Relationships are difficult. How we balance two or more people’s needs so that everyone gets enough of what they want most of the time is invariably a tricky business. Sometimes this game of compromise will break down completely and we are left with conflict, hurt feelings or – ultimately – estrangement. How might counselling and psychotherapy help?
What Makes A Good Relationship?
When it comes to building strong relationships and fitting in with others we mostly have to:
- be clear about what we need
- set personal boundaries (i.e. this is what I will tolerate in your behaviour and this is what I will not)
- welcome healthy conflict and deal with it as calmly as possible
- stand our ground when something really matters to us
- make allowances in certain situations e.g. if we know the other person is young, sick or in distress.
Is There Something Else Going On?
If we are repeatedly struggling to maintain good relationships with family, friends or in the workplace it might not always be due to the fact that we are unable or unfamiliar with putting the above skills into practice. Rather, it can sometimes be the case that our – usually out-of-awareness – efforts to right an old wrong are getting in the way of our ability to negotiate and compromise. Somewhere along the line it has become more important to satisfy a past unmet need than it is to nurture a healthy relationship. And to add insult to injury, in our efforts to make up for something that was lacking in – say, our childhood – we may swing wildly too far in the opposite direction and cause ourselves a different set of problems. I refer to this phenomenon as ‘the pendulum effect’.
The Pendulum Effect In Action
In relationship, a pendulum effect might come about when we have been expected to repeatedly compromise our own needs and have felt powerless to do anything about it. Likely scenarios include growing up at the bottom of the pecking order in a large and bossy household or with a parent who displays narcissistic behaviour such as high and rigid expectations of others.
If, as a child, we have received little (actual or perceived) support, interest or respect for our different likes, dislikes, needs or opinions when we finally achieve a modicum of control over our adult life we may well – consciously or unconsciously – make the decision to never, ever allow another person to tell us what to do ever again. We can almost hear the pendulum swinging as far in the opposite direction as it can possibly get. This conclusion is understandable and although it might appear to ‘solve’ the problem of retaining control over one’s life, it might, at the same time, create other problems that make life difficult – especially when it comes to maintaining meaningful and balanced relationships with other people.
If we can rarely bear to fit around other people’s needs or plans there is a real danger that we will cut ourselves off from existing family (whether they were involved with the original hurt or not) and friends as well as scuppering any potential new relationships. Essentially, we might be unconsciously trying to right a past wrong with every new person we meet regardless of how they are treating us. And it might not be just ourselves who suffer. If we have children of our own, they too may become isolated and miss out on important experiences within a wider circle of family and friends.
How Might Counselling Or Psychotherapy Help?
A safe and supportive therapeutic space offers us an opportunity to have our story heard. As well as exploring old feelings of hurt and anger we can stand back and reflect on how we might want to connect with others in the present. Pendulum effects can crop up in all sorts of situations and shining a light on them – murky corners and all – allows us to prioritise our motives and rethink our personal boundaries such that they serve us better.
If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation. Emailing in the first instance seems to work best.
Copyright Caroline Clarke, Private Practice Counselling and Psychotherapy in Brighton and Hove, Sussex.
Image of an antique Swedish clock courtesy of Anne P.