This painful Pandemic Pause in our lives offers a time for reflection. And this post is the product of that reflection. As I said to one couple who visited for a session outside on my deck, often what we seek from each other is to be comforted, swaddled, made to feel safe again. And most often we don’t know that this is the need or if we do, we are ashamed to ask and may not even know what that looks like. So this post is the product of these times and a core belief as a therapist of this essential need in human relationships.
After years of child rearing and the pursuit of financial survival, a couple reaches the chapter where a future together is reliant on two adults who share a history which informs a vision of that future. The primary players are themselves, though accommodations for adult children, aging parents, grandchildren and pets, are relevant factors. But at its heart, the face-to-face designing of those next decades rests on “just the two of us.” How this new phase develops is dependent on the Coupledom’s history, naturally, but more so on the couple’s interpretation of their history; how it is valued and how that history can provide a foundation for the crafting of a future together.
Decades ago, I was first introduced to the writings of Donald Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst, as well as attachment theorist and psychiatrist John Bowlby. Both men were pioneers in understanding the significance of the attachment between the infant or young child and the primary caregiver. Their understanding of the nature of that dyad and the ramifications for child development made a lasting impression on me as I formulated my own approach to psychotherapy through the years. As a therapist who has worked with teens, adults, couples, and families, I frequently find myself thinking how profound were those insights into the parent/child relationship and the lasting influence on the emotional health of our species. For that reason, I turn to them again for language and inspiration to communicate how to navigate the passage into the mature Coupledom.
The singular phrase that captures for me the optimal attachment for the Coupledom is the “holding environment” – a phrase created by Donald Winnicott to describe the powerful link between a child and parent in the early months and years, and sets in motion the subsequent emotional development of the child. John Bowlby, in his writings and research, proposed that a child’s attachment to their primary caregiver was critical to the development of a basis of trust needed for a secure attachment, and that if that basis of trust is interrupted for too long (due to war or illness) or impoverished for other reasons, the emotional health and development of the young child could be hindered.
In Winnicott’s words, “A key function of the mother’s early holding is to insulate her baby from the impact of stress, carefully choosing the moments to allow for frustrations to be allowed slowly into the child’s experience. The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.” (Winnicott, 1953) To stretch this image to accommodate a link to the couples’ relationship, one could almost view the heady, often blissful days of early courtship as the parallel to the first phase of the infant/mother dyad, followed by the progression of the relationship over time that inevitably includes frustration, disappointment and adjustment.
Back to Winnicott: “In the young child/parent relationship, typically, a good-enough parent gradually increases the amount of time between a child’s emotional expression of a reaction/need (e.g. crying) and the meeting of that need (feeding, comforting). Through this process, infants recognize they can survive being overwhelmed by emotions/needs, until the parent eventually comes and provides.”
The young Coupledom sees a similar pattern in which the perfect pairing of the early days becomes a good enough pairing due to the increase of complexity that all relationships encounter and the increasing reality that each person lives within their own skin, not fused as a perfect union. The infant develops, over the first months and early years, the same reality that allows for a self and the reality of the other, separate but safe, trusted but different.
“Psychoanalytic theory refers to the concepts of holding and containing to express the parallel of how a mother allows a child to express emotion while keeping them safe. It also refers to the way the mother handles infant’s projection of painful, angry, unbearable feelings, returning them to the child in a modified, contained way.”
In the Coupledom, the art of pairing (at its optimal) must allow a safe enough space for each person to share “unbearable feelings” which lie at the core of the human condition in the safety of a relationship. Thus, the concept of the “holding environment” for adults captures the essence of that shared journey forward through the often-rocky decades and relies on the tolerance of feeling, one’s own and that of one’s partner, however different or difficult they may be.
In the Coupledom, two adults who may have navigated parallel journeys in the same home for two or more decades, now have to return to an earlier dyad to safely and satisfactorily navigate a future. Attachment steps out of the parent-child relationship into the adult-adult dyad. Can two adults be a safe space for each other – that holding environment which, as in the theory provided above, includes moments of frustration, stress and pain, with the Coupledom providing a tolerable haven that is more than the sum of its parts. However, as adults, this isn’t just an instinct born into our DNA as infants – this takes a cognitive acknowledgment of safe attachment as a priority – which an infant or toddler doesn’t require. How does that happen, especially with the baggage of the past and the natural burdens of the future?
First, couples need to acknowledge that this is a new chapter which requires unique understanding and strategy. Areas of conflict, active in the first decades while establishing individuality within the parameters of the Coupledom, need to be identified and modified. As an example, competition between married adults is common, each one vying to be acknowledged and valued, likely with a hint of sibling rivalry inching its way into the relationship. This friction-filled dynamic needs to change. The absence of the incentive to compete for attention and rewards and ultimately, self-worth, can be transformed into a mature version of self-worth, not a battle with a spouse. Another common motif of conflict revolves around the tendency of projecting onto one’s partner of insecurities and self-esteem challenges where couples see their partner’s behavior as something reflective of how they are viewed rather than attributes and styles that come with the person they married. These often skewed but firmly held convictions are acted out as fact, creating a loop of projection and distortion in the rhetoric of daily living. Those projections are the unfortunate cornerstones of much that causes alienation within the Coupledom – a negative power so forceful and misguided that learning to disbelieve one’s own mental creations is essential to secure that “holding environment” of safety and sharing.
Then there are the simple hurts; perhaps the wounded remnants of forgotten anniversaries; the slog of sexual disappointment or infidelity, the inevitable distance occurring from traveling spouses, in-law conflicts leading to bifurcated holidays with accompanying accusations of non-support. These are just a few examples of recurrent issues that have cropped up over the years in my office. My posts on this site are rich in all the varieties of alienation that can occur over the years, with suggestions of how to find strategies and healing for these pains.
This article is different. It assumes all of the above and moves to suggest a new chapter of joint wisdom shared in a new way. Where spouses can be each other’s safest base and create or continue to occupy the holding environment of the Coupledom, that third entity which is formed in partnering a shared life but is often unacknowledged as to its very existence and value and may need some reinforcing for its future. If this sounds like shrink gobbledygook, then you may not be able to benefit from this post. If not, read on.
Trust of course underpins the mother/infant dyad at its heart. Attachment and bonding are all about developing and maintaining trust. If the infant is left frustrated for too long (hard to measure of course) then will that infant be overwhelmed by the stress, disabled in a sense, and turn inward more than outward for the modification it needs to survive that moment. Every good parent fears that they will fail to make the perfect choice here. But a good-enough parent is all we need. And so that’s true for the Coupledom and its holding environment. We all experience let downs, disappointment, hurt and confusion – but if both partners own how they let each other down and show compassion for the pain that caused, even if the disappointment is a misunderstanding or miscommunication, the bond can be restored and even strengthened. Attachment theory includes the need for this strengthening – in fact it relies on it – and sees the healthy norm of it. We cannot be perfect partners or parents, but we can care enormously and show that in our response to the consequences of our imperfections and their impact on our partner, our children, our friends. The simple act of honestly owning one’s failure is the first step. These transactions over the decades, which allow for ownership with compassion in the face of disappointment and pain, provide the cornerstones of the mature Coupledom. Mom always returns in time to see her infant’s distress and to show that she deeply cares by relieving as much of the discomfort as possible. Deep at the core of bonding is the feeling that the other sees you and is moved to help and heal even when they have caused or contributed to the distress. And equally relevant is the ability to be sincerely happy for the other when joy is in the room. And so for the mature couple, whatever the feelings, let them be known, stay in the room as partners, in the holding environment, though it may be uncomfortable in order to tolerate together the stresses, joys and pains so essential to a lasting bond.
The task at hand here is to make this concept work for your relationship. Though we are all wired differently and process experience differently, even shared experience, the acknowledgement that there is a third entity created by two and is worthy of sustaining even as it may have an imperfect history, will ground the future firmly in the soil of healthy attachment. Good enough isn’t a compromise; the theory of a good-enough mother speaks to the human quality of the best of moms and dads. Winnicott and others understood that growth and maturing require an imperfect parent who by the very nature of their non-robotic, non-computer-programmed parenting, is teaching that child to trust both in their parents and ultimately in themselves. That’s the takeaway for the child. It is a balance and must take place within a holding environment that is safe enough so that even in disappointment and frustration, the child internalizes the good-enough love which teaches trust in others, not blind trust, over time, and most important developmentally, trust in themselves. For the Coupledom, internalizing one’s own worth and the worth of the entity that you and your partner have created, even with the growing pains and barnacles accrued on the love boat, over time, will make the partnership formidable, reliable, and worthy of sustaining over the glorious long haul that is life itself.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2020