Hayley and Dan met at a mutual friend’s wedding. They experienced an immediate spark and keenly saw each other several times the week following their introduction. They both sensed that they shared much in common and matched each other creatively. It was easy to talk for hours, as if only minutes had transpired. In the early weeks of their relationship Hayley and Dan relished setting up dates for each other at favourite restaurant’s and cultural events. They lost interest in other friendships and immersed themselves in the pleasures of their apparently perfect connection. After a passionate 2 months of romance and intertwining of lives, Dan proposed to Hayley on a surprise weekend luxury retreat. Hayley unquestionably accepted and they set about planning a wedding 4 months later. The first time they met each other’s parents and siblings was after their engagement was announced.
Pete and Trish were introduced by mutual friends 6 years ago. They had begun dating and seemed to get along well and have shared values. When they began courting they were both in their early 30s and established in their careers. Their friends were all getting married at the time and Pete sensed that he should make an effort to connect with Trish or he might miss his chance to find a life partner. Trish was keen for the relationship to move towards commitment as she was ready to settle down and found Pete attractive and interesting. Both appreciated that they shared the same religious faith and moved ahead in their courtship with openness for romance and love to grow. Pete was slow to take initiative in the early days and Trish began to make suggestions for their get-togethers. As the months proceeded Pete became increasingly ambivalent about the relationship. He didn’t want to lose the friendship with Trish but he was reluctant to allow things to become too close. He used the busyness of his demanding work to slow the pace that he sensed Trish was angling for. They often gathered with friend’s and had frequent dinners with each of their parents. As the months and then years rolled by, friends increasingly encouraged Pete to step up and commit but the more he experienced other’s pressure the more he struggled to imagine a future with Trish. Rather he would find fault with her and become irritated easily when they were in their family and friendship groups. Trish lost patience a number of times and separated. She was however quite attached to Pete and felt drawn to helping him manage his life. Pete was lonely without Trish and would convey this when they were apart.
These two courtship stories appear to be an antithesis. One is hastily and passionately committed to within 6 months. The other proceeds ambivalently over 6 years. What they share in common is a driving force of unresolved attachments in their families of origin.
Both Hayley and Dan had distanced from their parents in their late adolescence. They had experienced their parents as an imposition to their freedom as emerging adults. They each had been very close to one of their parents as children but this had become tense during their high school years. They had competitive, strained relationships with their siblings and were pleased to distance from this family intensity. They occasionally visited family on special occasions but things were kept quite superficial. Dan felt some guilt about distance from his mother as he knew she struggled in a tense marriage. He was completely cut off from his father who he viewed negatively. Hayley experienced her parents as exceedingly proud of her during her growing up. She was a high achiever and she sensed that they admired her and were quite invested in her academic success. Hayley had relished her father’s pride in her especially during her school years. She liked to be admired but could become reactive to the intensity of her parent’s expectations. She saw her mother as needy and her father as demanding. Of course this was intensified as she increasingly pulled away from them. At the time she met Dan in her mid-twenties she was almost completely cut off from her family.
Pete and Trish also had quite intense relationships with their parents but instead of using distance or cut off to manage this they remained highly involved with their families. Pete was a youngest son who had always felt very close to his mother. He would tell her everything about his life and depended on her advice in making life decisions. His mother remained his closest confidante well into his 30s. Trish was very involved as an eldest daughter in caring for her aging parents. Her father had some chronic health problems and she remained central to organising health care and supporting her mother in the task of managing life with a dependent husband whose capacities were low. Trish was comfortable as an over-responsible daughter. For both Trish and Pete their families remained central to their life functioning. Much of their relationship energies went towards their parents – albeit in different ways. Pete was quite dependent, Trish was a responsible carer.
I wonder if you can see how reactions and relationship to parents has shaped these 2 courtships. The intensely fast tracked courtship of Hayley and Dan is driven by the degree of ‘cut off’ from their families. This had left them needy of replicating an admiring togetherness in a love relationship. The intensity gap they left in distancing from their parents had been waiting to be filled by someone who shares a similar need for being special. Rather than growing away from their parents in becoming independent adults they had each broken away. They ran away from quite fused relationships only to replicate a high expectation fusion in their relationship with each other.
Pete and Trish also experienced quite intense involvements with a parent as they moved into their adult years. They didn’t run away from this but instead were quite dependent on the roles they had in their families. Pete was so close to his mother that it was hard for him to invest in intimacy with another. Trish was so responsible for her parents that she equated closeness with being in charge.
For Hayley and Dan their cut-off from parents and siblings transmitted into an intense fusion with each other. For Pete and Trish their fusion with their parents translated into an ongoing distance with each other. Both relationships had many challenges ahead. One of the keys to giving the relationship a chance to flourish was to build a more mature relationship back to each parent. To be connected in a genuine way without being overly sensitive or overly involved. Parents of course can have an important part to play in contributing to a better resolution of shifting attachments from one generation to the next. Parents can reduce the various ways they depend on their children and work on their marriages and peer relationships so that their relationships with their children are not primary. Distant parents can work on gradually increasing non-intense contact with adult children; Being interested in their lives, without imposing expectations.
There is an interesting directive in the Judaeo Christian scriptures (Genesis 2:24) about one generation leaving their parents to cleave to their spouse. The idea is that a ‘leaving and cleaving’ is necessary to establish a new generational family. The leaving however is not a running away just as the cleaving is not an over involvement. I value Bowen’s idea of growing away from parents rather than breaking away. A gradual shifting of attachment allegiance lays important groundwork for courtship and marriage. It can avoid the ‘hot housing’ of a relationship and all the pressures that unravel from this. It can also prevent excessive anxieties about commitment that contribute to either serial short relationships or long term ambivalent courtships.
CAVEAT – continuum not categories: These 2 examples are based on real scenarios with identifying details changed. Each represents a quite polarised position, from overly hasty to overly cautious. It is useful to remember that each serious dating relationship will fall somewhere on a continuum between these positions. In Bowen theory there are NOT neat categories but rather a CONTINUUM that represents the level of differentiation and tendencies to either cut off or fusion that we have inherited from our family emotional system. You may find it helpful to reflect:
• Was/Is my courtship more a reflection of diving into the new relationship with some distance from my parent/s?
• Or was/is my courtship more a reflection of a tension between my pull to past attachment to my parent/s/family and the investment in my future priority attachment?