Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: ‘Inception’ and Dangerous Ideas in Relationships

While the movie Inception has certainly invited discussion about dreams and even an interest and analysis of viewers’ own nightmares, you may recall that in the film, the motivation for entering the dream world is the recognition of the impact of a persistent idea. As Leonardo DiCaprio (Cobb) forebodes in the opening of the film, “What’s the most resilient parasite? An idea.”

In the movie’s narrative, hidden beneath the scaffolding of dreams and driven by the confusion of dream and reality is an idea that ultimately destroys Cobb’s wife, his relationship with his children and possibly his ability to discern reality – depending on your take of the ending.

Recognizing that media both reflects culture and is shaped by it, this film raises the question, “Can a persistent negative idea threaten a relationship?” Yes.

Drawing upon DiCaprio’s ( Cobb’s) depiction of an idea as a resilient parasite, there are in fact, some ideas that partners have about self, their partner and aspects of their life that feed on fear, misunderstanding, past trauma and human frailty. Left unquestioned, often acted upon, sometimes hidden, and usually unexamined, they can impede the growth and vitality of a relationship.

The First Impression

“Your mother never liked me.”  “This new house was a mistake.”

Regardless of how good your “bllink” of a situation, first impressions are still just that, an initial read made in a certain moment of time. Yes, your impression may be true at that time. The danger is that holding on to an impression as immutable fact forecloses on deeper understanding and can color years of dealing with a family or living in a home. Self-fulfilling prophesizes are fueled by first impressions and avoidance.

Consider that you co-create your experience in life by your response to it – you can look for evidence of a persisting idea or wonder what you haven’t noticed.

Even after a number of years, the more you move into a situation with curiosity instead of negative conviction the more freedom of emotional space you allow for you and your partner.

The Presumption of Knowing

Often persistent negative ideas color our perception of our partners in ways that are true, were once true, or never true. Some of the most relationship destructive ideas are what we “think” we know about our partner.

Over the years of working with couples, it very often happens that if I ask one partner a question, the other answers. While finishing each other’s sentences is something most partners are occasionally guilty of – there is a downside to this.  The presumption of knowing a partner leaves little room for discussion and too much room for reaction based on misunderstanding, projection, and worst fear scenarios.

Consider these partner reactions to my questions:

  • Therapist: “So Jack, what do you usually do to reduce stress?”
  • Michele: “He doesn’t reduce stress – he creates stress!”
  • Jack: “How can you say that- you have no idea what I handle every day.”
  • Therapist: “So Mary what can you tell me about the romance between you and Bob?”
  • Bob: “She can tell you that she hates sex.”
  • Mary: “I don’t hate sex – I hate your demand for sex.”

What is so valuable in the disclaimers and the discussion that unfolds is the confrontation of the presumptions. When “knowing” is left unspoken, partners act in accordance with it creating vicious cycles of confirmation.

The Persistent Fear

After Matt’s wife faced a diagnosis of breast cancer, surgery and chemotherapy, she seemed more ready to take on life then he. Still tearful with the thought of losing her, he spent less time with her, worried that his emotions might upset her and that his persistent fear of a reoccurrence might become obvious.

One of the problems of a persistent hidden fear is that is looms ever larger in the dark – often obscuring reality.  In this case what was frightening Jennifer was not the thought of a reoccurrence but Matt’s moodiness and withdrawal. It actually left her worried that he no longer loved and desired her. It offered no opportunity for voicing and normalizing feelings and fears, for healing together.

The Mistrust

If a partner has been betrayed by the other with infidelity, be it a long term affair, an on-line romance, or behavior that assaults the commitment between them, can there ever be trust again?  Yes.

In my work with couples I have seen partners work together to understand, repair and recover to discover a new relationship together.  What is, however, most difficult is the balance between finding a place for the haunting ideas of never trusting or being trusted again and living in the new commitment of trust.

If one or both never stop talking about, accusing or acting on fear of mistrust, there is no present and no future – just a painful place colored by a frightening idea. If, at the other extreme, they are afraid to remember, to put words to common doubts and fears, mistrust never gets diluted. It never pales in the light of the new connection.

Ideas are transformative. As partners you have the advantage of expanding the amazing ones and coping with the frightening ones.  Whatever the idea – don’t travel alone with it. Even DiCaprio (Cobb) brought along a helper.