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All people have a need to develop an emotional relationship with another person. A close relationship provides a feeling of safety and of being important to someone else. Psychologists agree that this need does not diminish with age, but rather it is a constant longing that, when fulfilled or unfulfilled, determines the quality of life. Young children require unconditional love and acceptance to survive physically and psychologically. Adults need closeness, relationships, and connections with other people, to feel important and fulfilled and to successfully grow as individuals.

Magdalena Sękowska, psychologist and Director of SWPS University Clinic shows how close relationships with other people impact the lives of all human beings.

Imaginary vs. Real Partners

Growing up means separating gradually from the people who were the center of your universe in childhood, in order to enter into meaningful relationships with other people that you choose to be your partners. When people think of future partners, they often tend to idealize the potential candidates, for example: “he must be kind and handsome; it’s important that he is tall; it’s crucial that she can cook and that she is a brunette; it’s vital that he is a non-smoker”, etc. All characteristics that we use to describe the picture of a potential partner are often static and relate to an imaginary picture of a person rather than a real description of a man or a woman that would enter into a relationship. People often try to answer the question: “what kind of partner would be the best for me?”, as if there was a pool of assigned choices for each individual person. The experts employed by Polish and foreign dating programs that use personality analysis as the basis for match making, follow the same train of thought. Because we all think that it is possible to foretell the future.

How the Picture of an Imaginary Partner is Formed?

Expectations related to future partners are additionally influenced by multigenerational family messages, such as: “in our family all men are strong and take care of women”, “in the Smith clan, women rule and men bring home the bacon”, “people have to prove themselves, before they are admitted to our family - remember to choose your husband wisely”, “chose a guy that your father will like”, “if she wears gold now, what kind of jewelry will she expect after the wedding?”, “are you sure that this is the man you want to marry for life?” The stronger the dependency ties connecting a young adult with his or her family, the more influential this type of “wisdom” and the family lore is. The messages are like a strict order, when generation after generation confirm their validity, through the choice of their partners. To defy such an order, regardless of the reaction of the primary family system, requires courage and a great deal of autonomy, which involves coping with frustration caused by the disapproving family members. Not only compliance with these orders, but also rebellion against them and a choice of contradictory models, may be a sign of low degree of autonomy, because submission and rebellion are two sides of the same coin, i.e. the dependency on primary relationships. Mature choices stem from one’s own needs and values. and are not made because of the pressure and influence of others or out of spite against the existing order.

The truth is, there is no category that would help to predict a successful relationship. It cannot be assumed that characteristics of one person will match the character of another person, because relationships develop dynamically and are not the sum of all parts comprising that relationship, i.e. they are not the sum of individual characteristics of both partners. When you think about your future partner in terms such as: “he/she should be understanding”, it is hard to assume how this trait of the character should manifest in the relationship. For some people, understanding might mean leniency and turning a blind eye to small lies or misunderstandings. For others, it may be the ability to understand that everyone makes mistakes and that the mistakes are do not necessarily stem from partner’s bad intentions. Even if you focus on a character trait that is important for you, it will be hard to predict how this trait will manifest and how you will react to it, in various life situations.

The more someone is focused on the partner fulfilling their expectations, the stronger the threat of frustration in the relationship. The better you are aware that the choice of the partner should rather be based on the way you feel in their company, how they behave in real situations, whether the partner’s declarations are followed by actions, the more you can trust that the selected partner will fulfill your mature needs, rather than be an embodiment of your imaginary picture of him or her.

Most common type of marriage - the four of them: him, her, her image of him, and his image of her. (Claude Roy)

Love: from Dreams to Disappointments

Jane is the eldest in her family. Although she is 27, she has never had a “real boyfriend”. From time to time, she would go out with her male friends, but they were just pals and the socializing never led to a serious relationship. Jane is well liked, because she can listen, she never imposes her point of view on others, she is helpful not only at work, but also in her private life. At work she is also well liked, because she is always smiling and never complains. She goes bowling or goes out for a beer with her friends, but non of her male friends considers her a potential romantic partner. Jane feels that there is something wrong with these relationships — she has had many male friends, but she has never had this special someone. From time to time, her family mentions that “it is high time to tie the knot, because she should not be single at this age.” Jane’s mother has been suggesting form time to time that Jane “should dress like a woman more often”, which usually has the opposite effect on Jane, who, in those situations, puts on an old sweater and does not pay any attention to her looks. However, Jane has been secretly dreaming about a close relationship with a man, but she has also been afraid, because she does not know what “being close” entails. Her parents stopped behaving like a couple long time ago. They have been sleeping in separate rooms. They rarely talk to each other, they work a lot, and they have separate interests or activities after work. They do not argue and they even do some activities together, occasionally, but Jane has not seen any passion between them or even basic interest. They are civil towards each other, but ‘absent’ in the relationship.

You will find out what your relationship is like, whether it is fulfilling and brings you satisfaction, once your enter into it. It will happen, when you experience being together, feel the developing emotions and when you recognize your partner’s emotions. Two people that come together must work out their own style of being with each other. Their relationship style may be the source of joy, development, but also a source of stress and unfavorable interactions. When both partners take an equal responsibility for the relationships, there is a chance for getting used to each other and for the reciprocal attention to their own and the partner’s needs. However, if one of the partners wants to shift the responsibility for the quality of the relationship onto the other person (e.g. “YOU should be more caring”, “YOU should understand that I need more freedom”, “You should act quicker”, “why do I always have to ask you to do something?”), then the relationship turns into a tag-of-war, which is supposed to show who is right.

Jane has always dreamt of being with “a kind man”. Her problem is that she becomes interested in any man who shows any interest in her. She takes small friendly gestures for signs of romantic interest, because anything that is different from “the indifferent behavior of her father towards her mother” becomes a harbinger of a future relationship for Jane. No one in her family knows that sometimes Jane is the happiest person on Earth only to become unhappy and disappointed shortly after. The expectations that she creates, when someone is nice to her, make her very happy. However, happiness is quickly replaced with disappointment, when the guy she has thought was interested in her, begins to talk about his girlfriend, hoping that Jane would give him some dating advice.

How will Janet’s life look like? Is she doomed to relive the vicious circle of exhilaration and disappointment over and over again? Will she grow to “hate” men, as a “payback” for her mother, and remain single? Is there a chance to modify her model of relationships with men, during her lifetime? Perhaps, Jane will choose to stay loyal to her mother and live at home to protect the mother from the emptiness and loneliness that characterize the relationship of her parents.

Risks Associated with Expectations of Ideal Relationship

One experience may serve as a foundation of several scenarios. One experience of facing a barrier or inability to do something does not mean that these circumstances will become your destiny. The more self-aware you are, the more options to choose from in your life. It is possible to modify or change your habits or the models of behavior at any time in your life.

The less opportunities you had to experiment in your life or to enter into relationships with other people, the more romanticized images of relationships and unrealistic expectations you will harbor. The less occasions you had to learn “how to be in a relationship”, by observing your parents or other significant people in your life, the more idealized image of a partner will serve you as an assessment tool of potential candidates for your life mate. The paradox of human life is that you cannot experience your life without experiencing it. The more opportunities you have to confront your imaginary world with the real one, to verify visions created by others and to experience relationships with other people, the more realistic picture of yourself and others you will compile.

Importance of Engagement Period

The engagement period is very important for the development of a relationship. During that time partners learn how to communicate with each other and they build closeness with each other. It is the time when both partners intuitively try to present themselves in the best light, but also they see each other through a rose-colored glasses. The engagement phase begins with a decision and a declaration that two people want to be together. They have already completed the stage of getting to know each other, learning about each other’s needs and often they have already consummated their relationship. Some couples decide to move in together at this stage, but others maintain their separate homes and continue dating. The engagement model is influenced by their family rituals, their life philosophy (their political, religious and social views), the financial status and the current social trends.

My experience gained while working with couples shows that sometimes the engagement period is shortened or even skipped all together. A short engagement indicates that the couple has decided to get married very quickly. And they did not have a chance “to practice being together”, before they made a decision to get married. Those couples often enter the married without the previous experience of being together, managing a household, developing their own way of spending free time, etc. This may result in a lot of stress, misunderstandings and conflicts, because they skipped “the trial” phase and the opportunity to figure out why the engagement phase is important.

If the engagement stage is skipped, often due to an unplanned pregnancy, sooner or later it will impact the relationship of the newlyweds. When two people decide to be together, the first stage of their relationship should include the process of establishing boundaries of their relationship, in relation to their families and in relation to the world. The boundary fortification period means that during that time the couple negotiate their roles at home, their responsibilities, the way they fulfill these responsibilities and the ways of conflict resolution. Partners go through this process, because of their own needs and capabilities. The more psychological pressure in the form of orders (e.g. the “Smiths must always fight for their rights”) or in the form of forbidden behaviors (“don’t ask”, “don’t express your feelings”) the couple faces, the more important the period of establishing boundaries is.

Recently, Jane has been very happy. Six months ago during a business trip to Italy, she met Paulo - a man she has been dreaming about. He is “a kind man”, ten years her senior, and he is very much in love with Jane. Paulo manifests his love for Jane by frequent trips to her home country, frequent phone calls and pressure to get married quickly, because Jane is “his Queen”. Paulo is very close with his family. Jane is not surprised, because “Paulo is the same as every Italian”. Paulo had several girlfriends before, but his family ensures Jane that none of these relationships was serious. Paul’s close ties with his own family are also a hint for Jane and Paul to settle in Italy. Jane has been very much taken with Paulo’s family, their enthusiasm and directness: “You are so beautiful”, “You must be a good girl, since you have been waiting for Paulo for a long time”, “We hope that you will visit us every Sunday”. Jane feels “like a heroin of a romantic movie”. For now, the couple has set the date for the wedding in six months. Currently, they are very busy with organizing the wedding. They are compiling the guest list, looking for the wedding venue, and discussing the wedding ceremony.

The development of a relationship is a dynamic process that has nothing to do with following a recipe. Both partners are responsible for type of the relationship they want to create and how they want to create it. To answer these questions, they need time. They need a double time:

- to figure out for themselves what they want, how and with whom they want to live
- to figure out together what it is that they want, how they want to achieve it, and what they can and cannot accept.

The engagement phase (or the initial phase of the relationship, since nowadays many people decide not to formally marry) is a crucial stage of the relationship development. It should not be shortened (to a few months) or extended (to a few years). During this phase, partners should understand that being together does not mean moving form the idealization stage to the disappointment stage. The decision to remain in the relationship should include partners’ values, the vision of how they want to live their lives, the feelings they have towards each other as well as their satisfaction and frustrations. If the decision to get married is made during the idealization phase or the disappointment phase, it is not based on real experience.

Many couples fall into a dangerous trap of over-focusing on the wedding plans during the engagement stage. Relationship building is sometimes replaced with ‘external activities’, while a successful contact with oneself requires some ‘internal space’, i.e. an opportunity to ask yourself many questions and the courage to hear your own answers. The sooner partners come to terms with real pictures of each other, the more strategies they work out to deal with difficult and conflict situations, the sooner they create boundaries of their relationship and protect it from strong external influences, the closer they will become thanks to these experiences. However, it is always good to keep in mind the words of Samuel Rogers: “It doesn’t much matter who one marries, for the next morning one is sure to find it was someone else.” I wonder who Jane will see after her wedding...

The Polish version of this article was first published in "Magazyn Wesele", 4/48/2017, pp. 96-98.


258 magdalena sekowska

About the Author

Magdalena Sękowska - psychologist, psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, coach, and Director of Klinika Uniwersytetu SWPS [SWPS University Clinic]. She is a member of International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA) and President of Polskie Integratywne Towarzystwo Analizy Transakcyjnej [Polish Integrative Transactional Analysis Association] (PITAT). From 2009 to 2016, she held the position of Vice President of the European Association for Transactional Analysis (EATA).