Marriage incompatibility can be transformed into an intimate partnership for healing and growth!
Ever feel like you’re married to the most incompatible person on the planet?
You’re not alone. Turns out “opposites” DO attract!
And being opposite can feel like you’re incompatible.
But here’s a secret…
Incompatibility is the basis for a great marriage!
“Ok Chuck, I get it that opposites attract. But incompatibility…the basis for a great marriage? Give me a break! Is this going to be another post where you say the opposite of what we’ve always thought? Like ‘Conflict is a sign you married the right person’?”
I could hear your objections already and you’re not alone.
I googled “relationship compatibility” and found many who agree with you. Countless articles warning you NOT to be in a relationship with someone incompatible with you in areas like…
- Strict punctuality vs. hang loose “I’ll get there when I get there.”
- Neat-freak vs. slob
- Spend-thrift vs. stingy-sourpuss
- And God forbid you get into a relationship with someone who is not “sexually compatible” with you.
“Experts” are saying that differences like these will make life miserable!
“So don’t commit! Find someone compatible!!”
But recent neuroscience discoveries are turning what we thought about the marriage relationship on it’s head.
Think about it:
Each of those differences listed above represent opportunities for healing and growth…but only when those two “incompatible” people are together in a relationship!
Get my drift?
Here are two reasons I’m convinced “incompatibility” is the basis for a great marriage.
1. Incompatibility creates opportunities to heal the past.
Case in point: Nate and Susan.
Nate was a very intelligent, but very quiet young man in my premarital counseling group. When I tried to point out traits in Susan, his fiancé, that foreshadow future areas of conflict, he said, “No way! Those are the things I love about her!”
Nate was sincere, but he was also in the Romantic Stage of the relationship, and was seeing Susan through rose-colored glasses.
Isn’t it cute the way she’s so expressive with her emotions! I can listen to her talk all day.
So why is it that after only a year of marriage he found himself leaving the house because…
She never shuts up!
At some point after the wedding vows, the neurotransmitters that induce the romantic love coma subside.
That’s when we wake up to the fact that we have married someone different from us.
The rose-colored glasses are ripped off. Welcome to the Power Struggle Stage.
So what was going on with Nate and Susan?
Nate had married his “Imago match”.
Harville Hendrix uses this term, “Imago”, to describe an image you carry in your unconscious “lower brain” (brain stem and limbic system).
And that image consists of…
1) The positive and negative traits of your primary caretakers.
2) The disowned, denied, and lost parts of yourself.
Imago Relationship Theory posits that the selection of a romantic partner is partly unconscious, driven by an agenda which is to…guess what?
To finish childhood. To resolve the wounds, unmet needs, and frustrations that occurred while growing up.
That’s why we fall in love and marry someone who is like our parents!
Not in just their positive traits, but even more significantly in their NEGATIVE traits.
Now why would I want to do that? That doesn’t make sense.
Did I say that it happens unconsciously?
Those positive and negative traits in your partner feel familiar. This explains in part why you’re drawn to his person and why you fall in love.
But as you encounter the negative traits, old wounds are activated.
Nate had that mysterious quietness that Susan was drawn to.
And when we talked about how his childhood defenses could make her feel abandoned, she was confident that would not happen.
He just won’t. Because we’re in love. He’d never do that.
Don’t you just love the naiveté of the Romantic Stage of a relationship?
But at one point, when Susan felt Nate withdrawing from her, it did activate those feelings of abandonment. And that’s when their conflicts began.
Growing up, Susan’s mom was busy caring for younger twins, while her dad seemed married to his work. And then her dad spent whatever time left over with her brothers.
Her method of coping was to break the rules, act out – anything to get someone’s attention.
So when Nate activated this same feeling of rejection and abandonment by simply pulling away from her, she would become upset and demand to be heard and recognized.
And the more he withdrew, the louder and more controlling she became.
And the louder she got, the more he withdrew.
At that point, so early in their journey, there was no way that Nate could have understood the pain that was driving her.
But during therapy he was able to empathize with Susan, and to see how his pulling away from her triggered those deep feelings of abandonment from childhood.
He realized he was not the source of her upset. He was only the “trigger”.
In the Imago Dialogue process, Susan began making “change requests” of Nate that involved him being present with her during times of conflict, rather than “abandoning” her.
She asked Nate for things like this…
“The next time you feel like leaving the conversation, can we just stop talking, and will you just take my hand, look into my eyes, and just be silent with me for two minutes?”
As he granted those requests, Susan’s wound from childhood began to heal as her longing for connection was no longer being frustrated by Nate leaving.
Our lower brain holds pain from the past in an unconscious state, and also in the present tense (as if the wound happened yesterday).
And the lower brain does not distinguish between individuals. It only apprehends the traits of a person.
So when that past wound is activated by someone similar to the one who wounded you…BUT this time their behavior gives you what you needed, healing is the result!
And your lower brain doesn’t complain, “Well, you’re about 20 years too late!”
No! The love you’re receiving registers deep in your psyche, “Finally, I’m getting the love I wanted.” And it’s healing.
Do you see how your marriage can be an amazing partnership for healing you never even imagined before?
Incompatibility creates opportunities to heal.
Wow. Sounds simple enough, right?
Hold on a minute.
It sounds simple, but…it was extremely hard for Nate to grant that request.
Why? Because Nate had spent all his years protecting himself from this kind of vulnerability. A step like this was threatening…actually terrifying!
This leads to the second reason I think incompatibility makes for a great relationship.
2. Incompatibility creates opportunities to grow.
What Susan needed to heal pointed precisely to where Nate need to grow.
Nate had never had to be present and share his emotions until he married Susan.
Incompatibility provides an opportunity to grow and recover parts of youself that were lost and never developed growing up.
Nate was drawn to Susan because she was so effusive and free to share her feelings. Something Nate had never developed growing up.
How did Nate miss out on this?
His mother was controlling. So he discovered early in life that one way to maintain a feeling of autonomy around his intrusive mother was to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself.
Without this information, she was less able to invade his space.
Nate learned to hide behind a psychic shield he erected as a child to protect himself from an overbearing mother.
He felt smothered by his mom growing up, and now he was feeling smothered by his new wife.
So Nate would respond to Susan’s “intrusions” in the same way – by doing a disappearing act where he could hide his feelings from her.
Susan didn’t realize that when Nate left the conversation, he was only trying to survive his own pain and not trying to “punish” her.
But notice how Susan’s “change request” was a challenge for Nate to begin to learn to stay present and connect emotionally. Something he’d never had to do. Something he’d never developed. But something that he was actually very capable of doing.
Because, in doing this, Nate was recovering a lost part of himself.
So for Nate to provide what Susan needed most (his presence during conflict), required him to stretch. To stretch into behaviors he never learned as a child. And it was not easy.
But through this process Nate began to feel much more “whole” as a person.
So…not only can incompatibility create opportunities to heal, it also creates opportunities to grow.
“But, Chuck,” Nate could have said (he didn’t say it, but many partners do), “That’s just not who I am. I’m not a ‘feelings’ person. I feel like Susan wants to change me into something I’m not.”
I hear that a lot.
This growth challenge is not about changing who you are. It’s about becoming more of who your are.
It’s about recovering those things that are actually in us, but have been walled off by our childhood adaptations and defenses.
That’s why Nate felt more whole as a person after this.
Here’s a super big takeaway:
Your partner’s need for healing will always point to your need for growth. And vice versa.
An amazing thing this thing called marriage!
What about you today? Does your partner trigger this kind of upset in you? Or do you trigger it in your partner?
Have you felt like giving up on your marriage because you’re “incompatible”?
If what I’m saying is true, the best place for you to be is right where you are.
So let me encourage you to stay put. And work toward building this kind of mutual partnership of healing and growth.
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