Some of the most destructive behaviors, commonplace in relationships, are those that people act out in an attempt to ward off loving responses from their partner. In The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships, I wrote about the dynamics underlying this phenomenon, explaining why we often punish the very person who appreciates and acknowledges us for our positive qualities. The fact that our lover sees us in a way that does not correspond to the negative identity we formed early in life disturbs our psychological equilibrium. Unfortunately, many of us defend our inaccurate negative perceptions of ourselves and resist being viewed in a more positive light. On an unconscious level, we sense that if we were to accept love, the whole world, as we have known it, would be altered and we would no longer know who we are.
It is actually painful on an emotional level to see ourselves as better than we have always believed ourselves to be. In fact, challenging our negative identity arouses anxiety. However, most people react almost immediately and do something to put distance between them and their partner before the anxiety ever reaches conscious awareness. They tend to feel angry at the other person for "luring" them into a less defended position. Often they provoke their partner and induce him or her to criticize or depreciate them thereby confirming their negative identity.
The reasons we avoid love or retreat from a loving relationship can be traced to childhood. During the formative years, people internalize both positive and negative attitudes that their parents had toward them. They easily assimilate parents' positive attitudes into their self-system; however, parents' negative attitudes become a nonintegrated, alien part of the personality, the anti-self system. By the time people reach adulthood, most have formed defenses to protect the harsh point of view that now makes up a significant part of their self-image.
People's intolerance of love and intimacy is not only based on the fear of being vulnerable and open to another person, but also on existential fears. Being close to another in a loving relationship makes us aware that life is precious, and that it will come to an end. When we embrace love, we embrace life; and in embracing life, we face death's inevitability. When people experience the unique combination of love and sex in a committed, meaningful relationship, they feel that they have more to lose, and are poignantly aware of the fragility of the physical body and the preciousness of life. For this reason, many try to avoid such experiences. It appears that on an unconscious level, they fear being loved and valued because it does make them more vulnerable and aware of their mortality.
It is logical that when faced with pain and frustration in our developmental years, we formed psychological defenses to alleviate our discomfort and anxiety. Later, existential issues of aloneness and an awareness of our eventual demise added to our fears and contributed to a defensive denial of feeling. Paradoxically, the same defenses that helped us to survive the emotional pain of our childhood are not only maladaptive in adulthood and limit our potential for living a full life, but they also lead to the unintentional acting out of harmful behaviors toward others, especially the people closest to us: our mates and our children.
One way that people alter a partner's feelings is to hold back the personal qualities and behaviors that their partner was originally attracted to or especially loved and admired. The person being withheld from is left feeling emotionally hungry, confused, frustrated, and desperate, which leads to an exaggerated focus on the person who has created the distance through withholding. Ultimately, patterns of withholding practiced by one partner can effectively change the other person's positive feelings of love to hostility, anger or even worse, to indifference.
We don't usually think in terms of human rights issues when considering what is at play in interpersonal relationships. However, family researchers have observed that people tend to commit the most egregious human rights violations in their closest, most intimate associations. We are guilty of such violations when someone's love challenges our negative self-concept, and, in our desperation to defend ourselves, we disrespect their feelings and use means that are hurtful to push them away.
My associates and I have developed a powerful therapy technique, which we refer to as Voice Therapy, to identify and challenge negative or unethical behavior in interpersonal relationships. The procedures identify the source of most personal problems by revealing a partially conscious system of self critical and hostile attitudes that people harbor towards themselves and others. In this therapy, clients learn to recognize their negative internal dialogue, and then take action against its being lived out destructively. They develop a more objective and realistic self-concept and build up their tolerance for love in intimate relationships. In becoming aware of the underlying threat to their sense of well being and to their feeling for others, people can learn to live by an implicit morality that is basically humane and respectful of each person's individual rights.
Read more from The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships
Read more from Dr. Robert Firestone at PsychAlive.org