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Could This Be The Real Cause Of Your Relationship Conflict?

relationship conflict

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Could This Be The Real Cause Of Your Relationship Conflict?

Relationship conflict may disguise your longing and emptiness.

If you are without the love you need, you may be compelled to bury your longing in any of the typical ways that can serve to disavow what you feel: an indulgence in alcohol or substances; pursuing sexual relationships that are otherwise meaningless; an over consumption or over-restriction of food; or various other diversionary activities. Longing is painful, but emptiness that may exist beneath such yearning is dreadful.

You may already have a partner but long for something more, or maybe different, that you believe will fulfill you.  Possibly you neglected to attend to your deeper needs in your choice of a partner, meeting other needs instead, such as security or shared values. As a result, you may hunger for a relationship that has passion or vibrancy.

However, even people who are in a passionate and vibrant relationship can experience longing when there is a failure to achieve satisfying levels of intimacy, particularly when there is a loss of emotional safety in the relationship.  According to Don Catherall (2012), author of Emotional Safety: Viewing Couples through the Lens of Affect, “feelings of shame or distress, or the perception of disapproval or distrust in the other partner, eventually tend to lead to a loss of emotional safety” (p. 52). He points to attachment concerns—when a partner complains of what the other doesn’t do, and self-esteem concerns—when a partner complains of what the other does do, that can result in shame and distress. In this context, the affect of shame is triggered although it is not felt as the emotion of shame as you know it. Instead, as Catherall points out, in such situations shame causes disengagement and is experienced as a letdown, a disappointment, or as a frustration.

Longing may compel you to idealize someone you desire and create in your imagination an object of perfection who later, when exposed to reality, leaves you sorely disappointed. It has long been considered that the emotional lives of children who have suffered a lack of parental love are vulnerable to a form of “affect hunger” (Levy, 1937), and such hunger becomes enacted in an idealized partner. Essentially, a partner or potential partner is perceived as having the essential qualities that can fulfill you, but instead you continually experience the frustration of your needs. Similarly, the self-psychologist Heinz Kohut (1968) believed that traumatic disappointment in early childhood creates a later dependency on others in what seems to be an intense form of object hunger. Such needs are generally based on the feelings, attitudes, fantasies, adaptations, and defenses that are repetitions of reactions originating with significant persons in one’s past. Thus, a childhood attachment that was lost or unrequited can reappear in the present as a potential love object who is sexualized and idealized. Emotions of shame, anger, or distress that are activated in the current relationship will be reminiscent of the old experience of abandonment and resulting emptiness.

When a partner is painfully disappointing, emotional memories may be triggered that represent a loss of love experienced in childhood. Most partners are not able or willing to accept themselves as a disappointment, which naturally is much less gratifying then being loved or idealized, and therefore they are unable to objectively help you process the dreaded emptiness you fear, especially if they are subjected to shaming or witness you shaming yourself. In addition, aspects of yourself or significant others in your life, when projected onto a partner, may seem to fit with their own internal world. Since most, if not all, people have had some issue with love, a partner may be highly susceptible to engaging in enactments with you about your past. As a result, emptiness often remains hidden.

One’s own longing must be separated from the needs of a partner. Although love can hurt, it can heal when partners trust each other and themselves enough to take a look at what lies beneath the relationship conflict that leads to the experience of longing and emptiness.


For information about my current book, Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association Magination Press, August 2012), see my website:


Catherall, D. (2012). Emotional Safety: Viewing Couples through the Lens of Affect. New York: Routledge.

Kohut, H. (1968). The psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders.  Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 23, 86-113.

Levy, D. (1937) Primary Affect Hunger. American Journal of Psychiatry. 94:643-652.

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Dr. Mary Lamia is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who works with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens in her Marin County private practice. She is a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Extending psychological knowledge to the public has been her endeavor for thirty years. Dr. Lamia’s opinion has been sought in hundreds of television, radio, and print media interviews and discussions, and for nearly a decade she hosted a weekly call-in talk show, KidTalk with Dr. Mary, on Radio Disney stations. Her books include: Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings; Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings: and, The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others.

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