The inability to build relationships as a request for psychological work. Part 1

Failures in relationships and, as a result, the inability to create a family are widely spread requests for seeking psychological assistance and a common reason to feel dissatisfaction...

30 December, 2023

There are many mechanisms behind this inability, and every individual has his own history of how it developed. Identifying these mechanisms allows (by discovering the promising directions for making efforts) to return the ability to influence on what is happening through personal choice and activity. I am talking about a “choice”, not about “fixing” or destroying the mechanism right immediately after its discovery. It's essential to remember that choosing to “leave things as they are” is a valid option as well, and even it can be the most “comfortable” scenario, because “leaving everything as it is” is usually the line of least resistance. Everyone has the right just to go with the flow with no feats as long as there is awareness of one's actions and inactions, the consequences, some acceptance of the situation, and respect for oneself and for decisions made.

I will describe some of my favorite perspectives to consider the issue of dissatisfaction with one’s personal life. Each of these aspects can be worked on independently and autonomously (if you have an idea what can be done) or in individual therapy with a psychologist (both short-term or long-term).

  1. Active vs. passive position
  2. Motivational factors
  3. Family inheritance and fears of relationships
  4. Low or "collapsed" self-esteem
  5. Loss of respect and trust in the opposite gender
  6. “I often feel like a victim”
  7. “I have nothing to offer”
  8. “Relationships are meant to provide me with pleasure”
  9. “Each of my relationships tragically ended after 3, 5 years, etc.”
  10. “As a matter of fact I'm already in a relationship”
  11. “I am confused”
  12. Active – Passive Position

    You can see that characters in fairy tales can be seen as "active" or "passive" (see more Hans Dieckmann, “Twice-Told Tales: The Psychological Use of Fairy Tales”, "Fairy-tales in psychotherapy").

    For example, the Hero or the Prince (who mounts a horse, overcomes all the obstacles, defeats a monster and so on) and Alenushka (searching for her brother Ivanushka) are examples of active characters. Usually, our attention as listeners of fairy tales is focused on them.

    However, while the active heroes perform their feats and face trials, the “passive characters” are also occupied in their own way — they may stay imprisoned, be dead asleep, they can reside in a forest cabin without any remarkable details to mention. In childhood, many of you might not have wondered what passive characters were doing while awaiting their fate—whether they were gazing out of the window, talking to animals, writing letters they never intended to send, or playing solitaire.

    In everyday life, we can find ourselves in the role of passive characters, sincerely believing in the inappropriateness or impossibility of our own efforts to resolve a situation. In this state, it genuinely seems to us that someone from outside must do something for our desired outcome to occur. The right woman should "appear" on the horizon. The attractive man should notice us, approach us, and initiate — first a date, and then, of course, a romantic relationship.

    I am not talking about the strategy of flirtation that requires being passive in some deeds and actions. Our personality can be extremely active in these passive maneuvers. I am talking about the state of consciousness when we make ourselves the one who waits, who sits in the waiting hall and looks around whether the right train will come.

    I'm not going to state what is positive and what is negative here. Each of the positions I mentioned, active and passive, has its weaknesses and advantages. For instance, the weakness of the passive position is that it reduces one's activity to only observing, assessing, and feeling distressed or frustrated when reality presents something unwanted or unsuitable. A potential weakness of the active position is making mistakes with serious consequences, based on disbelief in the existence of "passive" characters who are "occupied with something" in an entirely different way. It can seem as if, once you free the princess, she, now "liberated," will mount a horse as well and face her own heroic feats.

    Being able to switch between these positions at will, being aware of them, is a valuable resource and an advantage, but it's challenging and requires inner work and effort.

    Motivational features

    Imagine a mixed group of one hundred men and women who are given the following game instructions:

    "Go and introduce yourself to other participants, spending no more than five minutes with each person. The goal of the introduction is to form gaming romantic couples. When you meet, state three wishes you want your “spouse” to fulfill and three positive intentions of what you are willing to offer. Listen to your conversation partner. Remember those partners with whom your desires and offers matched well within the couple. At the end, unite with the most suitable person."

    Now, let's try to put yourself in the shoes of a participant in this experiment who has the following "relationship-building" strategy. You meet people, you speak second when it is possible. After listening to your conversation partner, you rephrase your points to make them sound most harmonious with your partner's requests and expectations. In most encounters, your self-presentation is essentially a translation of "I am a great match for you." Then, some people believe that you are a perfect match for them. You examine those who responded positively, where the proposed and desired aspects of the relationship seemed complementary. At the end, you agree to be a couple with the person who appealed to you the most.

    Such a strategy is suitable for those who feel highly adaptable and sincerely willing to be very different depending on the circumstances – outgoing or reclusive, career-oriented or part of the bohemian crowd, a traveler or a settled "landowner." With this character trait, you might think that things could work out well with any type of partner. Motivation for entering into a relationship for this type of participant is likely to be high, and can be "sincere" or based on cold calculation.

    Now, let's imagine being the second participant who adopts a "passive" strategy or the strategy of a "passive hero." You stand still or move very slowly, more to stretch than to approach someone. You wait until an interested "active" partner approaches you. You listen to him, assess him, and make a judgment about compatibility. You briefly state your own points without eagerness or unnecessary details, neither confirming nor rejecting the intentions of the interlocutor directly, and then you begin waiting for the appearance of the next candidate. Atthe end, you see who comes back, and from them, you make your selection. If no one appealed to you or suited you first, you "mourn" your defeat, considering today is not your day. The motivation for entering into a relationship in this case can be either high or low.

    Finally, imagine being the third participant. You are convinced that your partner should fulfill your stated "wants" and should have needs that you are willing to satisfy with your offer. You are eager to read your points first, as there is no need to delay. If the participant's points differ but not too much, you clarify through questions whether the relationship with them would fulfill your desires and plans. You quickly go through the others, striving to finish the conversation with unsuitable options as soon as possible, so you can interview as many candidates as possible and find the best match. You approach first to avoid wasting time on waiting and because you enjoy moving and choosing the most interesting things and you dislike to react to somebody or to something. At the end, you go to the person who became your favorite. The motivation for entering into a relationship for this type of participant is high but "risky" because they may not find the desired candidate, this requires to adjust the criteria and change expectations or give up on building relationships with all the unsuitable candidates.

    For these three hypothetical participants, their motivation for finding a partner was "clear," consistent, and stable. At the very least, they engaged in the task, stayed true to their tactics, did not deviate from their intentions (did not delay or avoid activity), did not lose "energy in the process," and were prepared to face "victory" or "defeat" as a result of their actions.

    However, motivation for "building relationships" can often encounter internal obstacles, such as defensive strategies of the psyche, low expectations of success, or doubts about its significance for oneself. Motivation to find a partner can also be weak or in conflict with other more intense and equally powerful aspirations.

    I can share the example of a "defensive" strategy: pre-acceptance of possible failure, where success is endowed with conditional value (it's needed only if it can be achieved "cheaply"). In a miniature of the exercise, it may look like this:

    (Internal thoughts)

    What a peculiar task; I wonder if it will give me anything? Well, if not, I can just "skip" it. Maybe I'll walk among people without any fuss: if it's a "yes," then let it be a "yes"; if it's a "no," I'll take my laptop and sit on the side.

    An example of "conflicting" motivation, which combines conflicting aspirations:

    (Internal thoughts)

    The exercise idea is intriguing. I need to find someone who suits me. But, on the other hand, it's better to do this exercise with people I'm not familiar with and won't see again. In this group, there are my colleagues, and we often cross paths. I need to be more careful, or I might get carried away to the point where I'll regret it later.

    An example of motivation with "low energy" and low competitiveness. In this case, internal obstacles may include anticipating a negative outcome of efforts (a pessimistic mindset about success is fully or partially recognized) or doubts about the positive outcome relevance:

    While composing the points, there is little emotional excitement, and there are no "relationship dreams" or consistent feelings toward them. When meeting people, there is calm observation without the "hunting thrill." Behavior can be moderately active (questioning people, gathering information, memorizing and analyzing intermediate results) or entirely non-initiative.

    These three hypothetical mindsets and their similar counterparts can have a neutral or negative impact on the likelihood of a productive outcome.

    The examples provided in this section are not the only possible ones, but my general conclusion is that it is beneficial to look at the issue of success and failure in building relationships through the lens of motivational features.

About me

Maria Dolgopolova – a certified clinical and a jungian psychologist (Moscow Association of Analytical Psychology, an IAAP training candidate studying in CGJung Institute in Zurich) with a background in gestalt therapy (Moscow Institute of Gestalt and Psychodrama, Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles) and in psychoanalysis of object relations.

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