Some say that in marriage, or longterm intimate relationships, couples have basically one fight; they just keep having it over and over again. The fight may take many forms, may hide behind different content areas and may play out in different arenas, but at the core is essentially the same dynamic playing out repeatedly.

Couples may feel that they don’t get along on so many levels. They may fight about money, sex, parenting, in-laws, division of labor, emotional connection, leisure activities, planning for the future and more. 

The emotional common thread 

The first step in unraveling what appears to be a knotted mess of various incompatibilities is to identify and appreciate the main feelings each person has when these specific problem areas hit the fan. Whether the struggle is over what’s happening with the checking account or what’s not happening in the bedroom, each person is likely to wind up feeling the same painful feelings time after time.

This initial insight enables us to say, “I realize that in so many things that we struggle with, it often comes down to me feeling controlled, judged and inadequate.” And the partner could say, “I realize I so often feel afraid of being betrayed and abandoned.” With this insight alone, there can already be some relief to know that we don’t really have such a long list of problems, but one or two core feeling states that come up for each of us time and again.

The pre-existing condition

The second layer of insight is deeper and connects the present feeling states to the past. This is to say, “When I really think about it, I realize that I feel this way not only in my relationship with you, but have felt this way much of my life, even since childhood. And I feel this in some of my other current relationships as well.” To see this connection and to own it requires courage, humility, honesty, maturity and a non-judgmental attitude toward one’s self.

It’s as if we discover that we have a pre-exisitng condition. “It is not your fault that I feel this way. I basically grew up feeling this way and am primed to feel this way especially in my most intimate relationships.” 

We all have emotional wounds from childhood. Our partners did not cause them. It is true that our partners can add salt to these wounds, as we add salt to theirs. We don’t do this out of meanness or cruelty. We add salt to our partner’s wounds inadvertently when we react defensively as we try to protect ourselves from the salt coming at us. 

The attack-defend dynamic

This defensive flinging of salt at each other’s wounds is the dynamic which, if not understood and altered, can continue indefinitely and cause the erosion of a relationship. We feel hurt, attacked and unloved at the core, so in protective mode we fire back causing our partner to feel hurt, attacked and unloved.

The third insight is to see specifically that the things we do or don’t do when our childhood wounds are poked are often precisely the things that trigger our partners to experience their least favorite feeling states which originated in childhood. 

What a gift to yourself, your partner and your relationship to be able to say, “I realize I have felt afraid of being abandoned in many relationships over my life and that I have a tendency to be critical and controlling as a result and I see how that can trigger your core fears.” And the partner might say, “I realize I have felt controlled and judged since I was a child and I have a tendency to react by being secretive and distant and I see how that can trigger your core fears.” 

With this understanding of each other’s childhood wounds, our unique defensive reactivity and how the interaction of these variables can keep the painful dynamic in motion, we can begin to talk compassionately about our emotional wounds and develop new healing behavior patterns rather than acting out on the pain and continuing to hurt each other.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by Ibrahim Fareed on Unsplash 

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.