Usually there is an upsurge in the demand for couple therapy between January-March. The reasons for this are many. Firstly it is cold, dark and wet and most of us have some sort of seasonal affective disorder in these months, which makes us irritable, tired and likely to snap at those closest to us. And I mean ‘closest’ in the literal sense of proximity; this does tend to be our partner. Secondly it is the aftermath of Christmas.
Christmas is held up as a time to spend with families, exchanging gifts, expressing our love for each other, laughing heartily and eating amazing food. In truth, families tend to over-spend – which makes January even more miserable because of the extra credit card bills – argue and stress out about overcooked turkey. Kids cry because they have been fed sugar all day and then given gifts; they are wired to the max. Couples argue because in-laws wind them up.
They arrive in couple therapy in January bedraggled, exhausted and lost because they have done little except argue for the past month. However, it is a good thing to come to couple therapy in January because then with your therapist you can think about the next hurdle in the relationship track: Valentines Day.
When a couple come in to see me in a particularly bad way I often scan the calendar in my mind to think about whether there is an external event that has set off the crisis; valentines, birthdays...all these days of celebration turn into days of tremendous stress for couples who are having difficulties and in fact for couple who aren’t. Why? The stress we experience is made up of three intertwining factors – pressure, gifts and surprises or, better put, the pressure for gifts and surprises.
Let me tell you some things that might help ease this terrible trio so you can start to relax
- Your partner is not psychic. I promise this is true. Whatever you are thinking you really want for Valentines, he doesn’t know. He has no idea. Unless you have told him, but that is still not him being psychic. If you really want that thing, just tell him (and don’t hint at it because that’s not the same; he must be told). If you don’t tell him then be prepared to get something different and for that to be okay.
- Your partner is different from you. No matter what ideas you have about what would be a wonderful Valentines gift, he is thinking something different. Your idea of a romantic evening will not be the same as his. If you want it a certain way then plan it yourself or else try to go with the flow of his idea.
- Stop thinking that everyone else is doing wonderful romantic things. This fantasy about other’s relationships increases the pressure on your own. Believe me, everyone is thinking everyone else is having more fun than them.
- This stuff doesn’t matter. The strength in a couple is not how they do it right, but how they cope when things go wrong.
Now let me explain what is happening around Valentines from a psychodynamic perspective and why there is so much desperate need for the perfect surprise gift. When you were in your mother’s womb you got given all the nutrition, warmth and comfort that you needed. This relationship was symbiotic; Scottish psychoanalyst Fairbairn called it the ‘ideal’. We all have this experience stored in our bodies and a bit of all of us wants to return to that womb-like place where we didn’t have to use our minds or bodies to speak our needs. However, the symbiotic relationship is not a relationship as such because we are part of our mother’s body, attached literally by the umbilical cord, whereas a relationship implies an interaction between two separate people. Valentines Day unconsciously triggers our hope for symbiosis (interestingly sex does the same) and we hope either subconsciously or consciously that our partner will KNOW what we need and want without us giving any clue. He can’t because this is an actual relationship based on different bodies and minds… so in short, we set ourselves up for a fall.
The heartbreak you feel when your partner gets it completely wrong, therefore, is not actually related to the current relationship but related to the primary trauma of being cut from the umbilical cord. When you yell at your partner because she got you a card from the newsagent across the road, you are raging against the primary separation of birth that left your senses reeling.
What Valentines day brings to a fore is difference between you and your partner. What difference brings to a fore is that you are separate people who can come and go as you please. You might be with a long-term partner, married, engaged, but you can separate if one of you decides to. You are in a non-symbiotic relationship and this is scary. When we were attached to our mother’s body we couldn’t leave them and they couldn’t leave us, there is comfort in that… when the cord is cut anything can happen. There is no cord between you and your partner and so when they get it wrong, on a day when there is so much pressure to get it right, you realise unconsciously that they do not KNOW you, that they cannot KNOW you because they are separate from you and because they are separate they can leave you.
Their mistake about the card then becomes an unconscious warning sign for an imagined abandonment; they didn’t get it right, they don’t KNOW me, they will leave me. Every separation in your mind become unconsciously flagged up – whether it is a separation in conscious memory or not – first day of school, first day of nursery, leaving to go to university, being weaned, weaning your own children – this little loss that your partner has triggered (in puncturing your unconscious symbiotic fantasy via getting it ‘wrong’) in turn triggers a heap of other losses that we are continuously processing throughout our lives. It is a domino effect.