“Why is it that we sometimes can’t feel close to someone we’ve lived with for a long period of time?” This was the heartfelt question from a young woman and mother who was struggling in a relationship with her partner. The relationship had been going sideways for years, but she was reluctant to break up the marriage for a number of reasons, including her concern for the children and of course finances.

At the heart of her question was a feeling of alienation and distance from her partner. Having been together since a very young age, they had found that as they matured and had children, they had grown apart. People of all ages often gravitate towards each other because they fall in love with someone who they see as different – someone who seems to offer something they are lacking, or who seems to complement them in some important way. Positive projections just happen – it can feel like a god force moving through you, and it carries a feeling of uplifting excitement and intoxication with it. Falling in love is a beautiful thing and I am loathe to analyze it, unless it becomes problematic in some way.

The problem in this and similar cases, is that when the glorious projection has fallen off and we are faced with the stark reality of what we have gotten into, we have to deal with some hard or bitter realizations. I remember Marion Woodman once saying that this was when you have the hard task of learning to really love someone. By this she meant, can you learn to love and accept them just the way they are without trying to change them?

Sometimes you can and do learn to love that ‘other’, and sometimes it doesn’t mean that you have to live with them for the rest of your lives. Sometimes it is about learning to co-parent in a loving and mutually supportive way. In my parents’ generation most people just stuck it out through thick and thin until death parted them. Some people met the challenge and were transformed by that experience. Others shriveled up and died.

When the positive projection of ‘being in love’ falls off, the loss can feel like a huge disappointment. “Is this it?” you may ask yourself, or “this isn’t what I bargained for!” or “I didn’t sign up for this!” or “I thought it was going to be different!” or “I can’t deal with this!”. The spoiled inner child, the young puer or puella, or what Terry Real, the founder of Relational Life Therapy (RLT),  refers to as the ‘adaptive child’ starts up its inner rant.

Don’t get me wrong. Most adults have faced this sort of confrontation with themselves and their partners at some point in their lives. When we have had children in that relationship, it becomes a much tougher question. It can force you to carry the cross and to suffer the dilemma a lot longer than if there are no children involved. In RLT one is required to confront the inner child, and examine how the inner child adapted to his/her environment in order to survive. As adults we still carry those adaptive children inside us, and in times of stress or duress those inner children rise up and scream or get walled off or act out in ways that are destructive to the relationship and to themselves. As Terry Real describes it, they are like kids in grown up clothes, but they do not operate out of a mature, functional adult space. And when one partner in the relationship acts or speaks from this place, the other partner is easily triggered into his or her dysfunctional adaptive child. The result can be outright war or cold hostility.

The interesting piece in relational life therapy is that we look at the relational dynamic in the couple as a way to get further insight into our own adaptive child, and then understand the dysfunctional dance we get into as couples. There is nothing like couple therapy to intensify one’s process. As a therapist who has come to couples work later in life, having always focused on individual therapy in the past, I have a deep appreciation for how having the partner in the room can intensify the therapeutic process.

RLT uses a 2 X 2 matrix (the relationship grid) to analyze the dynamic between two people. It is conceived as a quadrant in which the horizontal axis represents our relationship with intimacy – a continuum with the ‘walled off’ on the left and ‘boundaryless’ on the right.  The vertical axis represents our relationship with self-esteem separating the grandiose above the line from the shame-based below the line. As Terry explains it, the grandiose have contempt for others, while the shame-based direct that same contempt towards themselves.  A circle at the intersection of that cross represents the zone of health for the mature, functional adult.

This approach is one that I often use with my clients to help them understand where they are on the grid. Looking at it from an intergenerational perspective: the walled off child usually had an intrusive parent, so he/she walled off to maintain integrity of the self. The love dependent child usually has a remote parent and is constantly seeking to find the contact they need. And so it goes down the generations. I find the RLT approach helps clients to learn to not blame each other, but also to find some compassion for the spouse, and ultimately themselves. It also enables them see what might be going on with their own children given their parenting style.

Having completed the RLT certification, I confess it was easier in the beginning to see the adaptive child in other people than in myself. I could see aspects of myself in all the quadrants in different relationships, but when I thought back to my childhood and reflected on how I was in my family of origin it became clear. As Terry pointed out, we often have a two-step process with the adaptive child as we develop.

Real has a lot to say about how our traditional relationships have been and are still affected by patriarchal values, pointing out that many men tend to be grandiose, and many women tend to be shame-based. He points out that most traditional therapies cannot deal with grandiose men because they are not suffering and will not take themselves into therapy.  As he says, they don’t suffer; everyone else around them does. The only way they end up in the therapy room is if their unhappy wives drag them there on sufferance.

Real’s strategy is to confront them in a gentle but authentic way, which he calls ‘joining in the truth’. He digs to unearth the adaptive child in each partner and helps them understand how their adaptation as a child helped them survive, but now is driving the relationship into dysfunction. It is an attitude of compassion that allows each of the partners to accept their own adaptations as children and to move into a more mature way of being in partnership.