Saturday, 30 May 2009

Seeking cohesion at all costs

In my last posting I wrote about the pitfalls of group cohesion, including the risks of groupthink. This post is looking at what happens in our intimate or personal relationships when we attempt to keep agreement there, at all costs.

The key point I would like to make is about the merits of arguments and disagreements. I can think of plenty of occasions where I have heard the words "we get on so well, we never argue!", usually in fairly new relationships. Of course, when I hear this I begin to wonder whether there will be a gradual erosion of one of the party's identity if that continues or even whether there is an underlying aversion to conflict. For relationships to thrive as well as survive, conflict must be permissible, coupled with the skills to then sort out an acceptable solution of course. The healthiest relationships are those who think "we get on so well, it's ok to disagree".

A reluctance to permit disagreement can stem from a number of problems, some of the ones which perpetuate conflict-avoidance being:

1. One or both parties holding an aversion to arguing, perhaps being guided by the underlying unhelpful belief "it's better to keep quiet and keep the peace". Perhaps this was learned from parents who themselves reacted to every little problem with difficulty, either by avoidance or aggression. Mirroring parents' own problematic behaviour or over-compensating by doing the converse are opposite sides of the same coin.

2. Where disagreement occurs it is coupled with anxiety, anger, shouting, stress, tears, and so on, making it virtually impossible to find acceptable solutions.

3. If disagreement is incurred, one party feels threatened, must be right at all costs, incurring learned helplessness in the other or "tit-for-tat" battling.

4. A lack of self-confidence that one has the skills to find mutually acceptable solutions. I have frequently heard one party say things like "it's no use, he/she talks rings around me and afterwards I just feel worse".

5. A fear of abandonment, typical thoughts being "if I assert my wishes, then he/she will leave me; stop loving me; think less of me; our relationship will be over; we will no longer be soulmates; etc."

6. Disengagement and apathy. The thinking here might be along the lines of "it doesn't matter what I want, nothing ever changes; I don't know what I want anymore; what I want doesn't matter; it is more important that everyone else is happy". The most usual emotional reaction here is depression.

Of course the reality is in fact, if you cannot permit disagreement then your relationship cannot grow and be a mutually fulfilling and happy one. More destructive, "secondary" problems usually emerge.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there are of course major problems where relationships are based upon constant disagreements, usually due to unequal power sharing or continual power-struggles. In these relationships there is often one party who has "final say", creating an unhealthy and extremely volatile equilibrium point. The power might be attributed to whomever is earning the most money, or to the one who shouts the loudest, cries the hardest, etc. One of my guilty pleasures on television has been watching the Katie Price (a.k.a glamour model Jordan) and Peter Andre reality show (from time to time). It makes interesting viewing from a relationship therapist's perspective, because if ever there was a couple who have an impoverished ability to consider the impact of their words and actions on each other's feelings, it appears to be them. The power-sharing battles seemed to peak just prior to their announced split, evidenced by the words calmly uttered by Katie Price, along the lines of "I earn most of the money, why can't I have it how I want it?". At this point, Peter Andre lost control of his composure, resorted to name calling his wife and being hustled away from her by all the people they surround themselves with. The intimacy between them is grossly threatened already with cameras and staff ever-present, the extremely blurred lines between what is surely for entertainment and what is real, and now the seeming very real power-struggle regarding whomever earns the most money gets to have final say. Extremely poor intimacy-building, emotional control and problem-solving skills coupled with sacrificing emotional privacy have all eroded the love that must have been there between them at one time. What is being demonstrated very clearly is negative tit-for-tat interactions, pushing them into a pretty irreversible, downward spiral of negative exchanges. Without the skills to take a deep breath and calm down, to find solutions and press pause upon one's own overwhelming need to take charge, relationships like these do not recover. It helps if one party is able to guide the other, however in this (extreme) example, neither party have particularly good skills nor, it seems, the realisation that there is a different way to behave.

I currently run relationship-building group work, both in France and London (Harley St and Chiswick). Together, as part of a supportive and confidential group, and guided by me, individuals have the opportunity to learn these powerful life skills as well as uncover some of the unconscious patterns that threaten healthy, happy relationships. More intensive weekend workshops in France will continue later on in the year.