It Takes Dozens to Tango
By Ruth Berlin, LCSW-C
“It takes two to tango” may be true on the dance floor, but it actually falls short when dealing with interpersonal problems – because within each of us lurks more than one “person.” Think of the human personality as an “inner boardroom” of “selves,” with each “board member” representing a different facet of our being. For example, the “parent” part of us comes out with our children, whereas our “magical child” may surface while walking in nature with a dear friend, and our “inner critic” – some of you may recognize this board member! – rears its ugly self when something goes wrong for us.
This isn’t a case of multiple personality disorder. It’s simply how we work. Consider how different we are in different situations with different people. It’s no wonder someone from one part of our life (a work colleague, perhaps) seeing us in an unfamiliar setting (say, at a party) may remark, “ Why I never knew you were like that!”
As a result of family and other dynamics, certain board member’s come to dominate our personalities. These become, in a sense, our “primary” selves (“Oh, she’s so active and outgoing!”), while those facets of our personality we decide are unsafe or not useful become our “disowned” selves (such as our lazy or introspective aspects). Our primary selves comprise our worldly personality. However every board member has value and a positive underlying intention. That’s why reacquainting ourselves with our disowned selves can be like discovering hidden treasure.
Sound complicated? It’s really not. Just think of relationships as being between two “groups of selves” rather than “two people.” And don’t become discouraged. Working with the complexity of our inner-selves actually makes life simpler, healthier, and more exciting.
“Joe” (not his real name) grew up in a family where men did not emote, success was measured by achievement in the corporate world, and women were deemed less competent than men. Joe married “Susan” (another fictitious name), a teacher. Although Joe’s “manager self” works well at his high-level corporate job, he tends to relate to Susan from this manager self.
Susan is secure and competent with her children and at work. However, she grew up under a controlling Dad who treated his wife like a child. Because of that ingrained dynamic, Susan’s “pleaser” complements Joe’s “manager” – just as her mother did with her father. Susan’s Mom also taught her that a wife’s role is to be the caretaker/nurturer, so she treats Joe as if he is smarter and more competent than she is as a way of taking care of him.
Susan and Joe came to see me considering divorce. He was attracted to other women; she was bored and depressed. They were stuck in a parent-child bonding pattern. Parenting each other’s ‘child’ is normal to some degree in a marriage. When it’s the predominant pattern, however, it often leads to problems. In counseling, Susan and Joe became aware of their 20-year bonding pattern and came to understand that they also had the ability to relate in other ways – that within them were other “selves” also seeking expression. They reconnected using some of their disowned selves.
You might say they developed “new dance steps” in their relationship. Joe found he enjoyed working as a decision-making team with Susan; Susan discovered she enjoyed expressing her “competent adult” self.
Understanding that we have an inner cast of characters - including “the inner critic,” “the perfectionist,” “the caretaker,” “the patriarch,” “the pleaser,” “the angry self,” “the cautious one,” “the wild one,” “the workaholic,” “the beach bum,” and more – allows us to open to wonderful possibilities for growth in ourselves, and our relationships.