Is your marriage stuck in a vicious cycle of blaming and defensiveness? Here’s why that happens, and what to do about it.
Marriages get stuck in this kind of destructive cycle because of what we call “symbiosis”.
Symbiosis is living together as if you are one. It’s another way of saying “being dependent on one another”. But this kind of dependence goes way overboard and is not healthy.
In the romantic stage symbiosis is pleasurable, because I’m under the illusion that my partner and I are the same.
We think alike. We feel alike. We don’t need words to understand each other. We feel like we’ve truly found our soulmate.
But after the love chemicals wear off and the power struggle stage begins, symbiosis is painful.
Symbiosis is painful because I discover that my partner is an “other” person with their own needs, desires, hurts, experiences, and perspective.
That’s when I get stuck in my own self-absorption. So does my partner.
– I can only see my reality.
– I believe my reality is the only true description of reality.
– One of us is right and the other is wrong.
– “You and I are one, and I’m the one!”
Whenever I discover that my partner is different, my reality is challenged, and I can feel deeply betrayed.
That’s when the blaming and defensive cycle begins.
Here’s an example of symbiosis with two realities colliding.
SHE:“Make sure when you load the dishwasher you face the dishes inward, put all the silverware sorted in the tray, and don’t turn it on until it’s full so we don’t waste energy.”
HE:“You know it really doesn’t matter which way they are facing. They’ll get clean either way. And just put the silverware in there. We can sort it when we put it away. And really it doesn’t use that much energy.”
SHE:“You never listen to me!!”
HE : “You’re always telling me what to do!!”
Wow, Sandy and I have had that kind of exchange countless times! How about you?
So how do I break out of this cycle of blaming and defensiveness?
Differentiation is the process that helps us get unstuck.
Differentiation is when you begin to see and accept your partner as different, as an “other” person.
Differentiation is when you can hold your reality and your partner’s reality at the same time.
The Couple’s Dialogue is a powerful tool that can help a couple experience differentiation.
Here’s what it might look like in the example above.
HE: Mirrors and validates his partner’s desire to have the dishes face inward, the silverware sorted, and the dishwasher full before being used.
In that safe context where he has regulated his own reactions, he sees that her perspective really does make sense. And he lets her know that he gets it.
SHE: Having her reality validated, she feels safe and is open to seeing his reality.
She mirrors and validates his view that the dishes will get clean facing inward or outward. That the silverware can be sorted just as easily after they’re clean. And that having a few empty spaces in the dishwasher is not a huge expense.
Although she sees it differently, his view makes sense to her.
In the process, she realizes that there is really no right or wrong way to do it – just different ways.
She lets him know she gets it.
HE and SHE: They both feel safe and validated. As a result they both are now are open to new ways of washing the dishes.
Neither are holding on to their view for dear life. Neither are driven to prove themselves right.
Differentiation dissolves the symbiosis and self-absorption.
And, bingo, the blaming and defensiveness stops!
That’s how it’s done!
Simple but admittedly not as easy as it sounds.
But if we work at it we can turn symbiosis and self-absorption into healthy differentiation and deeper connection…