You're dating someone new. It started out pretty well - the online profile was promising (does yoga! likes sunsets! wants a dog! check, check, check!). The first date delivered a promising amount of wit and potential for physical chemistry. But the next time, you cringed inwardly when your potential paramour chewed. Then: that attempt at humour was so...base. Hmm. Wow, that silence was so awkward. Red flag! When it fizzles out a few weeks later, it's with an all too familiar combination of despair (will I ever meet the right person??) and relief (phew - another chance to get it right) that you reflect on the Relationship That Never Was.
Or: you're dating someone. It became pretty serious pretty quickly. This person - it's weird - it's like he just completes you somehow! You moved in together after six months - why pay two rents when you're basically living in one another's pocket? You are confident that the two of you make a dream team, so you devotedly pursue the same mojo that led the two of you to gravitate to one another. He loved that fact that you're grounded and stable. He even found your early-to-bed homebody inclinations so endearing! That's why it's a bit disconcerting that lately, he's been annoyed when you hover over him...but isn't it your job to nurture him and shower him with TLC? You're wondering, too, how long he can keep up that free-spirited, party boy thing. How will that bode when your children are young? He'll grow out of it....
According to Toronto-based relationship therapist and author Avrum Nadigel, both of these scenarios could indicate that unfinished business with your family of origin is silently influencing your love life. Moreover, he maintains that to avoid becoming locked into cycles of playing out the same patterns with different people, with the net effect being frustration and heartache, the best time to work at a healthy relationship is while you're still single.
It's not by accident that I know of this book and this author. Many (double digits) years ago, I shared a cramped office at a non-profit counselling agency with Avrum. In between clients, we'd wax philosophically (or bicker) about our preferred theoretical models of psychotherapy, chew over office politics, and, invariably, rehash the details of our misadventures in dating (we were both single at the time).
I didn't know it at the time, but in those deconstructions of all of the perceived obstacles to finding the right person, the earliest seeds were being sown for Avrum's first book: the recently published "Learning to Commit: The Best Time to Work on Your Marriage is When You're Single" (Self-Counsel Press). In full disclosure, I am not getting any type of kickback for discussing this book here; for that matter, this should not be considered a promotion or endorsement, either. However, given the high volume of my clients (and, I should say, humanity) who are struggling with intimacy and commitment, the timely and relevant themes in this book inspired me to write about it here. This is a book about our struggles with intimacy, and how doing some self-examination and exploration of our unwritten family rules while we are single might be the best marital therapy we'll ever have.
Avrum's book provides loads of examples of how our family backgrounds can go underground for years, only to surface when we are dating or in a serious relationship. Backing off when it looks like commitment is a possibility, for example, can be a sign that you feel anxious about being depended on by another person. You may be afraid of 'getting it wrong,' and ending up with a lacklustre or fractious relationship (like your parents had). Intimate relationships reactivate roles and anxieties that we were saddled with - unwittingly - growing up. For example, if you played the role of confidante to an unhappy parent, you may find later in life that you quickly fall into that role when you sense emotional needs and demands - or, you may go so far as to deliberately choose someone who seems airtight enough to not ask too much of you. Why is this problematic? Because replaying old roles (or avoiding them like the plague) can hijack our ability to see people and situations as they really are, and ultimately prevents us from growing and experiencing multiple angles of ourselves.
Although he knows his subject matter inside out, Avrum didn't invent this theory. Referred to as 'differentiation,' his book expands on a fundamental tenet of Bowen's Family Systems Therapy. Differentiation refers to how evolved our sense of self is; essentially, how successfully we have been able to develop our own wants, needs, interests, and emotional life separate from the ones with which we grew up. He explains that while experiencing some anxiety as we build intimate relationships in adulthood is normal, those of us with lower levels of differentiation are guided by an 'invisible hand' when searching for a mate, as though an underlying family narrative stealthily leads your dating process. What looks on the surface like "I can't seem to meet the right person," or "It always starts off so well, but then things fall apart," may be an indication that your sense of self is still lodged within the crucible of your original family. Avrum explains that uncannily, as if following an algorithm, people by and large tend to gravitate to romantic partners who are at similar levels of differentiation to them. For a while, relationships can coast along seemingly smoothly, but transitions and crises - moving in together, the birth of a child, losing a job - readily bring the anxieties inherent in these systems into relief, often maxing out a couple's ability to cope. Even as someone who is quite entrenched in the EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) approach to intimate relationship counselling, I freely admit that the ideas put forward in this book make a lot of sense to me. Which just proves what I have long believed about theoretical orientation in psychotherapy: there are many "right ways" to get to Rome.
Consider, for example, approval seeking. In this case, you are motivated by pleasing others and being acknowledged for how appreciated and necessary you are. You tend to lose sight of your own wants and needs - maybe even have difficulty identifying what they are in the first place. According to Family Systems Therapy, the most likely source of this would be that you had a parent who, either explicitly or covertly, expected you to maintain homeostasis in the family by playing an imperative role (the confidante who always needs to be available for support, the mascot who always needs to lighten the mood - in fact, even a scapegoat is a defined role). Although these roles are constricting, they feel comforting and familiar; the rules, though unwritten, are crystal clear.
Another common appearance of low differentiation is is through over-valuing of oneself. You may believe (likely because this has been ingrained in you by a parent) that you are special - so special, in fact, that not just anyone will do - in fact, most people won't! Like all patterns, this becomes self-fulfilling, as even in a state of longing and loneliness you pass up people who seemingly don't have what it takes. Both of these manifestations - though seemingly different - trump factors that are essential to a healthy dating process - self-awareness, flexibility in roles, emotional risk taking, and leaps of faith.
In my blog next week, I'm going to continue using this book as an on-ramp to discuss moving forward from this point: how to interrupt a cycle of limiting relationships (or, as a client recently put it to me, 'almost-relationships') and prepare yourself for intimate relationships that allow you more flexibility of self and emotional honesty.
Yours in differentiation!