to know another person as he or she really is.