Healthy relationships are interdependent relationships. Interdependent relationships occur when each member of the relationship relies upon each other and gives each other support without losing their individual sense of self and identity. An easy way of conceptualising how a healthy relationship forms is by understanding a concept within object relations theory called ‘jointness’. Jointness refers to the attachment and communication process that occurs between a child and their primary caregiver. Now in order for the child to learn that they are a distinct and separate entity from their primary caregiver, the primary caregiver must teach the child how to extract their own unique ‘I’ from the primary caregivers own unique ‘I’ as well as teaching the child how to maintain the boundary of their unique ‘I’. The primary caregiver teaches the child individuation by creating a third psychic virtual space in which to attach and interact.
This third virtual space allows both the mother and child to attach and interact without blurring the boundaries that makes up each other’s unique and separate ‘I’. A relationship between adults must also follow the process of jointness if the relationship is to become and remain healthy. I want you to imagine the shape of a triangle. On the bottom left corner of the triangle is a ball of blue Play-doh which represents you (your ‘I’ or identity). On the bottom right corner of the triangle is a ball of red Play-doh which represents the other member of a two-party relationship (their unique ‘I’ or identity). At the top of the triangle is a ball of yellow Play-doh which represents the third virtual space. I will now use these different coloured balls of Play-doh to explain how jointness works.
A toxic and unhealthy relationship will occur when neither member of the relationship creates a third virtual space in which to attach and interact. What happens is that the blue ball of Play-doh (you) begins interacting directly with the red ball of Play-doh (your partner). Imagine that the two different coloured balls of Play-doh slide back and forth, back and forth, along the base of the triangle constantly banging and bumping into each other. What do you think is going to happen? Over the course of time, the constant sliding back and forth and banging and bumping is going to break down the boundaries of both the blue ball and the red ball. Bits of the blue ball of Play-doh is going to get stuck to the ball of red Play-doh and vice versa. Given enough time, the boundaries of both the blue and red balls of Play-doh will disintegrate until there is just one big purple ball of Play-doh.
Now that there is only a ball of purple Play-doh, how can you identify which pieces of Play-doh were from your original ball? This is the problem with toxic relationships. When there is no third virtual space in which to attach and interact, the two members interact directly with each. The two identities clash directly. Over time, their boundaries break down until they become fully enmeshed and they both lose their identity and unique sense of ‘I’. The reason why toxic relationships take so long to recover is because both parties are literally trying to pick up the pieces. They are trying to wade through all of the muck and mess to recover their identity. They are trying to differentiate between what belongs to them and what belongs to the other person. Was this taste in music mine or theirs? Was this belief about this topic mine or theirs?
Now let’s look at a relationship in which a third virtual space is created. The yellow ball of Play-doh represents the third virtual space. This third virtual space is empty until both parties begin contributing towards it. As the relationship is progressing, and both parties are getting to know each other, they both put a part of themselves into this third virtual space. They don’t take a piece of Play-doh directly off of their ball though. What they do is, they take a piece of Play-do off, replicate or clone it, put the cloned piece of Play-doh into the third virtual space and return the original piece back to themselves. Each piece of the Play-doh which is entered into the third virtual space represents a part of that person’s identity. It could be their sense of humour, a belief or value or an interest like their favourite style of music or favourite sport.
As the relationship progresses and each party contributes more and more of themselves to the third virtual space, the third virtual space will begin to represent the identities of both members of the relationship. It will contain blue, red and yellow Play-doh which will represent shared interests, beliefs, values, etc. Given enough time, let’s say 50 years together in the relationship, the size of the Play-doh ball on the outside may be close to the size of the Play-doh ball inside of the third virtual space but rarely will they ever be of the exact same size as we always have pieces of ourselves and our identities which we may never share with others.
The third virtual space allows a healthy couple to remain independent whilst also being interdependent. The healthy couple can maintain their individual pursuits/interests and personal identity whilst simultaneously sharing pursuits/interests and having a separate and distinct ‘us’ identity. The third virtual space also allows each member of the relationship to consciously choose which aspects of their partners identity they want to incorporate into their own. Let’s say that you never really liked rock music. As your relationship progresses, your partner clones their interest for rock music and enters it into the third virtual space. You have two options here. You can choose to continue to dislike rock music in which case your identity outside the third virtual space remains undisturbed. Your second option is that you find that you like certain rock music and so you clone the interest, remove the clone from the third virtual space and attach it to your identity on the outside.
The difference between having a third virtual space and not having a third virtual space is that you can consciously pick and choose how you shape your identity (rather than your identity being shaped and controlled unawares). By having control over your identity, you maintain control of your boundaries. This means that you don’t enmesh with people. You know where you stand with things and you are less likely to be unduly influenced or coerced by the other party. You also maintain control of your own emotions. If your partner shares the feeling of unhappiness to the third virtual space, their unhappiness does not directly influence your emotional state on the outside and vice versa. You can choose to share your unhappiness to the third virtual space but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. If you were enmeshed, your partners unhappiness would automatically trigger your unhappiness without your say so and without your awareness.
If the healthy relationship ends for whatever reason, then both parties examine the contents of the third virtual space. You might conclude for example that the aspects of yourself and your identity that you did clone and share within the third virtual space was of poor quality. Maybe you only ever cloned and shared your negative traits and you kept your positive traits hidden on the outside. This doesn’t mean that the relationship ended because you are a loser (a way of directly attacking your identity), it just means that you might need to examine the quality of the content you share within a third virtual space come the next relationship. Likewise, you don’t attack the personal identity of the other party based purely on what they chose to share within the third virtual space.