In some marriages or couple relationships it can seem that one partner exudes a wealth of confidence and charm whilst another appears to be quiet or withdrawn; one partner appears to create a lot of commotion and the other appears calming and contained. It’s as if together they make up a whole and in this togetherness the whole spectrum of emotions and thoughts are managed. The feeling of wholeness couples have when they are together is what the relationship psychotherapist Henry Dicks, in his book Marital Tensions, called the marital or ‘couple fit’.
Henry Dicks suggested that there are three areas involved in a couple fit:
1. A public fit of social class, ethnicity, and education between couples
2. A personal fit where beliefs, choices, conscious expectations, values and attitudes play their part
3. An unconscious fit which stresses the unconscious complementarities between the partners.
Dicks argued that couples were unlikely to even meet and date if two areas did not fit and it was difficult for marriages and couple relationships to survive well if there were significant differences in two of these areas; the marriage would not be able to “contain” (see my article Relationships as Containers) these wider differences. Indeed, some of the problems we come across in relationship counselling are as a result of a shift or growth in these areas, creating what appears to be intolerable differences between couples. The task of the relationship counsellor is often to explore these differences and encourage the couple to recalibrate or “re-fit” their relationship.
What does this mean for us as individuals and couples in a relationship? All of us hold within a “psychological blueprint” -a web and a well (see my article The Web and Well of Relationships) – of experiences which carry details about the often unacknowledged stories of our life and the marks they’ve left. This blueprint contains information we’ve often tucked out of our awareness about our fears and anxieties and our coping mechanisms and defences. The experience of early relationships (often with our parents) has a very powerful impact on this blueprint, and we often seek a blueprint that “fits” ours. It is important to recognise that this might be a conscious to unconscious or complementary fit-hence one person being gregarious whilst the other is shy. This is why we find “opposites attract” –we’re often quite literally searching and finding our “other half”.
In their book Mate and Stalemate Mattison and Sinclair outlined three types of fit that couples might use to both manage and express their relationship:
1. Babes in the wood. You might have seen this couple; they often look the same, and will behave in a likeable, affable manner. A couple such as this see all the bad things in the world as belonging in the outside world and not part of themselves, they keep anything bad out of their relationship; the world literally is a “big bad wolf” to them.
2. Cat and dog; as in “they fight like”-this relationship is rather like the one portrayed in Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and is characterised by anger, rejection and a host of other destructive emotions. Both are only conscious of the bad in each other and their lives seem like a war zone-intimacy is regulated by conflict and they often will not part because they fear they cannot or will not be able to find a relationship with anybody better.
In both of these fits the couple relationship is marked by parts of themselves that they are denying; counselling can help the couple “re-fit” their relationship.
3. Net and Sword. Here the relationship fit is where one partner shows all the love in the relationship and the other all the rejection; again it is often a case that one person expresses all the denied emotions that the other cannot or will not express. This relationship works well until one partner owns up to their denied feelings and decides they will not be responsible for the others unexpressed feelings, often plunging the other into confusion or profound feelings of loss.
It should be remembered that all couple fits serve an emotional and psychological purpose, they are there to often provide comfort, a sense of security and wholeness, and we’re not always aware of our fit until it’s challenged or disrupted.
Couple counselling can help couples “re-fit” and recalibrate their relationship, letting them live better and more enriching lives together.