How to break the cycle of blaming and defensiveness in your marriage

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.

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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!”

Sound familiar?

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.

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Differentiation dissolves the symbiosis and self-absorption.

And, bingo, the blaming and defensiveness stops!

Watch the video below as Genevieve and Mike demonstrate the Couples Dialogue. Notice what happens to Genevieve when she feels validated by Mike.

That’s how it’s done!

Let’s turn symbiosis and self-absorption into healthy differentiation and deeper connection…

…and stop the blaming and defensiveness!

Let me know if I can help. I’ve been doing lots of Skype calls with couples over the past few weeks. I’d love to help coach you if you need it. Click here to find out more.

Post your comments below in the comment section. Share your insights and questions. See you next week!

My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.

You won’t solve your marriage problem by talking about the problem! Here’s why

If you find yourself arguing about the same things over and over again you’re probably not focused on what you really need to be talking about.  

It’s true! If you try to fix a problem by talking about the problem, you’ll never fix the problem!

Why?

Because “the problem” is not the problem.

For example, if you argue about the dishes, or who is not helping with the kids, or who is not picking up around the house, chances are you’re really just talking about the symptoms.  

You have to look deeper, because beneath those symptoms is the problem of not feeling connected with your partner.

When a couple feels disconnected almost everything becomes a problem!

On the other hand, if a couple reconnects their relationship, all the “problems” they want to solve, DISSOLVE!

Here are three practical steps to help you uncover and deal with the real problem in your relationship.

1. Use “the problem” to begin a Couple’s Dialogue

Let problems and frustrations you experience in your relationship be a catalyst to get you into a safe dialogue. Nothing positive happens in a relationship until both partners work to make it safe for each other.

(Click here to download the Couple’s Dialogue tool that Frank and Katie used.)

Frank and Katie found themselves arguing about the same things over and over again. But no matter how much they talked about their problems, they found themselves going around in circles.

Resolving conflicts? Sometimes. But solving the real problem of feeling disconnected? Never! It was SO frustrating!

When I asked Katie what the problem is, she said…

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The problem is “Golf”!

What?

Katie felt like golf was Frank’s highest priority in life. She said repeatedly that “golf” is the problem.

“He works hard all week. And then on the weekends he just wants to play golf with his buddies.”

So Frank said, “Well if the problem is golf, I’ll quit.”

And he did.

So, on the weekends that followed, Frank was not on the golf course with his friends. He was at home…

…but he was in the garage, on the computer, or watching TV.

You get the picture. Frank was at home but he still wasn’t with Katie. There was still a disconnect in their relationship. And stopping his weekend golf did not fix that.

So fixing “the problem” did not fix the problem.

Most couples use “the problem” to hammer on each other. But blaming and defensiveness do not help you solve the problem, much less get to the root problem.

Even though “the problem” is very real to you, it’s important to talk it out in a healthy way rather than act it out. So let the problem lead you to Dialogue.

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2. Use the Couple’s Dialogue to unmask the real problem

Now that you’re in a safe dialogue, you can look for the real problem.

In the Couple’s Dialogue, safety and curiosity replace judgement and reactivity.

Then validation and empathy help one partner fully appreciate and validate the other partner’s reality while holding their own reality as both valid and separate. (Does that make sense?)

When we’re in that kind of safe conversation, vital insights come bubbling up from our unconscious mind that we would never see otherwise.

The Couple’s Dialogue revealed something beneath Katie’s anger about golf. Her anger was only a surface emotion masking her deeper issue.

Katie’s deeper issue was FEAR. Katie feared that something would always take her place in Frank’s life. At the moment it appeared golf was the culprit.

She said golf felt like “the other woman”. And as long as “she” was in their life, how could she ever feel connected to Frank?

Katie grew up in a family of high achievers. Her parents gave her the gift of believing in herself, and that there was nothing she couldn’t do.

But what she did not get from her parents was a consistent, close emotional connection.

Later Katie became a problem, rebelling and acting out in her teen years. This was obviously an attempt to get the attention and connection she so desperately needed and was lacking.

Through the Couple’s Dialogue, it became clear, that when she married Frank, she married her “Imago”.

Her what? Her Imago.

Your Imago (latin for image) is someone who has the positive and negative traits of your parents. Science tells us that we’re drawn to, and fall in love with someone who matches this unconscious image of your early caretakers.

Your Imago is someone who will activate those old wounds from childhood in a way that is similar to how you were wounded while growing up with your parents. 

Katie’s unconscious relationship agenda was to marry Frank so those old wounds could be activated.

Why? So they can be healed. Of course all this is going on unconsciously.

In Katie’s case, when Frank “left her” to play golf, it triggered those old wounds of abandonment she felt when her parents “left her” for other interests.

Katie was now doing an adult version of those earlier childhood defenses – feeling abandoned and unleashing her anger toward Frank.

The fear of rejection or abandonment she felt went much deeper, and it was based on that timeless unconscious pain of abandonment or rejection she experienced in childhood.

A childhood where the work, goals, hobbies, and aspirations of her parents always seemed to be more important than she was.

The 90/10 Principle tells us that approximately 90% of our upset in a relationship is from history. 10% is from the present.

So Frank was relieved that his choice to play golf on the weekends was not the source of Katie’s upset. It was only the trigger.

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3. Make a request that will bring healing

As Frank was able to empathize with Katie’s fear of abandonment, I encouraged Katie to make what we call a “Behavior Change Request”. Something that Frank could do that would be helpful to her in this frustration she experiences.

A Behavior Change Request is something tangible that Frank can do to meet a deeper need Katie has. It’s a caring behavior that makes Katie feel loved and sets their direction as a couple toward healing and growth.

It’s only effective in the context of a Safe Dialogue where Katie can be vulnerable enough to ask for it.

If our defenses are in place, a change request, even if granted, will NOT have the same powerful healing effect.

Katie’s Behavior Change Request went something like this…

“Next month will you choose one weekend and plan something for us to do together?”

And because Frank validated and empathized with Katie and was not reactive toward her, he was more than willing to do this.

As a matter of fact he was excited about the potential of being more connected with Katie. He hadn’t had any hope that this could happen before.

Do you think this might be why he was on the golf course so much?

Could that have been the way he dealt with his own pain as he lived with the same feelings of disconnection that Katie had?

When Frank granted Katie’s request, it met her need in a powerful way and brought healing.

And equally important,  it set them both on a direction toward a deeper and more stable connection with each other.

Although Katie couldn’t solve her marriage problem by talking about the problem, she was able to solve her real problem by reconnecting with Frank. 

Want to know what Frank’s issue was? Click here to read more of their story.

Subscribe below to receive my weekly post that will come to your email inbox every Saturday morning! 

My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

How a husband’s destructive anger was transformed into passionate love

“My husband’s destructive anger is wrecking our family! I can’t deal with his abuse any longer!”

Tears filled Gina’s eyes as she explained what her husband Gary’s anger was doing to her.

This began a 7 step journey that transformed Gary’s destructive anger into passionate love.

Recently, in an argument over how to deal with one of their children, Gary blew up at Gina and put his fist through the wall.

Gary had not previously been physically violent toward Gina or their three children. But there were repeated times of yelling and name-calling.

And now Gary had literally hit the wall. Where was it going to end?

Gina was not only concerned for her own safety, but was really afraid of what this anger would do to their kids.

In our first session, we began a structured dialogue that helped Gary and Gina take seven steps toward dealing with abusive anger.

1. Set a boundary against uncontrolled anger.

It was very important for Gina to say to Gary that uncontrolled anger is not ok. Gina must realize she does not have to tolerate it, and must be empowered to leave the abusive situation in any way necessary. This may include getting a restraining order.

There are cases of emotional and physical abuse where the first step is for the victim to separate from the abusive partner and get professional help.

Gina communicated this boundary in a Dialogue where Gary mirrored and validated her concern.

It was very important that this boundary be communicated to Gary in a safe way. The Couples Dialogue helped him receive and accept it rather than feel judged by it.

In Gary’s case, he was ready to get help, and fully accepted Gina’s boundary.

For Gary and Gina, this act of violence was a wake up call to get help.

Both of them were eagerly seeking change.

They invited me to continue to facilitate this process of transforming anger into passionate love.

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2. Commit to “zero negativity”.

After setting a boundary against violence, Gary and Gina agreed to sign the Zero Negativity Challenge.

This is a pledge to stop all negative comments, criticisms, and uncontrolled expressions of anger.

It is something I ask all my clients to sign whether violent anger is an issue or not.

Because nothing can happen in a relationship unless it is safe.

And it will never be safe if the tiniest bit of negativity is allowed in the space between the couple.

Negativity in a relationship is like putting a drop of raw sewage into a glass of pure drinking water.

Would you drink it even if I assured you it contained only a drop of sewage? 🙂

Of course not! Because, even with a drop of bacteria infested sewage, it’s no longer safe to drink.

In the same way, when a drop of criticism or unbridled anger is deposited into the space between a couple, it’s no longer safe to for either partner to open up to each other.

Going forward Gary and Gina weren’t perfect, but this commitment to zero negativity was a good start down the right path.

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3. Avoid assigning labels to each other.

“My partner is abusive!”
“My husband is a narcissist!”
“My wife has Borderline Personality Disorder!”

Labeling like this produces enough negative energy to keep a person permanently bound in the role assigned to them.

People live up to what we say about them.

It’s important to drop the labels.

And here’s another reason why.

Gary and Gina are just two partners doing the best they can to manage their anxiety.

What do you mean?

When couples feel disconnected, the result is always anxiety.

The human mind cannot handle anxiety for more than a few seconds. To cope we turn it into either anger or depression.

So most people are not what we tend to label them. They’re just trying to manage their anxiety the best they can. Obviously some better than others.

Of course there are true narcissists and there are violent aggressors that are unsafe people period.
But in many cases where a someone claims their partner is a narcissist, it is a label unfairly assigned.

During the Dialogue process, we often find that the “so-called narcissist” is perfectly capable of empathizing with his or her partner. It’s just that the relationship had never been safe enough for that to happen.

We are all self-absorbed until we experience differentiation in our relationship.

It’s the growth challenge of marriage that changes us from self-absorbed individuals into differentiated individuals capable of intimate connection.

In many cases people are self-absorbed because they’ve never stepped up to the “growth challenge” that every marriage presents.

Therefore it’s important not to label.

The Couples Dialogue process helps you reimage your partner as someone who is simply trying to manage their own anxiety the best they can.

Some do it by exploding anger outwardly. Others by internalizing anger and becoming depressed.

4. Listen to anger’s “cry for help”.

As Gina mirrored Gary’s angry feelings, she learned that his anger was a cover for deeper emotions he was experiencing.

Usually anger is not about what you say it’s about. It’s a way to protect yourself from your more vulnerable feelings.

Like the tip of an iceberg, anger can be used to cover deeper emotions that we my not be conscious of.

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Gina and Gary’s big blow up was not really about differences over child discipline. It was about Gary not feeling important in the process.

And at the very core was Gary’s hidden fear of losing his connection with Gina.

As a child, Gary experienced feelings of abandonment from his early caretakers. Unknowingly, he had brought these wounds into his marriage.

When he felt Gina withdrawing from him, his deep fear of abandonment was triggered.

In an unconscious reaction he would then use anger to mask these feelings of abandonment.

This in turn caused Gina to move even further from Gary.

But Chuck, that doesn’t make sense. If Gary wanted to be connected with Gina, why would he yell and punch the wall?

Why do kids throw temper tantrums?

To get the attention of the parent they fear won’t be available to them when they need it most.

Gary was doing an “adult version” of this kind of behavior.

So how does Gina “listen to anger’s cry for help” and begin to understand Gary’s real emotion behind anger?

It was through the structured Couples Dialogue that Gina felt safe enough to listen and validate Gary.

And in the context of that safety, Gary got in touch with the fear of abandonment that was driving his explosive anger.

And then, as we’ll see later, things went even deeper…

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5. Stay present rather than retreating.

As Gina stayed present and listened to Gary, this had a powerful calming effect on him.

It was Gina’s withdrawal that triggered the fear and anger in Gary.

Most every day we walk our dog, Brie, in the neighborhood. There is a cat about a block away that Brie loves to chase. It goes like this.

The cat sees Brie and takes off. When Brie sees the cat take off, she begins pursuit until she reaches the end of her leash. And then it’s all we can do to hold her back. We should have gone to dog training school.

One day the cat saw Brie, and instead of running, he sat down in the driveway and began licking his paw.

Brie was really troubled. And stood perfectly still. Why?

We discovered that Brie will only chase if the cat retreats. If the cat doesn’t run, Brie waits.

In the same way, Gina’s running away was one of the triggers for Gary to pursue her in anger.

A dramatic change occurred when she remained present for Gary. His anger was diffused and he was able to express his fear in a safe dialogue.

Gina was able to empathize with Gary’s feeling of abandonment, and that was when everything changed.

Continuing to be curious in the Dialogue, Gina found out Gary’s hidden fear.

Recently she had became more involved in her work as a school teacher. This meant more social engagement with her coworkers as well.

As Gary saw her having fun with people that had more in common with her than he did, Gary feared that one day she wouldn’t need him and would leave him for good.

So the anger wasn’t about the differences they had in parenting. It was about Gary’s deep fear of being left alone.

Very often the problem you’re arguing about is not the problem. It goes much deeper.

Both Gina and Gary got in touch with the real issue which was Gary’s hidden fear.

This happened because Gina stayed present and curious in the process.

6. Use your anger as a signal to stop and dialogue.

The Couples Dialogue slows things down, enabling you to talk about your anger rather than exploding it.

Anger does not have to be unhealthy. It doesn’t have to turn into destructive aggression.

Anger can be an incredibly useful emotion.

Anger serves as a stoplight – a signal that something is not right and you need to STOP.

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Gary learned to recognize when he was angry by noticing the sensations in his body.

Sensations like a tensed body, clenched teeth, restlessness, or increased intensity of speech were the cues that helped him realize he was angry.

If we can recognize anger before it’s expressed, it can be a signal to stop and use our safe conversation skills to talk about it.

If we heed anger’s warning, it’s possible to return to love and connection. If we ignore its warning, our relationship will suffer.

It’s a choice we have to make.

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7. Channel anger’s energy into passionate love.

Anger and passionate love are opposite expressions of the same energy.

When anger’s negative energy gets redirected in a safe conversation it transforms into passionate love.

Gary took steps to moderate his anger, by talking it out rather than acting it out.

Gina stretched in order to be present with Gary rather than withdrawing and triggering his feelings of abandonment.

What happened as a result?

Anger was transformed into passionate love.

I saw evidence of this in the parking lot of my office after our last session as Gary and Gina stood by their car for what seemed like forever in a passionate hug and prolonged kiss.

As people watched them, I thought, “They have no idea what’s behind this. If they only knew…”

Gary and Gina not only learned to deal with destructive anger, but all of their feelings of love and passion returned.

That’s because anger’s negative energy can be channeled in the opposite direction. And passionate love can be reborn.

It can happen for you as well. If you need help, check out my six-week coaching program. I can take you through the same process that Gary and Gina went through.

I’d love it if you’d share your insights and even questions you may have in the reply section below.

Until next week…

If you haven’t already, subscribe below to Relationship Resources and receive my weekly post emailed to your inbox every Saturday morning!

Our marriage fights began on the honeymoon! Is there any hope for us?

This was our story!

But we learned that with the right skills you can turn a marriage with conflicts into a relationship with a deeper connection!

That’s because conflict is a sign that something new wants to emerge in your relationship.

Something that will bring healing, wholeness and deeper connection.

And sometimes that sign shows up as early as the honeymoon!

That’s what happened to me – and my wife Sandy!

Recently someone said, “Chuck, your posts are pretty good, but have all these insights worked for you in your own marriage?”

Wow! Did you have to go there?

I admit it’s always easier to talk about something than to do it.

So can I just brush this question under the rug? As my readers, you’ll never know. 🙂

Except that I just told you!

Maybe this is an opportunity.

An opportunity to go where I wouldn’t go otherwise. And open up and share some things I wouldn’t otherwise.

Ok, let’s do this!

For years, Sandy and I have been on a journey in our own marriage.

That journey is from an unconscious and reactive relationship to a conscious and connected relationship.

For us this means…

– Moving from blaming and defensiveness to empathy and connection.

– Realizing that behind every criticism is a desire not expressed.

– Realizing behind every angry outburst is a desire being expressed but not heard because of the way it’s delivered.

– Realizing that behind every withdrawal from conflict is a fear of being controlled or smothered.

We are still working on it, moving from the Romantic Stage – through the Power Struggle Stage – into the Mature Love Stage and World Impact Stage.

The Romantic Stage

It all began with two people madly in love – Chuck and Sandy.

I’ll save you the sappy details but we were IN LOVE.

I took her to Ernie’s in San Francisco for dinner.

Then to the “Top of the Mark”, Mark Hopkins Hotel for drinks.

And while looking out over that beautiful city, I asked her to be my wife.

She said “yes”! And I was the luckiest guy on the planet.

The Power Struggle

Most couples see signs of the Power Struggle anywhere from two months to two years after the wedding vows.

Our power struggle began on the honeymoon. That’s right.

As a matter of fact on the day after the wedding.

Sandy had given me a beautiful watch as a wedding gift – a battery powered, electronic watch.

One of the first of it’s kind. I’d never had one before.

Problem is, there was no instruction manual.

So I spent the first couple of hours “the morning after” (yes, the first day of our honeymoon) trying to set it up (yeah, I know.).

To me this was normal. Not doing anything wrong here.

Except for one detail. I was married now. Not alone. And we were on our honeymoon for cryin’ out loud!

Now that I’m married, it’s not really cool to just do what I want, without any consideration for the other person in the room.

But how was I to know?

As Sandy tried to communicate her disappointment to me, I immediately felt attacked.

Feelings of inadequacy overwhelmed me.

So I pulled away from her – literally withdrew from the conversation.

This really upset her and I had no idea why or what to do.

It was horrible!

Even though we “coped” and moved on, this tragic episode began a pattern that would last for years.

I’d get lost in my world (work, hobbies, whatever). Sandy would feel abandoned.

She’d express disappointment. I’d pull away further.

That would trigger more feelings of abandonment, resulting in more expression of disappointment, which would cause me to…well you get the idea.

Not good!

Welcome to the Power Struggle!

All she wanted was a close connection with me. That’s what marriage is supposed to be, right?

Like many couples we struggled to cope with this pattern.

But it always costs when you merely cope with a problem rather than dealing with it.

The price we paid for years was the insecurity of an unstable connection that could be easily ruptured.

Two precious daughters were born, as we continued to do the best we could.

What we didn’t realize is that both of us had brought our childhood wounds and defenses into our marriage.

Unconscious pain from childhood that drove me to abandon ship when criticized,

and that drove Sandy to criticize when abandoned.

The Breakthrough

I’ll save you all the gory details. But it was fight after fight. Silent-standoff after silent-standoff.

Literally “second verse same as the first – a little bit louder and a little bit worse.”

over and over…and over again.

But a breakthrough came when we began practicing Imago Couples Dialogue. The therapy I now use with couples every week.

The process slowed us down in a way that helped regulate our emotional reactions.

And that gave us a chance to see each other – things about each other we’d never seen before because of all the defenses.

Then we began to embrace our differences, and empathize with each other.

And we began to see how our childhood dramatically affected our relationship.

Sandy grew up in an amazing home. She was SO attractive. And so was her family. It was like the family I never had.

Her parents did a great job.

But even with great parents, all children experience wounding at some level.

It’s inevitable.

When Sandy was 2 ½ years old her mom had twins. Both infants suffered with colic. And both mom and dad were consumed by the need to care for them.

Some of what Sandy needed was lost in the process.

Her mom was amazing. And dad too.

But no matter how good you are as parents, wounds happen to our children in ways we’re not aware of.

This feeling of abandonment surfaced many times later growing up.

Once when her older brother got to stay out much later with his friends on Halloween. And got SO much more candy.

And she remembers another time waving goodbye to her older brother as he and his friends drove away for a ski weekend at Tahoe.

Once again she felt left behind. And left out.

Experts say that approximately 90% of our upset comes from history. 10% is related to the present.

The Dialogue help me see that the pain that Sandy felt on our honeymoon was not just because of me.

I was not the source of her pain, only the trigger.

chuck starnes relationship coach
Chuck and Sandy at Waikiki Beach

The Mature Love Stage

Here’s what we learned that helped us move from the Power Struggle to Mature Love.

1. A childhood wound of abandonment can be activated when your partner disconnects from you.

For me to “leave her” for a watch brought back all that pain from childhood.

Am I worth being taken care of? Am I worth pursuing? Am I more important than a watch?

2. Healing comes when you finally get what you needed in childhood from your intimate adult partner.

Sandy wanted me to choose her. To be close to her. To be enamored with her, not a watch (even thought she gave it to me.).

Even though that didn’t happen then, it happened later.

During one of the Dialogue’s she made a change request.

In a moment of safety and empathy she made this request.

“The next time you feel like pulling away from me will you make an appointment with me to dialogue and tell me about the feelings that make you want to withdraw.”

It was a stretch for me. But when I did it, it brought healing.

It was amazing how granting this change request helped me overcome the force of my own adaptations and stay present with her.

And when a change request like this is granted, your lower brain, where all your memories and pain and defenses reside, is not going to say in that moment,

“We’ll you’re about 20 years too late!”

No! It’s going to say,

“Finally I’m getting the love I always wanted!”

And healing is the result.

3. Growth comes to the one bringing healing.

That would be me.

I can’t tell you the feelings of wholeness I experienced as I stretched and grew in to this kind of behavior Sandy was asking for.

Staying present with her was VERY hard because all I felt was anger and fear and wanting to run!

My strategy from childhood, which helped me stay alive, was not going down easily (I’ll talk more about this next week).

It literally called me to access a part of myself that I had lost and never developed growing up.

And the feeling of wholeness was something wonderful like I’d never felt before.

So what about you?

Did your fights start early on like us?

Is it hard to understand why you fight?

Does your partner’s reaction seem extreme?

Join us on this journey toward healing and wholeness.

Get the skills you need to turn marriage conflicts into a deeper connection and passion together.

If you haven’t already…

Subscribe to Relationship Resources by entering your name and email below, and receive my posts with free resources delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning.

Also, in the reply section below, would you tell your story of when the power struggle began in your relationship and what you did about it?

Until next week,

Chuck (for Sandy too!)

Subscribe to Relationship Resources below and receive my weekly post emailed to your inbox every Saturday morning!

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What to do when childhood defenses sabotage your relationship

Couples fight for one fundamental reason: they bring their childhood defenses into their relationship.

The way you learned to adapt and survive in childhood can negatively impact your adult relationships…even if you had really good parents.

To one degree or another we all bring our childhood into our relationship…

…and it happens UNCONSCIOUSLY. 

And it usually happens in one of two ways.

Either you’re a “HAILSTORM” or a “TURTLE”.

Recently one of my clients said, “When we argue I blow up! And then he does a disappearing act! It always leaves me mad, and then feeling guilty like I’m the one who screwed everything up!”

This woman is in a relationship with what we call a "MINIMIZER”, represented by the TURTLE, who withdraws into his shell when conflict occurs.
She is what is known as a “MAXIMIZER”, depicted by the HAILSTORM, insistent and intrusive. Often these two marry each other (though not always).

In the Romantic Stage of the relationship, those wonderful pleasure chemicals that cause us to fall madly in love with each other, also blind us to many sobering realities about each other.

And in this intoxicated state, the Hailstorm is drawn to the Turtle and vice versa.

And then after some time together (2 months to 2 years),  the drugs wear off, the Power Struggle Stage begins, and these same two people begin to drive each other crazy!

Can you relate?

(Keep in mind that these roles are not gender stereotypes. Maybe you see yourself in this, but the roles are reversed. In my example, he was a Turtle and she was a Hailstorm. So for that reason I’m using “he” when referring to the Turtle, and “she” when referring to the Hailstorm.)

The Turtle and Hailstorm represent two common childhood defense strategies. 

Growing up, these two may have experienced similar kinds of wounding, frustrations, or unmet needs, but each learned a different way of coping. 

Each developed a strategy that helped them survive childhood.

Problem is, that same strategy is now sabotaging their adult relationship.

Are you seeing yourself in this?

If you find yourself living with a Turtle or a Hailstorm, you can overcome barriers to intimacy by taking time to identify the unconscious childhood wounds driving your reactions, and by consciously choosing to respond differently.

The best way I’ve found to do that is through the Imago Dialogue process. If you’ve read my posts, you are probably familiar with the process.

But if you’re not familiar with Imago Dialogue, I’ve embedded a video below with a great explanation by the founder of Imago Therapy himself, Harville Hendrix.

But before you watch it, please read on…

If you are a “Turtle”, you are driven by an unconscious fear of conflict that causes you to disconnect emotionally.

Even though you crave connection with your partner, at the same time you resist that very connection, because deep down you fear the pain of losing that connection.

What??! What are you saying, Chuck?

I’m guessing you learned to avoid intimacy very early on, rather than facing your fear of losing it through rejection or abandonment.

Does that describe you?  There are very good and logical reasons for that, and I don’t have time to go into detail about it. But here are some general insights.

If you grew up in a home where anger was not allowed, or you had to shut down when people got angry, you probably still tend to check out when there is conflict. 

That’s how you survived in the past. 

And no one should feel judged for that!

Problem is…and I’ll say it again…

…that strategy will not work in your relationship today!

Did I say that already?

Withdrawing from conflict is like using a gun with a silencer – killing the relationship without detection.

You say, “Hey, I’m just trying to be nice and avoid a conflict.”

I get it. 

But your withdrawal not only frustrates your partner, it triggers her deeper childhood pain

That is why you are probably seeing an even greater “Hailstorm” effect when you pull away.

Am I close?

Alright, hold that thought about the Turtle. 

What about the Hailstorm?

If you are a “Hailstorm”, your unconscious fear drives you to explode outwardly in an attempt to get what you need.

You may have grown up in a household where you had to “get louder” in order to get others’ attention, and you probably learned to face conflict and push and shove, so to speak, until you got what you needed.

Is that you? Generally speaking?

Again, this helped you survive then. So no one should judge you.

But, in case I haven’t said this before:-) it doesn’t work today!

It doesn’t make your Turtle partner feel loved and safe.

Trying to force your partner to be present with you will only cause him to withdraw further into his shell.

Ok, so what we’re doing doesn’t work. I get that. 

How do we deal with these defenses and reconnect with each other?

I’m glad you asked that question!

Here are FOUR STEPS that will help you get beyond your defenses and reconnect with your partner in a close relationship of mutual healing and growth.

To keep this post from becoming a book in itself, I’ll take you through the Dialogue process with the Hailstorm mirroring the Turtle. 

But in real life there should be ANOTHER ROUND OF DIALOGUE where the Turtle then mirrors the Hailstorm.

Got it? Ok? Is that fair?

My hope is that you’ll get the idea and can go further on your own with both you and your partner talking and mirroring through each step with each other.

1. Mirror the frustration.

As a Turtle, when you check out emotionally, it triggers her feelings of rejection or abandonment. That withdrawal on your part energizes her as a hailstorm.

As a Hailstorm, when you crowd your partner, it triggers his feelings of being smothered. That aggression on your part energizes his retreat into the shell.

Mirroring can help you disrupt this pattern.

As a Turtle, you will have to regulate your emotions in order stretch forward and be present with your partner.

As a Hailstorm, you will have to regulate your emotions in order to dial it back and make it safe for your partner to stay present.

Together agree to an “appointment” where you both will take turns, one talking the other mirroring

Mirroring is simply repeating back in your own words what you heard your partner say.
Mirroring helps you stay out of your "reactive brain" by turning on your "curious brain".
Mirroring says to your partner, "You matter, and what you think and feel matters to me."

Here’s an example of what the whole dialogue process might look like with the Turtle talking and the Hailstorm mirroring. 

TURTLE: “When I was asked three times about fixing the front gate, I got really frustrated.”

(Notice how he didn’t use “you” language. As in, “You’re always nagging me.” or “You’re so demanding.” He used non-accusatory “I” statements.)

HAILSTORM: “What I heard you say is that when I asked you three times about fixing the front gate you got really frustrated.”

“Did I get that?” (check to be sure. If not, keep mirroring.)

Then ask,

“It there more about that?”

TURTLE:Yes. I felt like I was being controlled, and I felt like nothing I do is ever good enough, so I just avoided you and did something else for the rest of the day.

HAILSTORM: “What I hear you saying is you felt controlled and like nothing you ever do is good enough. So you didn’t work on the gate, but avoided me and did something else.

“Did I get it?

“Is there more about that?”

Staying curious and making it safe for your partner like this allows him to begin to access what’s going on in his unconscious mind. 

Seriously, things you have never seen, and things that even he has not been in touch with, begin to surface when dialogue makes the conversation safe.

Suddenly he’s conscious of something…

TURTLE: “Yes there is more. This reminds me of when I was little and my mother would force me to play the piano for her guests. And even though I would do it, I never felt it was good enough.”

Now you’re both in touch with something not seen before.  You’re seeing the SOURCE of your partner’s reaction.

And as the one mirroring, you naturally begin to “re-image” your partner, to see him, not as someone intentionaly trying to hurt you and abandon you…

… but rather, you see him as someone who, is himself, hurting and scared of being shamed and controlled.

You mean a strong, grown up man like him can feel scared of being shamed and controlled by the woman in his life?

Before the dialogue brought them to this place, I’m confident if you had asked him about his fear, he would have reacted and said something like,

“Who me? I’m not afraid of anything.”

So many people say that at first, but when you use the dialogue process to “check under the hood” you’ll find that his whole life is being driven by fear.

Fear he’s not conscious of.

The dialogue helps uncover this so that you both understand each other at a deeper level.

This process of seeing your partner’s reality transforms the relationship.

Remember you can't be curious and critical at the same time. Stay curious and your emotions will stay regulated.

It’s haarrrrrd! but you can do it!

Now go to the next step with the Turtle continuing to talk and the Hailstorm now VALIDATING.

2. Validate the feelings behind the frustration.

After summarizing what you partner said, validate him by saying something like this.

“You make sense. And what make sense about what you said is…”

Finish that sentence so that your partner will feel heard and validated.

It might look like this.

HAILSTORM: “You make sense. And what makes sense is that when you experience that feeling of being controlled, and when you feel like what you do is not good enough, you pull away from me. That makes sense.

“Especially because when you tell me how your mother demanded from you and you never felt good enough, it’s easy to see how you would feel the same thing when I become anxious and demanding.”

Then ask,

“Does that validate your perspective?”

Wait for an affirmative answer.

Validation says to your partner, "Although I may see it differently, you make sense."

This will help your partner feel safe…

…while, at the same time establish that the two of you are different. 

Different needs, different experiences, different ways of dealing with conflict.

This differentiation is an essential process if you two are going to connect.

Now the third step.

3. Empathize with your partner's fear, anger, pain or joy.

After validating your partner, EMPATHIZE with him by looking past what he did, and focusing on what he felt

In our example it would go something like this.

HAILSTORM: “I can imagine how you would be angry when you feel controlled and unappreciated, like nothing you do is good enough. That must really hurt and feel bad.”

Then ask,

HAILSTORM: “Is that what you felt?”

Wait for the affirmation and amplification he gives.

Empathizing says to your partner, “I know what it’s like to experience your pain or fear or joy. I’m present with you in that feeling.”

When you have validated your partner, then and only then will you be ready for the final step. It won’t work without the transformation that occurs with empathy.

4. Grant your partner's deep desire buried underneath the frustration.

Now we ask the Turtle to make a “change request”.  

Buried underneath every frustration is a desire not expressed.

By MIRRORING, VALIDATING, and EMPATHIZING, your goal is to make it safe enough for your partner to get in touch with the unconscious desire that lies buried beneath the frustration.

And then to form it into a request.

A request that, when granted, will bring HEALING to him, and GROWTH to you.

Healing, because it represents for him what he’s always longed for but never received.

And growth because, in granting it, it will stretch you, and cause you to grow and discover a part of yourself you lost along the way.

Make change requests specific and measurable. 

Don’t ask for your partner to do something from now until eternity. 

Just ask regarding the “next time” you encounter another potentially frustration experience.

So when the Turtle is invited to make a request, it might look like this:

TURTLE: “The next time you ask me to do something, would you first tell me two or three things I’m already doing that you appreciate?”

Embedded in this kind of change request is a powerful formula for healing (for the Turtle) and growth (for the Hailstorm).

And it sets the whole trajectory of their relationship toward wholeness.

But remember it won’t work unless you effectively process steps 1-3 first.

Does this make sense?

I hope so. If not, put your questions in the reply section below.

Wait a minute!

WHAT ABOUT THE HAILSTORM?

Doesn’t she get to talk and have her Turtle mirror, etc.?

Well yes of course!

So…

Why don’t you sit down right now with your partner and try this out.

And begin with the HAILSTORM talking and the TURTLE listening!

Then let us know below how it goes in the reply section below.

And of course if you get into trouble contact me and I’ll help you. Check out my coaching program here.

No matter where you are in the world I can help you through a powerful video conferencing platform.

But for now it’s ok to “try this at home”. 

Go for it! Begin this powerful dialogue asap!

Don’t let childhood defenses sabotage your relationship!

You can do this!

Until next week,
Chuck

Here is the video of Harville Hendrix’ brief explanation of Imago Dialogue. Watch it and learn more about its power to transform a relationship.

Comments please! Let me know your thoughts. Post them below!

Thanks!

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