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Why do we need relationships?


Denis is a psychologist trained in Gestalt therapy. His main specialisations are relationships (including romantic, family, and business), existential crises, traumatic past experiences, and anxiety.

Last Updated on March 21, 2024 by It’s Complicated

I was always puzzled by a question: “Are you in a relationship?” What does it mean? Does meeting her after school and walking her home count? And what if she allows me to take her hand? A kiss on the cheek? Alright, I know we are adults here. So passionate kissing should clarify things, right? Or only after we had sex? No, that also sounds outdated. Wedding? Children?

I hope you got the picture. The concept of a relationship is a mystery. It might be more or less regulated or even documented, but it still leaves much room for interpretation according to our personal experience. The core idea of a relationship is that a couple somehow identifies themselves from the environment. They set up some boundaries. The more emotionally mature the couple is, the more they discuss and clarify these boundaries with each other, instead of living in a naïve fantasy that they share the same idea of what it means to be in a relationship.

In Gestalt therapy, we pay a lot of attention to the words we use as there are no exact synonyms. When we say “a couple” we usually mean two people who are married or in a romantic or sexual relationship, or two people who are together for a particular purpose. In a broader context, a couple means a few, something of a small indefinite number. Like a couple of things. This word derives from the Latin “copula” meaning “bond”. In German and Russian languages, we use a different word meaning a pair. Not only does a pair usually mean two of something, but it also implies that these two things are functionally or structurally alike. A pair of socks or gloves. We even say a pair of glasses, which literally means a single unified object. It doesn’t have to be so binary though. Ein paar Ideen, for example. The etymology of the word “pair” is also rooted in the Latin “paria” meaning “equals”. And no surprise that the verbs copulate in English and paaren in German mean the same thing, which for some people is the core of any relationship.

So why is being a couple important? Quite simple. Our very first relationship is as a couple. Two people who are connected with emotional communication and attachment. Through this emotional attachment, a child and a caregiver build a pairing, a bond that lays the ground for the future relationships of this child with the world. Our minds and personalities develop through communication. A dialogue. At first, children just launch their consciousness into the outer world without addressing anyone because for an infant consciousness, no one else exists. However, a caregiver intercepts this message, processes it, and reflects it. This is how the bond is created. Without this mutual exchange, a child’s development would be significantly impaired.

Lack of such feedback from a caregiver may lead to depression and even death of a child. Adults are no different in this matter. We need to share our emotions with another person. The most dangerous form of depression is when a person doesn’t feel anything. The way we can actually feel and express our emotions is usually in contact with another person. There is a famous psychological experiment called the still face. At the beginning of this experiment, a mother was asked to interact with her infant baby adequately – she was smiling, playing, and emotionally involved. But then she was instructed to knock off all the interactions with the baby and just be present with an absent, emotionless facial expression. The baby notices it and reacts with growing anxiety, fear, panic, and fury. Until the cries stop. The baby closes up and stops seeking help from the world. This is what depression looks like. You may see this experiment below, but be advised that this video might be disturbing.

To sum it up, emotional contact matters. The basic element of such contact is emotional self-awareness, the ability to feel your emotions and emotions of another person. To do that, you need to look at another person, listen to them, and touch them. And what is a relationship if not a genuine experience and even a practice of such contact?

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