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Relationships • Conflicts

When Your Partner Loves You – but Does Their Best to Drive You Away…

There are relationships which begin with great enthusiasm and love on both sides – but where after a while, one partner starts to act in ways that appear deeply puzzling and hurtful to the other. 

Perhaps this puzzling partner: 

— Keeps saying that their lover doesn’t properly respect them

— Or accuses them of privately thinking they’re not attractive

— Or raises unfair suspicions that the lover is planning to leave them

— Or mysteriously says that they don’t feel like sex any more

— Or questions their partner’s loyalty.

To be on the receiving end of any of this can – it must immediately be said – be extremely difficult and there are serious questions as to how long anyone should try to make things work in such circumstances. However, assuming that the problems remain within proportions, that there is nothing in any way abusive at play and that there is still genuine love alongside the difficulties, then it could (we stress again, could) be worth exploring one avenue before giving up. 

Gustav Klimt, Liltzberg am Attersee, 1900

One of the most important discoveries of psychotherapy has been the concept of transference. This tells us that after a time, any client who has had a difficult childhood, will start to ‘transfer’ onto their relationship with the therapist many of the suspicions, self-hatred, disappointments and hostilities built up through their experiences with their caregivers in childhood. 

After a smooth start, a client in therapy may begin to accuse the therapist of wilfully misunderstanding them, or of only being interested in them for money, or of finding them very boring or of being on the cusp of dropping them – each of these accusations being directly connected to a traumatic event in the client’s past.

A good therapist will sense what is going on and perform a possibly life-changing manoeuvre: they will deliberately frustrate the client’s expectations. They will cause them the short-term difficulty and long-term privilege of forcing them to be more hopeful and less barricaded around others. Where the client expected hate, the therapist will deliver kindness. Where the client was awaiting mockery, the therapist will deliver thoughtful generosity. Where the client was expecting rejection, the therapist will show ongoing acceptance. The good therapist will receive a transfer of difficult feelings and withstand and quash each one in turn. 

This is what can allow for a fundamental shift in the client’s experience. What they were convinced the world would do to them (because it always has done so, often – sadly – due to their own behaviour) does not occur here, which opens the way for them to alter their view of reality. Perhaps, the client becomes able to think, the fear and suspicion is not in others, but in me. Perhaps no one thinks me ugly, or not worthwhile, except for me. Perhaps this new situation can go well, even if I expect everything to go wrong because of where I have come from.

It’s a tragedy of relationships that transference goes on in them all the time but there is generally no forum in which they can be explored and resisted. One partner will simply accuse the other of not loving them or of secretly thinking badly of them – and rather than being able to work out what is at play – the other (understandably) just gets cross and attacks back, which only serves to confirm the suspicions of the initial complainant. It isn’t long before things fall apart – yet again. 

Though it takes a very steady hand and an immensely robust sense of self, there may be scope in love – as in therapy – to resist some of these transferences. If a partner starts to level accusations which seem as if they truly have no basis in reality or begins to undermine the relationship for no sound reason, it might well be possible to stay steady and point out to the partner that they appear to be loading onto the union feelings of distrust and self-hatred that don’t belong there. One might, with great care and patience, say an equivalent of:

— I don’t secretly hate you, but I can hear that it might not be easy for you to believe that I think very well of you.

or:

— I’m not planning to blow us up but maybe there’s a part of you that might almost find it easier to gain confirmation that good things can’t happen.

It’s a curious well known feature of the adoption process that children who come from highly neglected homes and are then taken into loving and kind ones will – after a time – turn against their new family in some way. They may with great vehemence accuse their loving guardians of all kinds of untrue things that would have been much more fairly directed at their rejecting family of birth. They will play truant, mess up the house and in multiple ways frustrate the generous people who are trying to give them a taste of love they never had. We should not be surprised. Kindness is pretty hard to bear if one has grown up in deprivation and the first impulse will therefore be to try to destroy it in order to regain hold of the cynicism and suspicion that one relied on for survival and that shaped the workings of one’s mind.

If we become a positive force in the life of someone who had a tough start, we can expect to be in line for a lot of questioning and scepticism. Sometimes, just sometimes, we might decide that this person who is generating difficulty is not ‘bad’, they are deep down kind and might offer us a lot but they do seem to need help in accepting that love is real – and we might, with all the necessary caveats, where we can manage it, just be inclined to give them a hand.

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