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!
Watch the video below as Genevieve and Mike demonstrate the Couples Dialogue. Notice what happens to Genevieve when she feels validated by Mike.
This is how you do it friends!
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.
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.
3. Make a Behavior Change Request that will bring healing
As Frank was able to empathize with Katie’s fear of abandonment, I encouraged Katie to make 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 deep 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.
Katie’s first Behavior Change Request met a need she had 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.
Want to know what Frank’s issue was? Stay tuned next week!
Subscribe below to Relationship Resources and receive my weekly post emailed to your inbox every Saturday morning!
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.)
“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.”
“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.”
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!
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.