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Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage (1986)
Summary: Not recommended. Although
Scarf makes an admirable effort, other authors tackle these tough
issues much more clearly.
The premise of this book is promising. After all, millions and billions of marriages have taken place throughout the history of humanity - why not look for patterns and lessons in what works and what doesn't?
The focus of this book lies in addressing what really goes on in a marriage: why one chooses a certain partner, to start with . . . then what interpersonal and intrapsychic patterns get set up, and what the primary sources of conflict are. The goal is to provide a roadmap to solving marital problems through understanding the complexities of one's own and one's partners' psychological dynamics.
So, how does Maggie set about trying to accomplish this lofty goal?
By seeking help from Dr. Freud and his merry followers in the lineage of psychoanalytic theory. and this using this theory to understand both the "stages of development" and how relationships with the family of origin influence marriage.
Does this sound like a somewhat shaky foundation to build a book on? It is.
Again, the idea and promise of this book gives reason for hope. After all, there are predictable stages a couple often goes through: idealization, disenchantment (see the "typical cycle"), child-rearing and career-building, child-launching, and the retirement years. So far, so good.
But then comes Freud - or, more specifically, the post-Freudian intellectual labyrinth/mindscrew. Maggie interviewed 32 couples (the closest to "hard data" that there is in the book), and crunched this data using decades of psychoanalytic theory and research . . . most of which point towards the importance of unfulfilled needs that are rooted in one's childhood, which then give rise to powerful, unconscious forces that shape a marriage from the beginning and continue to dominate it throughout the marriage stages.
In other words, we wouldn't exactly describe this as packed full of knee-slappers.
The fundamental problem in this book is that there is a great deal of truth mixed in with a great deal of mushy and abstract psychobabble, and all of it is tossed together in a messy, disturbing, mind-wrenching pile. There are powerful truths mixed in with seductive half-truths which results in a half-finished, half-baked, incomplete assessment which, like psychoanalysis itself, opens many cans of worms but really doesn't know how to close them. The fault does not lie with Scarf directly, but with the state of a "science" - if psychology can be called a science - in its infancy.
There are several truthful aspects emphasized in the book:
- Childhood experiences are very important influences on adult behavior: This is true.
- Relationships with parents exert a strong influence on marital relationships. This is true.
- Attraction between marital partners is often based on unfulfilled childhood needs. Often true. (see here)
- An understanding of one's childhood relationships may potentially help one's present marriage: True.
The above points are generally agreed upon by many experts in this area, including Harville Hendrix, Susan Forward, David Deida, John Gray, and Roy Masters.
This can also be useful when a person is trying to understand, for example, why they tend to be attracted to relationships that are toxic and unfulfilling, why they tend to be attracted to the wrong people, and why they tend to repeat the same relationships mistakes over and over again with different people.
The problems begin to kick in when the first-person direct experience gives way to endless abstract analysis. For example, one can launch into endless diagrams of couple's birth families, with configurations and genograms (diagrams of lines of attachment between marital partners & their parents, grandparents, & siblings) to illuminate how people often repeat the past . . . not to mention long rounds of intellectual gymnastics in understanding the core concept of "projective identification," where each partner takes on the others' baggage . . . including an unending analysis of what one's baggage is, how it got there, who is projecting what onto whom, and on, and on, and on. You could spend months and years of your life doing this - and many have - and wind up more screwed up than you start with. It's not Maggie's fault . . . we say it's just the state of psychology today.
And so, this is where Scarf reaches the limit of current mainstream psychoanalytic thought: a clear analysis of problems, and a very muddled idea of how to solve them.
But the problems continue, and can lead a couple who is trying to help their marriage (who would be reading this for any other reason?) down a frustrating maze of psycho-speak, where the outside world tends to get shut out and common sense tossed out the window.
For example, Scarf traces most or all marital problems to personality and role conflicts (again - this is understanding problems, which is not at all the same as finding solutions) in one's family of origin. Life experiences which may have occurred before marriage but outside the family of origin - for example, earlier marriages, formative dating experiences, and so on - are simply passed over, as if they did not exist - or if they did exist, did not matter.
In the same way, there is essentially silence about the multiple external forces which may negatively impact the life of a family - for example, poverty, illness, addictions, job losses, and various other stresses - none of these are discussed, probably because the handful of couples in this book are financially cushioned against troubles such as these.
In this regard, some readers may be amazed at couples who claim that their biggest conflicts are about who will carry the toilet brush into the first of their three bathrooms. This kind of petty squabbling, some say, are problems that are unique to the rich, and are just not applicable to those who aren't (that is, aren't that rich or aren't that petty). In this sense, the case studies presented in the book can present a fairly narrow set of experiences, and can for this reason seem irrelevant to readers outside of a certain social class.
Further, little time was spent on everyday practical issues such as the massive changes that can take place in a marital relationship once children arrive, especially when the weight of childcare and housework falls more heavily on the woman's shoulders.
Overall, Scarf simply places too much emphasis on depth psychology, and as a result, tends to overcomplicate what can be more simple issues, as is typical of the genre.
As one example of this, she attributes the jealousy of one partner to the other partners' repressed and unexpressed feelings. Sometimes, occasionally - yes, this can be true; more often, it is not. Psychoanalytic thought can often tend to take a straightforward problem and complicate it even more with over-zealous classification and postulating all sorts of phantoms and ghosts known as "unfulfilled needs" and "unexpressed, unconscious feelings" and other hypothesized mental apparitions as such.
Again, much of the fault lies in the shortcomings of modern psychology; primarily, and how they are all too often adept at graphing, explaining, and analyzing problems, and woefully inept at actually solving them. Thus, it would be good, if one has delved into this material, to check out the LiveReal article on therapy.
Basically, it is possible to stay in therapy for years and years and never get better. In the same way, it is possible to pore over this book and the thoughts in it for years and years without a marriage becoming any more fulfilling. In fact, a book like this increases the odds of one partner losing themselves in a maze of intellectual psychoanalytic labyrinths, thinking that the marriage could get better if only each partner could somehow untie all of their psychological knots . . . a much-anticipated day which unfortunately tends to never come . . . at least, not when it is pursued like this.
A much better recommendation is a straightforward, results-oriented type of approach such as that offered by Michele Weiner-Davis.
Scarf's book is good as a kind of museum ornament - as a work that demonstrates the current incomplete state that mainstream psychology is in - and a danger if taken too literally or seriously.
In our opinion, if one is interested in this line of thinking, check into the work of Harville Hendrix, who delves into similar material in a much more clear and less perplexing way - and Roy Masters, who delves into many of the same issues, but also provide a more clear and accurate road map to real answers and solutions as well.
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