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Happiness in Romantic Relationships. Is it possible?

“Where is my life going and who is guiding it?
Why do I always do what I never wanted to?
What continuous destiny passes inside of me in the darkness?
What part of me, that I don’t know, is it that guides me?…”

– Fernando Pessoa

In a trip to Zagreb in Croatia, amongst so many beautiful places, the Museum of Broken Relationships grabbed my attention when I came across it. Here you will find objects that have been donated by people who have suffered romantic disappointments and breakups. There is a wide range of objects, such as wedding rings, engagement rings, presents, declarations of love in letters, on napkins, on wine glasses…  There are also banal objects and other unusual ones, such as one high-heel shoe, lingerie and even a hatchet.

A visit to this different museum, which has opened a franchise in Los Angeles (USA), is a lot of fun. I imagine it must have been very cathartic for those who have left their objects there, but as a psychologist I took the experience further and began to reflect on human romantic relationships, which I share here.

On establishing these types of connections, not only romantic, the specialists say we seek completeness (in popular language, our soul mate). However, we are beings that are always “missing something” – which is essential, because if it wasn’t like this, we wouldn’t have desires and therefore completeness wouldn’t be possible. We find it difficult to deal with this emptiness and in trying to fill it at any cost we get frustrated, as it is an impossible task.

One of the most common attempts to overcome this emptiness is via affective relationships with romantic partners. Such partners will always be imperfect, as perfection doesn’t exist. In addition, we feed unreal expectations that the others will complete us and they represent that which we have always dreamt of, they must be. In this situation, we make demands on the partners that they can’t fulfil, which causes us sadness, hurt and even trauma.

Nowadays, there is a new complication: fleeting virtual relationships based on pretending to be somebody else; you don’t really know who you are talking to. Remember the film “Her”, by the American director Spike Jonze, in which the protagonist falls head-over-heels in love with the virtual woman which – yes, she could – meet all his needs and difficulties? An illusion that ended in deep disappointment and frustration.

Another complicating factor, from the anthropological point of view of “happy” human relationships is the fact that our genetic code still holds selfish and aggressive instincts that were advantageous to the survival of our ancestors. And, finally, another complication: the subconscious, profoundly studied and worked on by Freud.

Recent studies in neuroscience confirm the existence of the subconscious and reveal that its processing is around 200 thousand times bigger than that of the conscious. Neuroscience, with its studies in neurology, physiology, anthropology and psychology reveal the foundations of cerebral and mental processes, including the subconscious.

In one of his articles, professor Luís Eugênio Melo from the University of São Paulo, tells us that “it seems there is a group of areas in the brain that is dedicated to processing stimuli that escape our conscious”. He cites the Portuguese neurologist Antonio Damásio, who in one of his numerous studies demonstrates that our decisions are clearly influenced by previous events and the emotional reactions that they produced, even when we don’t notice them.

The book “The New Subconscious” by Marco Callegro, a master in neuroscience and behaviour, revises the Freudian concept of the subconscious and proposes a new perspective. The work proposes a wider and more satisfactory understanding of subconscious processing, rooted in current knowledge of the brain, cognition and behaviour. He highlights some points that substantiate our reflection on human relationships.

The majority of the processing done by the human brain is subconscious and we only have conscious access to an edited summary of this information, which is not at all reliable. All the main mental processes can operate automatically and do many things that were thought to depend on intention, deliberation and conscious perception.

The left hemisphere of our brain uses self-cheating mechanisms, distorting our perception of reality in order for us to maintain a coherent and convenient model, which gives significance to our behaviour. This occurs to reduce cognitive dissonance between what it is and what it should be.

Since the discovery of the subconscious, and since neuroscience proved its existence, we should be humbled to learn that many of our acts are not guided by free will.  We systematically distort our perceptions and memories so they fit into our sense of self and we selectively remember those experiences that confirm our beliefs about ourselves and others. We also don’t have the power to control the facts and people around us. And in addition, we know that to maintain a balance and avoid anguish and cognitive dissonance, we distort reality and build a more convenient one more for coherence than reliability.

But, in spite of all this, it’s not what appears to have happened. On the contrary. We are particularly prone to cheating ourselves when there’s a need to revise some aspect of our self-image. We overstate our actions and understate those of others. If we are demonstrably like this, doesn’t it mean we are destined to be unsuccessful in relationships? Is it impossible to find happiness in romantic relationships?

I don’t think so. As human beings, we have the capacity of empathy proven by the discovery of mirror neurones, the conscious, the capacity to think and learn. If we learn to deal with absence, know ourselves better, reduce the demands of completeness on the other, deepen relationships, particularly using dialogue; controlling our aggressive impulses and using our brains positively, we could indeed have successful romantic and other relationships. And therefore, who knows, we might not need to leave objects in the Museum of Broken Relationships.

Is it easy? Of course not. There’s always the risk of making the wrong choices in relationships and life. As the character of the writer Guimarães Rosa, Riobaldo said in the master piece “Grande Sertão: Veredas” – “Who said that everything in life is a choice? Life is not even ours. Living is a dangerous game”.

To end on a more optimistic note, I would like to finish with a speech from the great physicist Stephen Hawking who, despite suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since a young age, said “As bad as life seems, while there is life, there will be hope. Hope is everything! Life is everything! Love is everything!”


*Thelma M.  Teixeira is a psychologist, psychodramatist, organizational consultant and associated professor at  Fundação Dom Cabral.




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