Frustrations wrecking your marriage? Here’s what to do!

Relationship science tells us that frustrations in your marriage that are recurring and that trigger an intense emotional reaction, come from your past, not your partner.

“Wait a minute! It’s not my past, it’s my partner who is frustrating me!”

Ok, I realize you get frustrated by what your partner does or doesn’t do. But if your reaction is intense and it happens three times or more, science says your partner is only the trigger of  a deeper frustration from childhood.

And, let me guess…your partner sees your reaction as an “overreaction” that not justified.

Am I right?

Behind every recurring, emotionally charged frustration is a deep desire to get something you didn’t get in childhood. 

Here’s how you can turn frustrations into requests and keep them from wrecking your marriage.

1. Engage in the Imago Couples Dialogue

The first step is to make your conversation safe.

Laurel was upset because she felt like her husband Ben left her alone at a party. When she brought it up, Ben reacted to her. As you read on, you’ll see how escalated it got!

The Imago Couples Dialogue  helped Ben regulate his reaction so he could listen to Laurel. It also made Laurel feel safe enough to access information buried deep in her subconscious mind.

2. Identify the root issue

When a conversation is safe you can identify how your frustration is connected to childhood.

Laurel discovered that her “overreaction” was because her childhood wound of abandonment was triggered when she felt Ben was leaving her. 

She had grown up as a single child. Her dad left when she was eight and her mom worked long hours. After school she was at daycare until she was old enough to be left alone at home.

3. Turn your frustration into a request

Buried deep within every frustration with your partner is a wish. A wish to finish what was left undone in childhood. If that frustration can be restructured into a request, your partner can give you the healing you’re unconsciously looking for.

Laurel’s frustration: “I feel like you left me at the party and when I passed by you, you didn’t speak to me. You didn’t even look at me!”

Ben’s escalated reaction to Laurel’s frustration: “What do you mean?! It was a networking party for crying out loud! I was there for business! I wanted you to come along, but I can’t even do my job without you complaining like a baby! When are you going to grow up?!

If they continue to talk like this, Laurel’s wound will continue to be reinjured and the frustration will never be resolved.

Here’s how the Couples Dialogue helped Laurel restructure her frustration into a request.

Laurel: “Last night when we were at the party and you were talking to potential clients, I felt really alone, just like when I was little and came home from school every day to an empty house. What I’m really afraid of is that you don’t realize what being alone does to me and that I’ll always have this feeling of being abandoned.”

Ben (Mirroring): “What I hear you saying is that when I was talking to potential clients you felt really alone. It reminded you of the feelings of abandonment you had when your mom was at work and you were alone in the afternoons. And that brings up a deeper fear that you’ll always feel abandoned. Did I get it? Is there more about that?…

Ben (Validating): “You make sense. Anyone would feel that way given your circumstances.”

Ben (Empathizing): “I can imagine it must feel really bad when you have those deep feelings of being abandoned or forgotten.”

Laurel (turning her frustration into a Request): “One thing that would help me the next time we’re at a party is if you will look for me every 30 minutes, touch my hand, look me in the eye and ask how I’m doing.”

Ben (responding): “I will be more than happy to do that.”

(Big hug!)

If Ben follows through, he will experience growth, and  it WILL bring healing to Laurel! 

That’s how you turn a frustration into a request and keep it from wrecking your marriage!

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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.

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.

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…

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.

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.

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 to stop a relationship conflict dead in its tracks

Are you tired of angry outbursts and walking on eggshells in your relationship?

Are conflicts keeping you from the closeness you want?

Here is a powerful tool that will help you diffuse relationship land mines before they blow you apart.

Conflicts always start when our relationship becomes unsafe.

Often couples will think their relationship is safe but they don’t realize when safety has taken a hike.

Here’s an important thing to remember.

Safety leaves the room as soon as either of you blows up or clams up.

Your conversation becomes unsafe not only when you BLOW UP but also when you CLAM UP.

We know safety is jeopardized when someone blows up in anger and goes off the rails,“But, come on Chuck, I clam up to keep the peace.”

What kind of peace is that if you’re walking on eggshells?

You’re not keeping the peace, you’re just delaying the war.

Connection cannot happen in a relationship that is made unsafe by someone clamming up and not sharing what they are really feeling.

Here’s a great tool called "The Left Hand Column" that can help you see a conflict coming and stop it in its tracks!

This exercise, developed by Chris Argyris, helps to identify the hidden parts of a conversation that cause you trouble.

Let’s dive into it. Here we go! 

Grab your partner and do this together if possible. 

If that’s not possible right now, just do your part and you can involve your partner later.

1. Together identify a conversation that became unsafe.

Remember how to tell when a conversation is no longer safe?

Did I say that safety is at risk when someone blows up OR clams up? Oh yes I did.

So take a moment to identify your conversation. 

Look for one where you or your partner went silent about what was really going on.

2. Together write down what was said in the Right Hand Column.

Each of you write down the conversation as it happened on your own sheet.

Draw a line down the middle forming two columns. 

Label the columns appropriately, “Left Hand Column” and “Right Hand Column” at the top. This is important for the next step.

Then make sure you agree on the details about how the conversation actually went. This also is important for the next step.

My own case in point.

Here’s an example of a heated conversation my lovely wife Sandy and I had one Saturday morning. 

Wow Chuck, that conversation does look like it could be heated. That’s right. Why would I give you an example of one not charged with emotion and conflict?:-) What’s the fun in that?

You can tell when you read it, there were obviously feelings that weren’t shared. 

That’s what goes into the Left Hand Column.

OK. After you have each written the conversation down in the right hand column on your own page go to step 3.

3. Fill in your in your own left hand column.

…that is what you thought or felt but did not say.

Do this separately.

1. What kinds of things did you not say? Why?

2. What was at the heart of the conversation that was not spoken?

3. How did your unspoken motives affect the conversation?

Ah, now the truth comes out. The truth of what you were thinking and feeling but didn’t say.

Don’t be afraid to be totally honest. After all you’re partner is not seeing what you’re writing. At least not right now.

The goal is to be able to talk about it in a safe way without triggered reactions, and you both listen and validate each other.

I’m going to coach you on how to do that. How to do what?

How to communicate a potentially hurtful message to your partner.

And just as important, I’ll help your partner listen to what you have to say without reacting.

But first, here's the ugly truth behind my own conversation with Sandy. Yikes!

You can read it below. 

I put it under those Right Hand Column items so you can catch the flow of how it went,

or actually how it didn’t go because NONE of these things were said in the conversation. 

But do you think we weren’t aware of that?

Of course we were!

Neither of us were happy, but neither of us wanted a fight either, so what did we do?

We stuffed it. Setting land mines to sabotage our relationship down the road.

Here's the ugly truth in Chuck and Sandy's left hand column.

SANDY: “Honey could you fix the fence?”

SANDY’S LHC: “Why do I always have to initiate getting things done around here?”

CHUCK: “I fixed it last weekend or didn’t you notice?”

CHUCK’S LHC: “She’s never satisfied.”

SANDY: “You nailed a board over it. It’s not fixed.”

SANDY’S LHC: “Are you kidding?! Why couldn’t I have married someone with some useful skills?”

CHUCK: Look, you don’t have to worry about the dog getting out. We can redo it later. But for now it’s fixed.

CHUCK’S LHC: “I’m so sick of her being so controlling. I’m not doing that today. I just want to watch the game.”

SANDY: “Fine. I’ll just call a contractor.”

SANDY’S LHC: “I’ll show you. I don’t even need you. Everyone else gets your time but you can’t be there for me.”

CHUCK: “Fine. You do that.”

CHUCK’S LHC: “I’m never good enough. So why even try?”

 

Couples with this kind of tension feel stuck. I know we did.

We’re stuck and walking on egg shells because saying what we really feel could start World War III.

But to NOT say what we really feel guarantees that we continue to feel disconnected, walking on eggshells and even resentful of each other.
So what’s the key?

4. Share your Left Hand Column with each other using safe conversation skills.

1. Make a commitment to share your frustrations with each other rather than carrying them around waiting for them to detonate.

2. Use safe conversations skills to talk about it: a dialogue process where one person talks and one person listens. Then you switch positions.

3. Get to know your partner at a deeper level where you begin to see the fear and pain that is behind their hurtful words.

Empathy for your partner will help you regulate your reaction and keep the conversation safe. 

It will also begin the healing process for your partner.

And when the conversation is safe you can connect with each other. 

When you’re connected with each other, working out problems is a cinch. 

Here’s how it worked for Sandy and me.

SANDY: “After our conversation, I felt frustrated. Can we have an appointment to dialogue?”

That word “appointment” for us is a signal that we need to stop and process that Left Hand Column using our safe conversation skills. 

I agreed to the appointment.

SANDY: “When we talked about the fence I felt myself getting angry. I began to feel like I have to initiate everything that gets done around here.”

CHUCK: (mirrors) “What I hear you saying is that when we talked about the fence you began feeling angry, and like you’re the only one who initiates getting work done.”

Mirroring does two things. 

1. It helps you keep your emotions regulated. 

Instead of being critical and reactive, it helps you become curious about your partner. 

This helps keep it safe for them. 

You can’t be curious and critical at the same time. 

2. And mirroring says to your partner, “You matter.” “I see you.” “You’re worth listening to.” “What you think and feel matters to me”. 

This also helps make the conversation super safe. 

After I mirrored those first sentences, I asked two key questions to help Sandy go deeper if possible, to get more in touch with how she feels and what she fears.

Because behind every frustration is a desire, a deep need for something that will bring healing.

CHUCK: “Did I get it?”

SANDY: “Yes, that’s it.”

Then the final question that helps your partner go deeper.

CHUCK: “Is there more about that?”

Then Sandy went deeper and the dialogue helped me see several things that I didn’t know about her before. Even after three decades of marriage. (amazing huh?)

– She feels alone when she thinks I’m not interested in maintaining the house.

– Her home is an extension of her identity. So when the fence is broken, she feels broken.  This was a game changer for me. Now everything in her Left Hand Column made total sense.

My feelings of being controlled and feeling inadequate just evaporated as I entered her world and saw her reality.

And yes, I did get to share my frustrations in a way that did the same thing for her, enabling her to see my vulnerability when I feel controlled or inadequate.

This process is what we call differentiation and it enables us to connect deeply.

And did I say this already?

When you and your partner feel connected, solving a problem is never a problem.

So what happened with the fence?

Realizing what it would do for her, I got excited, hired a contractor, worked with him on the design, and we rebuilt an entire  section of the fence.

Chuck and Sandy's repaired conversation led to a repaired fence.

Sandy felt loved and I felt like her hero.  A true win-win.

Being aware of her need for me to initiate projects around the house stretches me and causes me to grow. 

I’m far from perfect, but I’m a whole lot better than I used to be. 

And if we do have a frustrating event, we have more confidence than ever that we can work through it and stay connected!

It’s my hope that you too will have this same confidence, and with tools like these you’ll be able to stop a relationship conflict dead in it’s tracks.

Questions or comments? Please post them below.

And if you have a positive experience with the Left Hand Column Exercise, please tell us about it below and let everyone learn from your experience.

Let me send you a free communication tool!

If you’ll subscribe to Relationship Resources below, I’ll send you a dialogue tool that will take you step by step in “How To Mirror A Frustration”, the process that Sandy and I used in the example above.

Free Communication Tool

Let me send you a powerful dialogue tool that will help you share your frustrations with your partner in way that leads to CONNECTION RATHER THAN CONFLICT. 

It’s yours free when you subscribe to RELATIONSHIP RESOURCES.

MIRRORING - VALIDATION - EMPATHY

3 steps to getting past the all the blaming and defensiveness.

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You can do it in my office or through Skype if you’re not in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Click here for more info and pricing.