Finding the Ideal Partner

Aleksandra Bubera

Interview with Suzana Mirčić, journalist, published in the “Revija D” newspaper on June 28th, 2010.

Are there people whose psychological profile or nature makes them predetermined for an ideal marriage?

– There is no ideal marriage, except in Hollywood movies and pulp fiction. But there are healthy and stable marriages. The kind in which both spouses are independent, self-conscious and responsible people, willing to face problems and differences, hold on to their healthy values, while being flexible enough to change and adapt to new circumstances. The kind in which the partners are willing to exchange ideas, take part in constructive conflicts, consider, assess and respect their own but also the other person’s opinion. These relationships do involve fights, arguments and anger, but they don’t cross the line into insults and physical conflicts  .

Conflict is constructive and welcome. It helps the relationship advance to a new level and develop, and it keeps things clear. With all this in mind, the person ready for a healthy relationship and marriage is a person who can take care of themselves, has empathy for others, can form attachments but can also be independent and on their own. It’s a person with principles, but flexible and adaptable enough to move well through the various challenges that life sets before them.

Does the primary family –  the parents – have an impact on the child’s happiness in marriage?

– First of all, we need to differentiate between “happiness” and “satisfaction”. In modern times, a significant part of the world started living relatively comfortably – without struggling to survive. So the media, newspapers, films and books followed suit, and started focusing on quality of life, not survival. This goes hand in hand with hedonism and, consequently, the first “commandment” became to be happy, always and everywhere.

We have forgotten that happiness is “reserved” for moments when our greatest wishes come true. The main task that parents have is to raise children that will one day be capable for an independent life in society. It isn’t to raise them to be in a permanent state of happiness and euphoria, which isn’t even possible. (Unless the person is constantly under the influence of psychoactive substances – which in itself is eventually a recipe for misery, and not happiness.) What parents do need to do is to raise a child who will as an adult be capable of meeting most of their realistic, attainable wishes, i.e. who will  be satisfied.

The way our parents raise us, as well as their marriage and the way the family functions as a whole, shape how we will behave in our future life and relationships. Unless, of course, we do the work of consciously examining ourselves and purposefully choosing which parental influences to “keep”, and which to store in our personality “archive”.

How would you explain that a person feels emotions, or even love for another person that they don’t like at all?

– In that case, we’re not talking about love, as love is a feeling which we feel towards another person “in their entirety”, “as a whole package”. So, in such cases, we’re most likely talking about either of two things. The first is infatuation – when we don’t love the real person actually, but the ideal representation we ourselves have created. Or it could be sexual attraction which we mistake for love. There is a common misconception that we feel strong sexual attraction only towards people we love, which is not correct at all. Love and sexual attraction may go hand in hand.  But, in fact, they often don’t.

Would there be fewer divorces if everyone went to marriage counselling before getting married?

– Yes, there would. Many couples realise they’re quite different only after they get married. They sometimes find they have diverging views of some important life questions, or different ideas of what a relationship should be like. If couples went to pre-marriage counselling, such issues would be discussed before the problem arises. Couples would also have the chance to get a better understanding of where they disagree. They would have the chance to approach these issues constructively, negotiate, and reach an agreement. Or, if  they found the problems they were faced with were insurmountable for them, they’d have the opportunity to realise they shouldn’t get married. Not every problem is solvable in every relationship.

If the partners have significantly different opinions on the most important questions – questions such as the place and manner of residence, sex, money, children, upbringing, religion, nationality, etc. – and neither partner is willing to adjust their beliefs to the other’s, then no agreement is possible.

Can you as an expert assess during the first contact with a couple whether they should be together, whether they are compatible?

– If a couple is highly incompatible and dysfunctional, yes. It usually takes more encounters for a “smaller incompatibility” to emerge.

If you see that a relationship, that is, a  marriage-to-be is fraught with problems, do you say that to the couple?

– It depends on whether the context is professional or friendly. If I have a contract with my clients to help them detangle the situation, that is what I do. I don’t, however, tell them whether their relationship is problematic or not. I ask questions that help them understand the situation, and what they want to do with what they’ve understood. With my friends I also agree on whether they want to hear my opinion and advice or not. The only case when I act against this agreement is if a person tells me they don’t want to hear my opinion, and I find that the partner and the relationship are so problematic that it is better not to go on. Then I believe it is my duty to point that out. The decision is, of course, up to the person themselves.

Have you ever talked someone out of getting married and why?

– It doesn’t fall within a therapist’s job description to talk people out of marriage, nor to give their blessing. The therapist’s job is to help a person see the problem from all sides, to assess it clearly and then consciously make a decision and accept all its consequences. So, it is the client who “talks themselves out of marriage” or “gives it their blessing”. The psychotherapist serves as a mirror, a catalyst, or, to use a trendier term, a facilitator of the process of understanding the inner conflict and its solving. People don’t go to a therapist if they are sure they want or don’t want to get married. They only go when they aren’t sure, and they need help deciding. Unfortunately, it often happens that people who were sure about getting married to someone realise only after getting married that they’ve made the wrong decision. So, they ask for help only after the problem has reached such an extent that they cannot put up with it any longer or solve it on their own.

Who are the people we love and marry?

– Most often, they are the people we fall in love with. Wherever you look, there’s all this hype about falling in love, and it is constantly mistaken for love. By definition, falling in love (i.e. infatuation) is an unrealistic feeling. When we are infatuated, we project our wishes and the image of an ideal partner ono a person. We then “love” an image and not the real person behind it. The problem is that only once the infatuation is over, do we see the person for who they really are. Oftentimes what we see is not what we ourselves had projected. We then feel like we’re in a relationship with an entirely different person, and then the relationship enters a crisis which it most often doesn’t survive. However, even such relationships can survive, if both partners are willing “to work” on themselves and on their relationship. The people we get infatuated with do after all have a place in our unconscious life plan, the so-called life script. That means they are exactly the people with whom we can hit our lowest points, but they’re also the ones with whom we can grow the most. The choice is up to us, if we are aware of it.

What has the evolution of marriage shown so far? Does it have any future?

– When I get a crystal ball, I’ll let you know. I’m kidding. I don’t think there’s a better alternative at the moment, so I believe marriage will survive in the near future, just as it has survived through all social transitions up to now. But as the consciousness of our kind changes and develops over time, it is possible that we will find another solution in the future. And if that happens, only time will tell which is better. For our current level of consciousness, marriage is a suitable solution for coexisting with a partner.

Should one try and save a bad relationship?

–  I think the answer is obvious – I don’t see why we would save something that is bad for us, for our children or our family. On the other hand, we need to have clear criteria about what is bad and then act accordingly, rather than declaring something good as bad (or vice versa). That is precisely why many people come to psychotherapy, to have someone objective and neutral help them explain to themselves what is good and what is bad for them personally, and what they should do about it.

What are some new ways of communicating between men and women?

– Learning how to listen to each other, without twisting what was said, without implying, but by asking for a precise meaning of what was said and interpreting the complete context. This may sound tiresome, but after the initial period of adjustment and getting to know each other, things will be much clearer, and the need for explanation will be much lower than in the beginning.

How can we find out whether our different characters go well together?

– Get some time to know the other person well. A month is usually enough to see that someone really doesn’t suit you. Six months to a year is mostly enough to see a person in various “editions” and circumstances. Talk about and ask everything you want to know. Bring up the topics you find important. And don’t turn a blind eye to things you don’t like or that put you off. Sooner or later, they will creep up on you. Better sooner than later. If it’s no good, it’s better that you know that straight away than after you’d had children and share property with that person.

What do you think of people who haven’t found real love?

I don’t think there is a single, but rather many “Mr/Mrs Right”-s for all of us. The myth of the one, true, ideal person comes from ancient mythology. In it, it is said a man and woman used to be one, and were then cursed by the gods for their sins. The gods split them into two people who wold then wander the world, looking for one another, and, of course, have an extremely difficult time getting back together.

Unfortunately, many of us still believe that there is only one “Mr/Mrs Right”, Maybe that’s the reason we miss the opportunity of having a relationship with partners with whom we are a sufficiently good match (rather than ideal or perfect). So, I’d say that people who haven’t met the “One” should work on finding good enough and functional love, which is realistic and achievable.

What do you think of people who haven’t managed to find real love and the right person to marry?

– That depends on how you define “true love” and “right person”. As I’ve already said, I think that “true love” and  the “right person” are mythical, fairy tale terms which have become part of the collective conscious and unconscious. Something we aspire to, but which does not exist. What does exist, however, are good enough partners for each one of us. Partners with whom we can build a good enough, functional and healthy relationship, in which we can fulfil our respective roles in the relationship: as friends, lovers, parents, etc.

Are our romantic partners chosen by our brain and how? Is there a formula based on “brain chemistry” that tells us which person is most suitable for us and how to establish an intimate relationship with them? What’s the effect of the female hormone estrogen?

– First of all, it’s important that our partner doesn’t have some of the flaws we find unacceptable, and these should include, for all of us:

  • substance abuse (alcohol, drugs), ”addiction” to a person, or addiction to a process or a behaviour (e.g. gambling);
  • the person tends to fall into fits of rage, or acts like a Victim, Rescuer or Persecutor;
  • the person is in a relationship with another person, or they infantile (not mature) or sexually unfit;
  • the person has serious emotional or psychological problems, they’re obsessed with control and/or jealousy.

Of course, all of this provided that the person isn’t ready to take any steps to change these things. If a person has one of these problems, but is looking for help (not just for show, either) and actually talking to an expert and working on themselves and you can see they’re slowly fixing their problems – there’s hope for your relationship yet. So, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be with someone who has a problem – we all have problems. Rather it means that we definitely shouldn’t be with a person who has a major problem and isn’t willing to work on it.

Secondly, we are the ones who choose our own partners. The responsibility to manage ourselves and our choices is upon us, and the brain isn’t some separate entity living outside of us (as long as the brain doesn’t fall ill, then things become different). Various bodily conditions, hormone status and metabolism certainly affect how we think, feel and behave. However, this holds true for abnormalstates, such as extremely low or high hormones of, e.g. the thyroid gland, the adrenal gland etc., and not only of reproductive glands. Also, other bodily illnesses certainly change how we see ourselves and our overall functioning – such as the level of glucose, oxygen, iron and other substances in our body important for metabolism. There have been studies of the different behaviours women display during their menstrual cycle, and on how men behave in cases of increased and decreased testosterone levels.

However, the answer is far more complicated. Even if we focused solely on the chemistry of our brains and bodies, (which, apart from hormones, includes neurotransmitters, the immune system and much more), there’s already a myriad of combinations, so the answer can’t be simple. However, we also need to account for our temperament, character, upbringing and the life experiences we’ve had.

For a person to have a complete and harmonious relationship with someone, which includes sex, they really need to like the appearance, smell and taste of that person. They need to find the other person appealing, not appalling. This isn’t only a matter of personal hygiene and cosmetics, but also the other person’s bodily composure and metabolism. And that’s only one of the important items that need to “click” in order to have a quality relationship.

The third important thing is that the partners have enough similarities and shared values that are significant to them. These are the basis on which they can relate to one another and build their mutual life and projects around. One of the most significant life projects for all of us are children, and this is something, among other important life questions, that both partners should have compatible attitudes about. How they’re going to raise children, what they’re going to do, and who’s going to do what. We all have significantly different views about things (who, what, how and when) that should or shouldn’t be done in a relationship, marriage and family. Until we’re aware of these differences, until we talk about them and agree on both our ideas and wishes (e.g. who does the cooking, who buys groceries, earns money, does laundry, brings up the children, how often and how we have sex) …there’s an enormous likelihood of unmet expectations, disappointments, anger, grief. This can cause people to give up on their relationship, rather than discussing what to do next. That’s why it’s so important that, before getting married, we discuss what we want and expect from ourselves and our partner in our marriage and everyday life.

The fourth, and possibly most important thing, is that both we and our partner are willing and able to have insight into our own psychological lives as well as the psychological lives of other people. And that we’re willing to communicate and change. As neither life nor our relationships are static, if we wish to survive and our relationship to last, we need to adapt.

I’d recommend a few books that deal with this topic in greater detail to all those who think about their relationships:

  1. Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
  2. A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon
  3. Are You the One for Me?: Knowing Who’s Right and Avoiding Who’s Wrong, by Barbara De Angelis, PhD
  4. Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, by Lori Gottlieb
  5. Love Formulae – How not to Ruin your Life Looking for True Love, by Zoran Milivojević (Serbian only)
  6. Families And How To Survive Them by Robin Skynner and John Cleese, and the sequel Life and How to Survive It by the same authors.

How can we be successful diplomats in love?

– As in all other areas of life. By knowing how to listen to ourselves and others, how to understand ourselves and others and how to actively and constructively take part in our own love relationship.

Why is it so important for everyone to find a partner with whom they will have a deep, quality relationship?

– Because having this type of relationship ranks very high among people’s values and priorities. And because through relationships, we often “carry on” even when we’re no longer around – through our children.

Why is it that we sometimes fall in love quickly, and other times slowly?

– The speed of falling in love depends on how realistic our ideas about love are, our experience and our maturity. The more mature we are, the more realistic we are, and the more experience we have, the more difficulty we’ll have falling in love. I’ve mentioned earlier how infatuation is an unrealistic state. So, it follows that the more realistic we are, the lesser the possibility of idealising another person, which is an integral ingredient of infatuation.

If you’re asking me why it is that we grow to love some people faster than others, there are several factors – seeing how love is a realistic relationship towards someone as a whole person. But the most important thing is how much time we have to actually get to know the person in various situations, to perceive them realistically and understand that we fit well together and that we wish to have a loving relationship with them, be it a friendship or romantic relationship.

What about unhealthy love and its consequences?

– “Unhealthy love” usually refers to relationships between people who play roles in the so-called “Drama Triangle”. These roles are Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor. These names already show that a person writes off either their own abilities (Victim), or the abilities of another person to take care of themselves (Rescuer), or the worthiness of other people which the person always judges to be lower than their own (Persecutor), making them feel they have the right to treat them without respect, to despise them or hate them, and then insult or abuse them.

These relationships include the ones with pathological and excessive jealousy, a symbiotic relationship (the kind of relationship that looks more like a relationship between a parent and child than one between two adults), then so-called “hot-cold” relationships where people distance themselves the moment they become “too” close… I think we can apply the old saying used in family therapy that “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” By this I don’t mean that there’s a single modus vivendi by which we can all be satisfied in a relationship and family, but rather that the foundations of each healthy family are alike, and that relationships can be “unhealthy” in many ways. Unfortunately, the human kind boasts plenty of examples in this regard.

How can we avoid monotony in love which some say is equal to suicide?

– Like in life and at work. I find it interesting that we tend to see love as a separate “thing”, like something that the rules from the rest of our lives don’t apply to. Love is a part of human life, and as such it’s unique to our kind, but that doesn’t mean it’s unfathomable and mysterious. So, do the same thing in your relationship that you would do to  make life interesting for yourself and your friends. Do things you love and want in agreement with you partner, develop and grow. Never stop learning from one another, from your children and life. Be responsible to yourself and others, be honest and fair in love and find ways to be satisfied – two satisfied, accomplished and fulfilled people that want to have a connection, that fit well together and who do everything in their relationship they would do in other fields of their lives to grow – that’s the recipe.

Could you elaborate on successful celebrity marriages? For instance, Milena and Dragan Nikolić.

– I don’t know them personally, nor have I followed the media coverage of this long marriage, so I can’t comment on it. Anything else I say would be incompetent. I can only comment on a marriage if I know the couple personally and if I know how their marriage works.

Are there any  differences between Montenegrin and Serbian couples, given your experience in practice? If so, what are they?

– I don’t often have the chance to observe Montenegrin marriages in practice, so I can only assume based on differences in mentality that might lead to differences in marriage. I suppose that Montenegrin marriages are still more traditional than Serbian ones, which means they probably last longer. Nevertheless, the longer-lasting marriage isn’t necessarily healthier.

However, it does mean that there is a clear division of roles in the marriage. In a traditional marriage everyone knows how to behave, what his or her duties and rights are. Which could technically mean that it functions better in life. Not necessarily, though. When it comes to practical matters – certainly. However, in terms of emotions – it’s doubtful.

In any case, tradition has more to do with the way of life in the survival zone and not in the comfort zone. In the survival zone, quality of life is ignored as this is more practical for survival. Also, both in Serbia and in Montenegro, there is a major difference between big cities and small (and often poor), rural areas.

Love between people of  the same profession – an advantage or a drawback?

– It can be both an advantage and drawback. The drawback is that it narrows the spectrum of events that each person would bring into the relationship, were their professions different…which isn’t always an advantage if partners can’t tolerate this broad spectrum of differences. The advantage would be that people in the same profession can better understand each other. However, it can also be a drawback if they have a competitive relationship at work, and if they then bring that competition into their romantic relationship to a higher degree than the relationship can handle.

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