December 13, 2011

When the Romance in Intimate Relationships Wears Thin. ~ Joe Elliott

One of my favorite blues songs is The Thrill is Gone by BB King.

Blues is a medium that has pulled me in because it tells the story of the everyday circumstances in our lives in a way that is gripping, real, and purifying. In The Thrill is Gone, King laments a lost love and says, “you know you done me wrong, and you’ll be sorry someday” as he fades into a deep and sonorous guitar solo.

When I listen to the song, it doesn’t get me down. To me it’s just so clear and so expressive. One summer, I listened to it every day as I drove home from work. Sometimes when I witness the perfect expression of experience through poetry or song, I feel a sense of awe because it’s so transcendent. I can feel the whole range of emotions that are there, and can hold space for all of them. The guitar solo at the end reminds me that there is solitude, quiet, and peace even in the middle of our deepest hurts and losses.

In this piece I wanted to follow up my article In Romantic Partnerships, Do Opposites Attract. I introduced Imago Relationship Therapy and articulated how romantic love has the potential to wake us up and guide us towards greater fulfillment. While many traditional ideas about romantic love discount its potency and power, I made the case to reclaim the fun, the playfulness, and the loss of coercive control that a romantic partnership can bring.

The presence of passion and conflict that is evident in romantic partnerships can be healthy and redeeming. The best research shows that happy marriages and successful partnerships have more to do with emotional responsiveness and positive interaction than the level of passion or conflict that occurs within them.

Edson Hong

The problem with romantic love in intimate partnerships, is that while it is lustrous, and wonderful, it tends to wear thin with time. Most people are first attracted to a person because of that person’s novelties and the vicarious sense of pleasure that they feel around them. The thrill of vicarious pleasure is explained by Imago Relationship Therapy as an experience of our ‘lost self’.

The lost self includes personality characteristics that were unapproved of or disallowed in our most primary relationships.

Because we feel both attraction and have a history of prohibition with this lost part of ourselves, with time the very same qualities that we most admired in our partners can become a source of frustration and resentment. The reality sets in that, like most things in life, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You simply can’t be dependent on another person to recover undeveloped skills and personality characteristics needed for full and healthy functioning.

When people in intimate relationships become dependent on each other and reach an impasse, it’s appropriate to seek the help of a trained therapist. Because this growing impasse often takes the form of a power struggle, and an effort to try to change the other person, partnerships can become irreparably broken if conflict is accompanied with contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and major breaks in communication.

In this clip from Mama Natural, a popular blog about parenting, Genivieve and Mike give you a confessional about what happened when their ideas about each other came crashing down. As you can see, their power struggle contained the culmination of a lifetime of frustration in relationships. What they share is a central theme in Imago Relationship Therapy: that we are imprinted with an image of what is safe, and familiar and what has worked for our benefit in past relationships.

Deep in our unconscious, there is a will to survive that leads us to repeat what we know, rather than to examine the projections of our fears and our insecurities onto our partners. Genivieve and Mike share with you their attempts at making ultimatums with each other and their feelings of shock and despair when those efforts proved futile.

When a romantic partnership culminates in a power struggle, it perpetuates a dynamic known as projective identification. Projective identification functions as a defensive mechanism; couples project unwanted parts of themselves onto their partners. Through this process, the other partner can be manipulated into behaving in accordance with the projection, and conflict is exacerbated.

In the example of Mike and Genivieve, they both felt thrust into a situation of having to defend themselves, but with the help of a skilled therapist, with a faith in their spiritual path, and with the concepts of Imago Relationship Therapy, they found a way to walk through the fire.

In Imago Relationship therapy, partners are given a safe space to begin to examine their projections and understand the wounds of attachment that lead them to build such complex defenses. It’s only with this insight that they can begin to make the choice to deal with their anxiety, to feel it directly, and to move through it. In this process, they can take back their projections and show genuine curiosity and love towards their partner.

Please join me as I continue to discuss this topic in Imago Relationship Therapy and discuss the methods and techniques that are utilized to build safety, to examine old defenses, and to move towards a more holistic and fulfilling way of functioning in intimate partnerships.


Joe Elliot has been working to help families for the past thirteen years. His specialties are in couples counseling, family therapy, death and dying, parenting, financial management, and adoption. Joe received his undergraduate degree from Naropa University in Psychology and Religious Studies and his Masters in Counseling from Regis University in Denver. Joe completed a Post-Graduate Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy from The Denver Family Institute. Joe has also taught Family Therapy to students at Metro State Community College. Find out more here.



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