Family Holiday Survival Guide

Stop Dragging Your Past into Present Relationships Part One of Two

By Dr. Linda Miles

Expressed as a two-way bridge between childhood and adulthood, magical thinking is a developmental stage during childhood that serves a very important function in the process of creativity and imagination. Like so many of our developmental constructs, when magical thinking is held onto and not revised in the light of reality it becomes maladaptive.

The Perfect Other

Many of our illusions about relationships are childhood fairy tales exported into adulthood fairy tales in the form of myths about relationships. The myth of the “perfect other,” usually represented in fairy tales by the prince or the princess, sends many dreamers on a lifelong path of searching and rejecting serial candidates. The rapturous “falling in love” stage of relationship leads them to believe in the possibility of perpetual bliss with a perfect other. They believe they can sustain this rapture if only they could find that perfect partner. This is the fodder of romantic novels, music and singles bars and other partner-seeking activities. Sadly, most of these efforts lead us on a false trail.

When Harry met Phyllis, Fleetwood Mac was singing “You’ll Never Break the Chain,” and they took the lyrics to heart: “If you don’t love me now, you will never love me again.” They swore they’d never break the chain of love, and for several months they succeeded in stuffing anything that threatened their love. The tension was palpable when they came to see me, and when I encouraged them to talk about what disturbed them, a litany of complaints overwhelmed the levies they had erected to protect their relationship. Once that was out of the way, however, they could begin to relate to the real person beneath the perfect mask each was trying to wear.

The Pygmalion Dynamic

Another variation of the perfect other myth is the belief that one partner can change the other into his or her perfect person. Believing that you can change your partner to fit your ideal image of what the perfect partner should be creates an unbalanced relationship. In My Fair Lady , adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play based on the Pygmalion myth, an ill-bred Eliza Doolittle is transformed into a cultured lady through the efforts of Mr. Higgins, who places a bet on his ability to perform social magic. Whether or not the experiment is successful, one person is constantly “under construction” and being made over, while the other is constantly kneading and shaping their partner. This tug of war can become a lifetime struggle that ultimately leads to disappointment, stalemate, affairs, and divorce. We suggest that people never marry “potential.”

Although you can change many aspects of yourself if you really want to, attempts to change your partner are rarely successful and even more rarely appreciated. You’ll more likely encounter resistance, intransigence, and resentment despite your best intentions. In an egalitarian relationship, both partners respect one another and offer support and encouragement when the other partner decides to alter his or her behavior, appearance, or lifestyle.

Copyright 2005 Linda Miles Ph.D

Author, Dr. Linda Miles, is deeply committed to helping individuals and couples achieve rewarding relationships. She is an expert with a doctorate in Counseling Psychology, and has worked in the mental health field for over thirty years. She has been interviewed extensively on radio, TV, and in newspapers and magazines. Find more relationship ideas and relaxation techniques on her web site and in the award-winning book she co-authored, The New Marriage: Transcending the Happily-Ever-After Myth, and Train Your Brain: For Successful Relationships, CD.