Build your dream marriage part 5: Break out of the prison of self-absorption


So, you fell madly in love, and you were certain that ‘this is the one!’ Right?

But soon after you were married, ‘romantic love’ faded, and now you feel like your partner is so self-absorbed!

Now, everything is all about your partner’s needs, wants, and desires! What gives?!

In a weak moment you might express it like this…

‘You’re so selfish! All you can think about is what you need and want from me! And you never listen to me!’

Only to hear your partner respond like this…

‘I’m selfish?!! What about you? All you can talk about is how I’m not meeting your needs!’

What’s happening is a very normal phenomenon called ‘symbiosis and self-absorption’.

This morning, my wife, Sandy ‘advised’ me not to use technical terms. She said, ‘What does ‘symbiosis’ mean, anyway? I know it has to do with organisms who live happily together. But what are you talking about?’

Good question, Sandy!

Symbiosis, in a human relationship, is ‘a state where you have a limited capacity to understand and appreciate the subjectivity of the other person’.

It’s when you can only see your reality, and not your partner’s reality.

It’s when you believe your reality is the only true description of reality.

It’s where you’re convinced one person is right and the other is wrong! And I’ll bet you can guess who that might be! šŸ™‚

Symbiosis is therefore a state where you’re BOTH self-absorbed.

It’s intensified when you insist that your partner see things the same way you do. When that happens, your partner responds by insisting you see things the way they do!

And that’s where couples get stuck.

What causes this mutual self-absorption, and is there a way to break out of this prison?

Consider two reasons we become self-absorbed. And then we’ll look at what we can do about it.

1. Differences activate self-absorption

It sounds funny, but actually just discovering that your partner is DIFFERENT triggers self-absorption.


It’s that moment you realize your partner is different from you, different from your projections, different from your expectations.

Jeremy couldn’t believe it! After they were married, Marta stopped wanting to watch football with him.

Jeremy said, ‘It happened overnight. It’s like she’s changed and isn’t the same girl I married!

He was further blown away when she said that she never really liked football.

‘Are you kidding me?!!’

Marta said, ‘When we were dating, we were so in love that we did a lot of things with each other. Now that we’re married, many of those things have lost their appeal.’

What happened?

Did Marta suddenly change? No!

Marta hasn’t changed. She’s just different from the projections and expectations Jeremy had when they were dating.

Now she’s just being more of who she really is.

It’s important for Jeremy to realize that this is his opportunity to find out who Marta really is, and most importantly, that SHE IS DIFFERENT FROM HIM – a fact that was previously blocked by the rose-colored glasses of romantic love!

Unfortunately, this is when the Power Struggle begins – that ugly game of tug of war that couples play where they try to change each other back into the romantic illusions they had before.

When we first experience our partner as ‘different’, polarization results.

It happens because we fear that the slightest expression of difference will separate us. It’s that fear that causes us to avoid facing these differences, or be in denial of them.

As we avoid it, unresolved conflicts begin to build up. This dramatically increases that fear of being separated should those conflicts ever come out into the open.

Now we’re really stuck.

So discovering our differences is one reason we get stuck in this prison of mutual self-absorption.

There’s another reason.

2. Childhood pain activates self-absorption

I remember when I was about 7 years old, I was going with my mom and dad to the lake to spend the day swimming and playing on the beach.

I was so excited as I looked forward to getting into the water, building sand castles, and buying a Snickers bar from the little concession stand on the beach!

But as we were getting out of the car someone slammed the car door on my hand!

My little 7-year old world of adventure ended right there, at least for the day.

In that moment of excruciating pain, nothing else mattered.  The beautiful water, the warm beach, the anticipation of a Snickers bar – it was all irrelevant.

This is a picture of how pain can trigger your self-absorption in a relationship.

Pain from your childhood is triggered by your partner. That pain can be intense. When that happens, you, like all of us, reconstruct the world in the service of the self.

What was once hopeful anticipation in the Romantic Stage vanishes!

The expectation that this person would meet all your needs is dashed!

This person is not only different from what you thought, now they’re pushing all your buttons!

In that excruciating pain you’re feeling, nothing else matters.  All the wonderful, amazing, and beautiful aspects of your partner are all now irrelevant.

All you’re aware of is the throbbing pain and wanting it to go away.

Ok, so I get it.

Discovering our DIFFERENCES and experiencing PAIN are two things that activate self-absorption.

So, how do I break out of this prison?

3. Differentiation and connection break the shackles of self-absorption

Differentiation is learning to see your partner as different and being OK with it.

This is essential, because you cannot be in a real relationship, or empathize with someone you do not see as separate from you.

Connection is what unlocks the prison door and sets you free to be focused on your partner rather than yourself.

The Imago Couple’s Dialogue is a powerful tool that can help facilitate differentiation and connection.

If you’re a regular reader, this tool is familiar to you.

Here’s how it works to help you move from symbiosis and self-absorption to differentiation and connection.

1) Mirror your partner’s words

Mirroring is simply listening and repeating back what your partner said, one thought at a time.

Jeremy: Marta, let me see if I got what you said. You said you don’t really like to watch football, and you were just watching it with me before because you wanted to be with me.

‘Did I get it? (checking for accuracy)

‘Is there more about that?’ (igniting curiosity)

Mirroring does two things.

It communicates value to your partner. It says, ‘You are important. And what you have to say is important. You matter.’ And that feels good.

Mirroring also enables you regulate your reactions to your partner’s difference in order to begin integrating that “difference” into your relationship.

2) Validate your partner’s reality

This is where differentiation occurs – when you can validate your partner’s reality without giving up your own.

It might go something like this…

Jeremy: ‘When you say you don’t really like to watch football, and you were just watching it with me because you wanted to be with me, that makes sense. You said that football is not something you grew up loving like I did. So it makes sense that it doesn’t mean that much to you now.

‘Is that the kind of validation you need?’

Validation facilitates differentiation.

Jeremy can now see Marta as different from him, while not letting that difference trigger defenses and disconnection.

He’s able to hold his reality (I LOVE to watch football) and hold Marta’s reality at the same time (Marta really doesn’t care that much about football.)

When differentiation occurs, connection is possible.

Jeremy, although he has to grieve his loss, he then accepts Marta for who she really is.

And Marta feels like there is room for her to be who she really is in the relationship. It’s a win – win!

3) Empathize with your partner’s feelings

This is where deeper connection occurs.

It might go like this…

Jeremy: ‘I can imagine that it feels bad, or maybe even controlling to be forced to do something you really don’t like.

When Marta feels like Jeremy is present with her in her pain or frustration, that’s when healing and deeper connection occurs.

And, as a bonus, sometimes this is where re-compensation occurs.

If Jeremy succeeds in empathizing with Marta, it’s possible that she might experience a new openness to watch football with Jeremy.

We resist most when we feel controlled. When that control is gone, we become free, and maybe even happy to make choices that make our partner happy.

‘To watch or not to watch? That is the question.’ (not really!)

The question is ‘Are you stuck in symbiosis and self-absorption?’

If so, there is a way out. It’s called differentiation and connection.

The Couple’s Dialogue can help you dissolve symbiosis, and break out of the prison of self-absorption.

Let me know if I can help you further!

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    Author: Chuck Starnes

    Chuck Starnes is a relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples find the safety, connection, passion and full-aliveness they are looking for together. He also helps organizations become more productive by improving relationship and communication skills.

    2 thoughts on “Build your dream marriage part 5: Break out of the prison of self-absorption”

    1. Linda McBirney says:

      Excellent discussion…..can’t wait to try it out this weekend! Thank you for these tools!

      1. You are so welcome, Linda! Share your insights with us! That might encourage others to share their stories too. Let’s keep the conversation going. Sandy and I are still learning and can use all the help we can get.

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