Because our culture and media typically portray love as two dimensional, the first months of romance or the fervent struggle to re-gain lost love, we are left with a hazy picture of how a healthy long-term relationship can look. We also may not always have had the best examples from relatives or friends. Handling marital stress and communication difficulty isn’t taught at school, so relating to our partners during stressful or otherwise problematic times can seem like feeling around in a dark room.
Many couples don’t know what is troubling their marriage and why they may not feel as close as they used to. What happened to the excitement, fun, and simplicity of the first year or so? Particularly couples in the face of transition, like having a new baby, often brings simmering issues to the forefront.
There are many books out there that teach you how to communicate better. They are usually comprised of a number of steps to be followed where each partner learns specific language on how to share feelings and listen more effectively. The problem with these programs is that they can help in the short-term, but usually do little for the underlying problem. They are there to teach something quickly and work for everyone. Fortunately, we humans are more complex than that, and our emotional responses cannot be neatly packaged and re-designed.
There are deeper issues that sometimes get in the way of love. They can seem like pitfalls or annoyances; I see them as opportunities for increased intimacy. We all had some difficult times during childhood, with parents, siblings, or class-mates. Because of this, some of our current interactions can feel re-wounding, bringing up issues and feelings that have been there since childhood. How this happens is that we sometimes unconsciously link ways that our partner communicates with us to childhood memories. So our reactions and interpretations of what our partner is doing are charged with extra-strength emotions because they remind us of these deeper, more archaic hurts.
The challenge and the healing opportunity here is to learn to separate reactions associated with “old tapes” (historic feeling and thought memories) from the person we are with in the present. This way, new neuropathways are created in the brain that carry healthier, more present-tense means of relating. One way to accomplish this is to begin to see our partner as separate from us; with different feelings, reactions, thoughts, and motivations that we cannot guess at. I know this may seem obvious, but many of us tend to “merge” with our partners, creating a closeness that lacks the true intimacy of separation. In other words, if someone is separate from us, we need to be asking them about their reactions and motivations, not making assumptions. Mind-reading no longer exists. This in itself forces us to differentiate in a helpful way (the opposite of being enmeshed with our partner) so that our own associations from childhood can be processed within ourselves and taken responsibility for. One of the opportunities for healing here is that when interacting with our partner as a separate person, we can begin to have different “corrective” experiences of relating to the person we love that are no longer injuring, but that diverge from and heal those old painful grooves from the past. The added advantage is that ironically, couples who embrace their differences and separateness tend to feel closer and more intimate.
An example of feelings and habits from the past effecting present relationships is a couple I will call Maria and Jeff who were having problems after their first baby was born. Issues that had never seemed like a big deal were suddenly looming large, and the added stress of a new family member made things seem intolerable. Maria was suspicious and sometimes jealous of her husband Jeff, which led her to check up on him frequently. Jeff would become enraged by this because he didn’t feel trusted. This created a “distancer-pursuer” type of dynamic. The more Maria became suspicious, repeatedly asking him questions and checking up on him, the angrier Jeff became, making Maria more suspicious and needy. This would consequently push Jeff into more anger and distance. Maria talked about her mistrust in couples therapy, and realized through closer investigation that she was reacting to a history of past betrayals and had early decided never to let herself be truly vulnerable or hurt again. She interpreted Jeff’s anger in reaction to her mistrust as a sign of imminent betrayal. With some investigation into her past, it became clear that various past betrayals had made Maria hyper-vigilant and “on the lookout” for a repeat of previous hurt and abandonment. Her suspicion alone caused Jeff to distance, but when her distrust magnified, it sent him into a rage as well as a tendency to take increasing amounts of time away from home. This in turn triggered Maria into increasing desperation, suspicion, and questioning. Jeff was able to see that in addition to being understandably irritated as a result of being checked on constantly, his more intense rage originated from a feeling of sadness and hurt that was hiding underneath. Jeff realized that all his life he had felt that nobody had ever had faith in him no matter how hard he tried. He carried that wound around with him but had never before realized it with such clarity. Maria’s suspicion reminded him of the fear that he could never succeed and that nobody would ever believe in him. By listening to Jeff’s pain and where his rage originated, Maria understood him better and was able to empathize with him. Jeff saw that Maria’s suspicion came from her past and was only triggered by his tendency to distance – her past hurt was being triggered in the present. The more fear-based Maria’s actions towards him became, the more she was creating a distance in Jeff that enacted exactly what she was afraid of. Conversely, the more Jeff distanced, the more he created the lack of trust in Maria that triggered his own past pain.
Looking at this quite common example, and it is one among many possibilities, we can see that there are often complex feelings and associations at work when we interact with our partners. In order to grow into a healthy, three-dimensional marriage, it can help to find out where our forgotten hurts are so that we can understand why we react so strongly to our partners. First we can take responsibility for what we contribute – look at our part rather than blame our partner. This is helpful in beginning to see our partner as separate. Through this, we can begin to understand what we contribute to our marriage while gaining clarity about the relationship’s subtle complexities. When falling in love it was probably more two-dimensional, as it will normally be in the beginning. Now, through time and experience, the grey areas can be brought to light and embraced. Though it sounds counter-intuitive, separation and differentiation creates true intimacy and respect, through the ability to honestly face ourselves and what we bring with us into our relationship.
Katharina Sandizell, MA, MFT is a Psychotherapist and mother of two. She works with individual parents and couples on relationship and parenting issues in her Bay Area office and online over Skype. You can find her at www.ksandizell.com.