Each Romantic Partnership is Unique

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Much like a fingerprint, every romantic partnership is unique. The intersubjective, phenomenological system formed between two separate nervous systems can never be exactly replicated, nor is it likely to be fully understood by the participants.

If the notion of human cloning seems unimaginable, the cloning of a relationship is ridiculously inconceivable. The process of human pair-bonding is enormously complex, mysterious, and perplexing. Two individuals create what I imagine to be similar to Thomas Ogden’s “intersubjective analytic third,” whereby two people give birth to a distinctly novel third entity that is their relationship.

Although the notion of unique pairings may seem intuitively obvious, it is sometimes denied or dismissed by couples and couple therapists. For instance, one-person psychological approaches tend to focus on the individual in a dyadic relationship as if that individual were elementally static and predictable. On the one hand, a therapist may say, “If you don’t change your ways, you will be doomed to recreate the same relationships over and over again.” On the other hand, the individual may assert, “I can start over with a new person and everything will be better.” Both ideas may be true, but they lack complexity and are misleading. It is also true that “Your ways can change depending upon this pairing as opposed to that pairing.” Or that “I can start over with a new person, but it will be different in ways I cannot predict.”

Does denial of the uniqueness of each relationship lead to devaluation of relationships? And can denial be a contributing factor to the repetition compulsion common to some personalities, or to the casual switching out of pairings that is common to other personalities? For that matter, can denial of romantic pairings as irreplaceable lead to increased divorce rates?

Both the denial as well as the acceptance of relationships as unique and irreplaceable can present a fundamental problem for the grieving process when couples split through dissolution or death. Denial can interfere with regret, which can interfere with learning from our mistakes. Acceptance can lead us to profound grief, anaclitic depression, and even broken heart syndrome (takotsubo cardiomyopathy).

At this point, my wife is reading over my shoulder and complaining that this diatribe is too depressing. So I should mention that denial of the uniqueness of relationships can allow us feel more independent; less vulnerable to loss; and if need be, to move on like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Acceptance also has a positive side: it can endow our relationships with value, meaning, and an ephemeral preciousness. Ultimately, I suggest we learn to celebrate the truth that each love relationship exists as a separate life form, one that is irreducible and magnificently inexplicable, and therefore should be regarded as it is: something to be cherished.


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