Establishing a relationship with someone, however superficial or deep, is an essential part of our interaction with others, of life itself. Most of us grow up in a family environment and then met and learn to interact with others outside of this group.
People often say when they hear how awful someone’s relationship with their mother/father/brother/sister is/was, “But we don’t choose our families!” Well, that’s true …… and there are numerous books on this subject. In ‘Families – and how to survive them’, Robin Skinner and John Cleese look at some of the theories of ‘attachment’; why do we want to attach ourselves to some people and not to others. I never really thought about how I was attracted to other people, to those who became friends or lovers, so was fascinated to read something about this. Apparently at a deep psychological level we look for those who are like us. What really draws people together is their similarities and moreover their similarity in one of the most fundamental aspects of all – that of their family background. This has been demonstrated time and time again in the “Family Systems Exercise”, which is used as part of the training at The Institute of Family Therapy.
The exercise’s purpose is to show what lies behind, for instance, the way that individuals will pick each other ‘across a crowded room’; it demonstrates very neatly how unconscious attractions work and what they are about. Trainees are put together in a group and asked to choose another person from the group who either makes them think of someone in their family or, alternatively, gives them a feeling that they would have filled a ‘gap’ in their family. No talking is allowed! After pairings are made, each pair chooses another. In summary, each person will somehow pick out people whose families functioned in similar ways; for instance, perhaps there was a difficulty in sharing affection, perhaps a difficulty in expressing anger, or where there had been a lot of incestuous relationships, or where people had always been expected to be optimistic or cheerful, or they might discover that all four had fathers who were away from home during the years that mattered; or that their families suffered a big loss or change of a similar kind when they were all similar ages. Those who don’t naturally pair discover that they’ve all been fostered, or adopted, or brought up in children’s homes – they had all felt rejected early in their lives and the exercise picks them out.
Trying to understand why people partner someone, three main categories have been identified. Firstly, social pressures like, class, religion and money; second, conscious personal reasons like good looks, shared interests, things you know you’re picking someone for, and thirdly, these unconscious attractions that everybody calls ‘chemistry.’ John Cleese asks: “So the exercise demonstrates this third group, the unconscious attractions, and it tells us that people unconsciously choose each other because of similarities in the way their families functioned?” and Robert Skinner replies: “Exactly – the trainees are all strangers – so just by looking, people choose others who have astonishing similarities in childhood experiences and specific family problems.” I find the results of this exercise truly amazing!
A portrayal of the rather dated concept of a ‘nuclear’ family
The other day a dear friend told me they were in such a destructive relationship that they will have to get out of it; it has to end. When we fall into a relationship we always dream it will go on for ever, despite our personal experience that that is often a fantasy. Of course, some people find their soul mate at 18 and at 98 they are still together …… but that’s sadly not the norm. This particular person had had previous bad luck with relationships and I wonder whether they had ever analysed how they were attracted to someone.
After the initial attraction we move into some form of development phase when differences in the other are often dismissed – the optimist’s inner voice crying ‘It’s not a big deal/she’ll change/he’ll change!’. Even in mature relationships we believe we can manage the differences, but they generally fester, growing mouldy like some cancerous tumour. Only the saintly cherish the differences.
Most of us survive the ups and downs, until you get to that point when you think, either individually or collectively, enough is enough; staying together is too destructive. Fortunately these days there seems to be more honesty within relationships and we feel freer to express our thoughts and fears, hopes and concerns; the preservation of one’s ‘self’ must be the primary objective.
The trend to openness has led to a greater understanding of the effects of abuse, physical and psychological, suffered by individuals; these victims are no longer afraid to speak out, and act, and the law is reflecting this. An example is the hugely sad story of Sally and Richard Challen. After 30 years of marriage, during which Richard ‘controlled and humiliated’ his wife, one morning she made him breakfast, then cracked open his skull with a hammer. Writing: “I love you. Sally” on a piece of paper, she calmly pinned it to his body then called the police. Nine years ago she was convicted of his murder and sentenced to a minimum of 18 years in prison.
On 28th February 2019 her conviction for murder was quashed on the grounds that the original trial failed to take into account her husband’s coercive and controlling behaviour. The appeal recognised that here in the UK in 2015, five years after the killing, we created an offence under the Serious Crime Act of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’. A retrial of Sally Challen will take this new law into account.
I have chums who have gone to internet dating sites to ‘find’ a soul mate, or whatever they’re looking for. I am sure some of these relationships are eventually successful but I personally think there is no substitute for a physical meeting at the very start. Celina and I practised in the same Hot Yoga studio in Balham for over a year before even saying ‘good morning’ and then we began to chat in the corridor waiting for the session to begin; talk about a slow burn! Another six months went by before we had a date; funny to see her with clothes on!! (In Hot yoga the studio is at 40 deg C and with 60% humidity you sweat – so men wear shorts and women shorts/leggings and sports tops)
There can of course be no substitute for love.
Richard 12th April 2019
PS You can always have a relationship with a four legged friend, if human ones are too much! With our four-legged friends we develop our own language and enjoy their unconditional love and affection. The dogs in my life (PC 122) have been a joy; so much love, so much fun.