It’s February and, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, once again the world is abuzz with declarations and symbols of love, with young and old manifesting their commitment to a loved one …
Alas, while people generally strive towards building and maintaining a lasting relationship with the person of their dreams, all too often the relationship turns sour, for various reasons, and resentment, despondency, even depression may set in, negatively impacting on a person’s mental health and wellbeing.
Psychology of relationships
Relationships have been part and parcel of mankind’s social structure since the beginning of time. “It’s part of our social being. The moment our basic needs are met and we have food, water and shelter, we want more. We want to connect. We strive to be part of our communities. We want to be truly SEEN and accepted by the other. The beloved becomes our mirror” explains Akeso Clinic Milnerton psychiatrist Dr Farzana Mohideen-Botes.
We want to connect. We strive to be part of our communities. We want to be truly SEEN and accepted by the other.
“Sometimes our yearning for idealised love, to be adored unconditionally, to be fully MET by our beloved is unrealistic. Our expectations set us up to fail. Often, we demand from our partners that which we needed (and perhaps didn’t receive) as very young children. For infants, unconditional nurturing is essential for survival. If these needs are not met during our infancy and childhood then we continue to seek that absolute adoration and safety into adulthood. There is a little person inside the adult that is clamouring for all his/her needs to be met. Often the children we were are pulling the strings in our adult relationships. Adults may still be searching for something as an adult that they actually needed as a young child. When people are aware of this, it becomes easier to grow in a mature adult relationship. We understand that our adult self is able to protect us, that we are able to complete ourselves and then invite others to share our space.“
1. Not in a box
As it differs from person to person and couple to couple, there simply is no single definition for love and a solid relationship, she says. “It’s different for everybody, but what most people agree on, is that it’s not something fleeting or just sudden infatuation. Rather the feeling is more lasting, deeper and tender – which is good for the loved person.”
2. Essential components
According to Mohideen-Botes, among the most important components of a lasting, healthy relationships are respect, friendship, compromise and trust. Communication is absolutely crucial for any healthy relationship, she adds. “Couples who don’t communicate well will struggle to resolve conflict.”
“Couples who don’t communicate well will struggle to resolve conflict.”
Sometimes communication needs to be taught and practised. Make space somewhere in the craziness of your life to be fully present with your partner, even if just for a few minutes every day. 20 Minutes of quality time will beat two hours of distracted time any day! Simple touch, eye contact and really listening bring couples closer. Invest in your relationship, make it a priority.
We forget that we need to be playing, have fun, laugh and have a sense of humour. Just to be able to play together is really important for any relationship.”
Sexual intimacy is an important part of a loving adult relationship. In long-term relationships however, it is often a neglected part of a relationship. Life is busy and couples are often tired at the end of the day. Many couples admit to me that they have not had sex in weeks, or months. Prioritise time together, schedule dates, and include romance. Talk to your partner about your sex life. Be aware that boredom often sets in in long-term relationships and that this may encourage infidelity.
Physical touch is important for bonding as it stimulates the release of oxytocin. This is the same hormone that is present during breastfeeding and thought to be important for mother child bonding. The more you touch the more oxytocin and the more loved you feel. “I tell couples and families to: ‘hug often and hug long’,” she says.
Physical touch is important for bonding as it stimulates the release of oxytocin.
In families with young children it is easy to focus solely on being ‘good’ parents and to forget to be partners and lovers too. Happy couples make for happy children, so prioritise your relationship with your partner, despite the dirty dishes, ton of laundry, and play dates and PTA meetings.
4. Opposites or think-alikes?
Are opposite personalities, interests (“opposites attract”) more conducive to a fulfilling, lasting relationship, or would similar interests be better suited?
“In a healthy relationship there needs to be enough difference between the partners to keep it interesting; but enough similarities to keep it safe. It’s like the excitement of a brand new world but also the comfort of your well-loved blankie. Studies show that couples who share the same value systems are more likely to stay together. The key to staying together really is growing together.”
“It is easier to prevent a relationship breaking down than to fix it afterwards,” Mohideen-Botes stresses.
“Relationships are like plants; they need nurturing. Spend time together, just be in the same space, do something you both love, make memories, switch off the laptop, put your phone away, and look up from Facebook. Go on dates. If your lives are busy, schedule date nights, diarise them. Take turns to arrange dates. They don’t need to be expensive, go stargazing, have a picnic, and take a walk, just the two of you. Rekindle romance “
Go on dates. If your lives are busy, schedule date nights, diarise them. Take turns to arrange dates.
6. Alarm bells
“One thing that stands out in an unravelling relationship is contempt for a partner. I often see this in my practice and it almost inevitably follows the trajectory of couples who don’t touch often, don’t make eye contact and don’t do things together,” says Mohideen-Botes.
A feeling of loneliness is another tell-tale sign that something in a relationship is amiss. Couples sometimes ‘lose’ each other. They don’t see themselves reflected in the ‘mirror’ of their loved one. That’s the time to reconnect, tell your partner how you feel, ‘invite’ them back into your life. Unfortunately it is often a time that people seek comfort and support elsewhere. Energy that is given to others is energy that could have sustained the relationship instead.
7. Impact on mental wellbeing
Healthy relationships affirm us, support us and heal us. Unhealthy relationships do the opposite.
Feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, depression are common in dysfunctional relationships. Individuals may engage in affairs or other reckless behaviour (e.g. abuse of alcohol or illicit drugs) which may cause further problems.
The first thing you should do to deal with, and mentally recover from a broken relationship, is to commit to a lasting, kind, loving relationship with yourself, regardless if someone else is kind and loving to you, Mohideen-Botes advises.
Gather resources of support: family, friends, and support groups. Grieving the end of a relationship is normal and healthy. However, if you feel persistently depressed, worthless or have thoughts of harming yourself, contact a mental health professional or even your local GP.
To avoid plunging headlong into another relationship after the break-up with your partner, it’s important just to stop for a while and be alone before moving on. Often people are uncomfortable with being alone and fall from one relationship into the next.” says Mohideen-Botes.
Allow yourself time to mourn your relationship and to understand what caused it to fail. Get to know who YOU are and what YOU want before getting into another relationship. Unresolved relationship issues can follow you into new relationships if they are not resolved.
Allow yourself time to mourn your relationship and to understand what caused it to fail.
10. Giving it a go
In order to revive a broken relationship and ‘give it another go’, both parties need to be very clear about the reasons that caused the break-up. “Unless they address the issues that got them into that position, they’re going to be right back there – and very soon.”
In cases of infidelity, both people should be given the opportunity to express themselves. It is important that the unfaithful partner allow the other partner to express their pain and acknowledge it.
“Sometimes in cases where a partner in the relationship had an affair and the other partner is too afraid to lose the relationship, the infidelity is minimised, ‘swept under the carpet’, and it becomes the elephant in the room. Inevitably, resentment builds up and infects future interactions. Both parties should be allowed to speak their mind, acknowledge their guilt and take responsibility. The couple should decide together whether they are able and committed to healing their relationship.
Both parties should be allowed to speak their mind, acknowledge their guilt and take responsibility.
In the final analysis, a relationship is a two-way street and both partners contribute to it, she stresses. “One may commit that the act of infidelity carried more responsibility, but there were also certain things in that relationship that were out of balance and which need to be addressed. Couples need to be aware that if they want the relationship to continue, both parties need to work at the issue and let it go. An affair cannot be used as a whip every time there is a problem.”
A brief separation is often helpful and allows both partners time to mourn and introspect. Healing a relationship requires commitment and stamina but is also an opportunity to rediscover each other, regain each other’s trust and breathe new life into an old relationship,” she adds.
“To love and to be loved in return, is a gift that should be cherished. To live a witnessed life with another frail, brave human being demands mutual respect, trust, compromise and compassion. The best way to learn to love another is to love yourself first,” Mohideen-Botes concludes.