The Significance of Balance in Relationships


By Chris Williams


Chris Williams (BACP) is a long-time Director of the Centre and a member of the Senior Teaching Faculty. He has been working in the therapeutic field since 1990 and currently works as a Constellation Practitioner, Psychotherapist, Supervisor, Coach and Trainer. He is a UKCP registered gestalt psychotherapist and a senior accredited BACP counsellor, with a well-established practice in South London

To develop an experiential understanding of the ideas expressed in this article, join Chris and Sheila at our one-day workshop Exploring Intimate Relationships in July.

The significance of balance in relationships

One of the greatest challenges many couples may face, over time, are imbalances that emerge between them. These may be in power, in leadership, in reciprocity, or the primacy of one individual’s family ‘norms’ over the other.

What is often greatly overlooked in conventional couples therapy is the degree to which each individual in the relationship remains loyal towards their own family culture instead of co-creating a new culture together. By ‘norms’, I mean the ‘right way’ of arranging life, including running a home. These are things deeply ingrained in childhood so that it doesn’t occur to us that there are other ways of organising the contents of a fridge or deciding what to watch on TV, ordinary things which reinforce our notion that ours is the ‘right’ way.

A relationship will function much more harmoniously if both people are willing to give up some of the habitual ways of their family of origin to meet on new territory and maintain balance.

My partner, for example, comes from a family where truth is much more valued than in mine. In my family, truth is perceived as potentially threatening and rude. My partner speaks straight forwardly, which I both appreciate and feel challenged by. When we spent our first Christmas with my family, my partner received a book as a present which she had already read. Instead of politely accepting the gift without saying anything, she handed the book straight back to my family. Even though she said it kindly, this was quite disturbing to my parents because they perceived it as ungrateful.

When loyalty towards the family of origin is stronger than the bond of the relationship, the relationship struggles and may even fail. The following example illustrates this.

Susan, a white woman, came to see me because she wanted to find resolution around a conflict between her family and her fiancé, a man of Indian origin. The family wasn’t supportive of her choice which jeopardised her relationship with her fiancé and threatened the bond she had with her family.

After an initial conversation, I asked her to choose a representative marker for herself and another for her fiancé and position them in the room in a way that symbolised the bond between them. She placed a cushion for herself in the middle of the room and a cushion for her future-husband to her right, about a metre apart. I then asked her to find placeholders for her mother and father. She placed them to her left, about two metres away from her own placeholder.

As she did that, she instantly felt an impulse to move closer to her family and away from her fiancé. I invited her to step onto her own marker and asked her what she experienced there. She started crying and told me she experienced a sense of release of all the tension she had been holding for months. She felt a strong movement towards her family of origin and acknowledged that her family was more important to her than her relationship with her fiancé. Even though it was difficult for her to see and feel her truth, she felt calmer and peaceful. I learnt later that she didn’t go ahead with the wedding and ended the relationship with her partner on painful but honest terms.

At the beginning of my psychotherapy career, I worked only with individuals. In this form, the therapist takes the role of the ‘other’ in the client’s world, the object of transference. In other words, through the relational patterns that emerge between the client and I, I have the opportunity to understand their family system and any psychological woundings that have occurred. This allows me to help a client to become aware of their relational patterns. Over time, I had an increasing number of couples wanting to work with me. This required me to learn and integrate drastic shifts in my practice, in my whole stance. Instead of having two individuals as clients, I had to learn to work systemically, with the relationship itself being the client.

The focus with couples is to observe their relational ‘dance’ in real time, and feed back to them the strengths and weaknesses of their dance and offer mini experiments to try something new. I am not trying to fix the problems they are stuck with; I am trying increase their awareness of how they try to fix their issues. It is process focused rather than content focused. This allows couples to find ways of solving their own problems as they arise, rather than offering them my ‘fixes’ that tend to create dependency on me.

Paying particular attention to imbalances such as who leads and who follows, who is more led by their heart and who is more cognitively oriented, who is active and who is more passive, whether they can disagree, in a respectful way, provides invaluable information to relate back to the couple. They can then reflect together on their co-created issues around balance. If I discover that one person usually leads, I invite them to experiment with doing it the other way around to restore the balance. These imbalances may have their origins in the wider systemic forces.

By applying this Gestalt therapeutic lens i.e. being the active observer of their relational system, moment by moment, over the years, I began to include what I was learning about bigger systemic forces; how each and every one of us is shaped by our family’s history as well as by the larger collective dynamics. 

Perhaps we unconsciously carry our mother’s disdain for the men in her family; or we connect with our father’s war trauma, so find it hard to live freely as we might otherwise have done. It is also important to investigate if there is any unfinished business from previous relationships to get a sense of unresolved pulls, fears, and dynamics that influence the current relationship. Sometimes, out of guilt or anger, we have remained attached to one of our ex’s.

I always hold the view that couples’ difficulties will be co-created. Both will carry responsibility for what they are struggling with. We often find someone who is, uncannily, a ‘fit’, as what each person carries from their family dovetail, a sort of ‘systemic resonance’.

Katia and Brian came to one of my workshops because their relationship was caught in desperate spiral blame-ridden rows; Brian complaining that Katia is controlling, and Katia countering that Brian often presented as being absent. I realised that they cycled around, again and again, becoming more entrenched with each turn. The more absent Katia experienced Brian, the more controlling she became in an effort to get his attention. The more controlling Katia became, the more Brian tried to escape the marriage, eventually becoming increasingly physically absent. Their capacity to connect and enjoy one another’s presence was completely lost, all their longings for one another in tatters.  

To identify and address the imbalance in their relationship, I enquired about each of their family backgrounds in order to constellate each family context. Katia was Russian, grew up under Soviet rule, and managed to escape and move to the West as a young woman. Brian was British-South African. I learned that his father was a child in Malaysia at the time of the Japanese invasion during the second world war. His parents (Brian’s grandparents) were imprisoned; his father was put in a separate concentration camp from him and his mother. The Japanese were brutal, and many women and children died. The conditions in the camp were appalling, and the treatment was inhuman.

In the first constellation, which included representatives for Brian and his father’s family, it became clear that Brian was crushed by the massive weight of his paternal family’s trauma. His representative fell to the ground and appeared highly disassociated, without enough resources available to him to bring himself into the constellation. This explained Brian’s absence in his current life, which his wife was describing.

To enable a possible shift, I needed to provide sufficient resources for his representative to be able stand up again and to see what his father couldn’t manage. I placed a representative for an ancestor from before the trauma, behind him, to reconnect him to his life-force energy.

With this support standing behind Brian’s representative, Brian became more present and was more able to see the traumatic field of his father’s line. The work we continued to do honoured his father and grandparents for what they endured, acknowledged their survival and ritually handed back the trauma that Brian was holding on their behalf. As he was witnessing the constellation, his body began to loosen, and colour returned to his face.

The second constellation focused on the source of what Brian described as Katia’s controlling behaviour. In the initial conversation, I felt Katia’s resistance to talk about her country of birth. It became clear that as Katia rejected any connection to her origins, she had embodied aspects of its authoritarian qualities in her marriage, a loyalty to the country of her parents and ancestors. “What we reject, we replicate”

One of the foundations of systemic work is to understand that we become what we are trying to exclude or ‘run away from’ in our psyche and our family system. In other words: “what we resist, persists”.

To help her reclaim the connection with the USSR, we chose a representative for Katia, one for her country and one for her ancestors. I offered her some sentences to say to Russia, her country, such as ‘I accept that you are the country where I and my fore-mothers and fore-fathers, were born’, and ‘Your land is in my blood and in my flesh’. As Katia was speaking these sentences, she welled up with tears from the years of pain that she had endured in resistance to her origin. I asked her to thank her ancestors for her life and to bow to them for all that they have done to make her life possible.

When Katia had integrated the experience, I asked her to turn towards Brian and make eye contact. As they stood facing each other, they looked at each other in a very different way from when they entered the workshop. They had witnessed each other’s pain in a way they hadn’t seen before, recognise that the origins of their respective positions lay elsewhere. In our next session together, they told me that their dynamic had begun to change. Their balance was restored, by making visible each of their parts, so neither is to blame. Each had been living under the historic shadow of brutal authoritarian regimes.

A healthy partnership is based on multiple factors, but balance is one of the most overlooked keys to embodying a loving, respectful relationship. A healthy balance needs to be present in numerous areas of the relationship. These include leadership and following, power and surrender, providing and receiving, taking and allowing, speaking and listening, as well as different family cultures that need to be brought into balance.

Balance is essential in a relationship, so easy to say and write but much more difficult to achieve. Without it, we fall into self-monitoring, watchfulness in case of blame or attack, and relationships becomes stale and stuck. Once the balance is restored, we relax and both partners can be nourished by one another.

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