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#5 Choose or Chosen, it matters!

This time I will be using the Gestalt lens and relationships to look into how people enter their most important chosen relationships. I have noticed that some people who enter into primary relationships, and later on in their history together, tend to stray from thosen relationships, have something in common. They did not actually choose this relationship, but they just let the other party choose and then went along with it. This turns out to be important because what it means is there was not actually a matching commitment from both parties to live in this same way together. That dynamic eventually produces a very lop sided arrangement that may seem like a mutual fusion, at first, but does not hold up over time.

This is one of the questions I routinely include in my intake interviews with couples where affairs are part of their history and presenting issues. "Who did the choosing at the start of their relationship?" If someone chooses another person to be their partner, there is a level of risk involved in disclosing this desire because it may or may not be mutually felt. This risk taken is important here because it requires a level of personal vulnerability on the part of the one who put it out there in words. But this is where these dynamics become tricky for some relationships. If you are the person proposing to be with that other person, and they accept your proposal with a resounding 'YES, I want to be with you too', it is understood to have been a decision. But If you are not a person who is comfortable with the level of vulnerability required to make a decision, you may opt for the easier path of simply accepting the offer as an idea in the moment, but not actually co-commit to the relationship as making a long term commitment.

Unfortunately this situation often does not become clear until well into a history with one another and often only emerges when difficult times present. Once clarified as an important issue, it can then become the focus of the therapeutic process in couples work. This dynamic often shows up in indirect ways as an imbalance in the relationship. This area of the imbalance, in my view, is often identified as the affair. I see the affair as the consequence of this issue, but not the central issue.

Many people in this 'accepting someone elses offer' situation do not see themselves as being dishonest or not really committing themselves because they are so filled with their fear about it and do not want to have to deal with this fear. What they often say to themselves is something like "I didn't want to dissappoint them, and I do like them, I just thought it would work out OK". Then they retreat into their fears, often believing that that which they worry about is exactly what will always happen, so they feel totally justified in avoiding their discomfort at the expense of the one they have betrayed. They see themselves as having to choose between feeling their greatest fear, of not being loveable, or their great guilt when they abandon the other into an affair. Both are undesireable so they bargain with the guilt which at least gives them short term relief from their fear of being alone in the world by temporarly satisfying their deep longing to be with someone they choose, but do not have to committ to. This bargaining quickly results in them feeling both fearful of their original fear of being alone, and now thr additional fear of the affair being discovered, and then that guilt repeating in an un-relenting pattern.

The problem this dynamic sets up is repeated betrayals until the predictable natural consequence occurs. Just as they feared, they are rejected, which leaves them alone again seeing no other way to proceed. To them the cost of committing ones self to another will always end this way so they quit before they even start, by not committing to them. Tragically, the other party does not understand what is actually happening until it replays, possibly several times between them.

So what is a take-away from this dynamic when it is in play with a couple you are working with? 1. Ask the questions about the early decision events and get to: Did both parties actually risk anything in the decision? 2. If one party did and the other did not, get that out on the table and owned by the person who evaded the decision. This step is to support the person who has been betrayed. 3. Ask the person who would not commit 'are they willing to work on these fears now within this damaged relationship or just carry on as before?' 4. If they are willing to work on it now, what are they going to ask of their damaged partner? If not, what are they going to do? What kind of help are they going to need to do this work?

This 'choose vs chosen' dynamic shows up in many situations where there turns out to be unequal committments between people. It is useful to find the origins of these issues early so we can focus on the problem, not the consequences of the problem.

I hope this perspective may have been a useful glimpse into a coplex and demanding area of counselling for you. Your thoughts are welcomed and I hope you will join me next month to consider Who is doing the work here, is it the client(s) or me?

See you next month, Ciao, David

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Feb 01, 2021

This is a good example of how seemingly simple questions can quickly get the heart of what might be going on. It remains a challenge to hold people to taking responsibility for their own choices. Once we can get to that, then we can relax and monitor them as they get on with what all that implies.

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