Build your dream marriage part 3: Understand how your childhood affects your relationship

If we are going to build our dream marriage we must understand the effect our childhood has on our relationship.

Most couples describe their dream marriage as one that feels safe and connected.

It’s from that safety and connection that feelings of full-aliveness and relaxed-joyfulness are born and sustained.

The operative words here are ‘safety’ and ‘connection’.

Safety is what makes connection possible, and connection is what keeps a relationship safe.

A dream marriage is one that does that delicate dance where the one leads to the other. And where each one is dependent on the other.

Safety leads to connection and connection preserves safety.

But why is this dance so fragile? What is it that causes relationships to become unsafe and therefore disconnected…or disconnected and therefore unsafe?

One answer: childhood defenses.

Why is she so defensive?  Why is he always overreacting? Why am I being blamed for stuff I didn’t do? Why are we fighting before we’re even aware of what hit us?

One answer: childhood defenses

It’s because we bring our childhood into our adult relationships.

What do you mean, Chuck?

The way we learned to get our way as a child will be the same strategy we use as an adult. We’ve just grown taller and more sophisticated. 🙂

A tantrum is a still tantrum. Pouting is still pouting. All those defenses that block our connection go back to our childhood. And it usually happens without any conscious awareness.

According to Dr. Gary Brainerd’¦

90% of our upset in an interaction is related to history. Only 10% is related to the present.

I call it the 90/10 principle.

If I have a painful, infected ingrown toenail, and on a crowded bus you happen to brush up against it with your foot, my reaction is to pop you in the mouth.

Ouch! #@$%#

And now you’re looking at me saying, ‘What gives?! You’re reaction makes no sense!’

But when I take off my shoe, and you look at the swollen redness, you remember a time when you had the same problem. Then you say, ‘Oh yeah. I get it.’ And although you don’t justify my reaction, it makes sense.

At that point, we both realize that you are not the source of my pain, you are only the trigger.

The 90/10 principle.

The same thing happens on an emotional level in intimate partnerships.

Last week in Build your dream marriage part 2, we saw how we tend to marry someone with the same traits as our early caretakers. We call that our Imago.

For example, when your wife acts in a way that is similar to your mother who wounded or neglected you, your reaction to your wife may pack a powerful and surprising punch that is related more to your childhood wound than to what your wife did or said.

Dr. Herb Tannenbaum describes it as’¦

a 5 watt stimulus that produces a 1000 watt reaction’.

Such was the case with Mark and Deanna.

One morning they were making their bed. They both noticed a spot of blood on Mark’s pillow. Evidently he had scratched himself during the night, and it left a small stain right there on his pillow.

Deanna said, ‘Oh bummer, I just washed that.’

Mark felt a surge of anger and he lashed out at Deanna.

What was this all about? Why was Mark suddenly infuriated at Deanna?

Deanna said, ‘That’s just the way he is! He does that all the time. He has ‘anger issues’!’

Sound familiar?

It’s so easy to label people who have reactions we don’t understand.

It’s what we do when we don’t understand the 90/10 principle.

Imago Relationship Therapy tools helped Mark and Deanna go deeper and begin to understand Mark’s reaction in a way that transformed their relationship.

In one of the Couples Dialogues, Mark shared the frustration’¦

Mark: ‘When we saw that little stain on my pillow, you said, ‘Bummer, I just washed the bed clothes’. When I heard that I got really angry.’

Deanna: ‘Let me see if I get what you’re saying. You’re saying that when we saw that stain on the pillowcase, I said, ‘Bummer, I just washed that.’. And then you felt angry.’

‘Did I get it?’  ‘Yes.’

‘Is there more about that?’

It was when Deanna asked this powerful little question that the breakthrough came.

‘Is there more about that?’

That question, designed to intensify Deanna’s curiosity and curtail her own reaction, made it safe for Mark to see, for the first time, what he’d never seen before.

And that was when the real issue behind Mark’s anger began to surface.

Mark: ‘Yes, it reminds me of when I was about 8 or 9 years old. My parents had separated and for some reason I started ‘wetting the bed’ at night. This happened every night and my mom, evidently couldn’t deal with it. For whatever reason, she stopped changing the bedclothes, and I had to sleep in that filth night after night. I didn’t know any better. I thought it was normal.’

You could see the compassion flood Deanna’s eyes as all the dots were now being connected.

She mirrored Mark again and asked, ‘Is there more about that?’

Mark: ‘Yes, I guess I grew up believing that my needs don’t matter. Now I realize that in some ways you’re like my mom. Not in that kind of gross neglect, but whenever you seem to scoff when I need something, it connects with that feeling that my needs don’t matter. I can see that it’s not you I’m angry at, it’s my mom.’

A major shift occurred in that moment.

Mark later reported that his awareness of this childhood wound being triggered began to change everything between him and Deanna. It enabled him to talk about the pain with her, rather than blaming and blasting her for it.

It also helped Deanna make room for Mark to feel, and to process his feelings with her, rather than walking out on his angry outbursts as she had done for years. She no longer took his reaction as personally as she had before.

She realized she was not the source of his pain and anger, only the trigger.

What about you and your partner?

Are you puzzled by your partner’s reaction? Do you feel blamed for things you don’t think you’re guilty of? Is the intensity of your reaction sometimes over the top? Do your reactions kill safety and thus sever the connection between you?

Could it be that one of the things holding you back from your dream marriage is your unawareness of  your own childhood defenses?

If you’d like more information please contact me personally and I’d be happy to give you a free 30 minute video consultation.

Also, please put your questions and comments in the reply section below and let’s keep this conversation going.

Here’s to another step in building your dream marriage!

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! 

    Build your dream marriage part 2: Turn conflicts into healing and growth opportunities

    We’ve been programmed to believe that conflicts in marriage are bad! That’s NOT true!! Conflicts in marriage can bring us to new levels of healing and growth we would never experience otherwise.

    A dream marriage is a true partnership where you find the healing and wholeness you’re looking for. Conflicts are what provide opportunity for that!

    There are four reasons conflicts provide our best opportunities to heal and grow.

    1. We marry our ‘IMAGO’.

    We marry our what?!

    Imago is Latin for ‘image’. Dr. Harville Hendrix coined the term to refer an image we carry around in our unconscious minds.

    In order for us to fall in love with someone, that person must match that image, or we simply won’t fall.

    The Imago consists of…

    (1) the positive and negative TRAITS OF OUR EARLY OUR CARETAKERS, and

    (2) the LOST PARTS OF OURSELVES; i.e. skills in our thinking, feeling, sensing, and doing that we never developed growing up.

    All the child development theories tell us that children create representations in their minds, pictures of their caretakers. This picture recedes into our unconscious and becomes what we now know, according to modern science, a neural network in our lower brain (brainstem and limbic system).

    Because this part of our brain only sees images, this ‘Imago’ is kind of like a Monet painting, a fuzzy image that is a composite of our parents’ positive and negative traits.

    As you seek a life partner, this image filters out of consideration everyone whose traits are not similar to your early caretakers.

    And it draws you to a person who not only matches your parents’ traits, but one who also exhibits those disowned, denied and lost parts of yourself.

    Are you kidding me? Can this be real?

    Sure! Let’s say you meet a person who is beautiful, or handsome, or smart. They seem compatible, and share common interests with you.

    Think of how many people you’ve met like that. Hundreds perhaps!

    But, have you noticed, no matter how great they are, if they don’t have, for example, your father’s anger, or your mother’s depression, or the withholding nature of a grandmother who helped parent you, they are absolutely, totally uninteresting?!

    Sure this is a theory, but I’m finding it to be true more and more as I continue to practice Imago Couples Therapy based on this concept.

    When a person comes along who matches these traits, especially the negative traits, your lower brain signals the release of the chemicals that cause you to fall blindly in love.

    Take Mario and Rosa for example.


    Mario’s mother’s had many positive traits including LOYALTY, and some negative traits including DEPRESSION and DETACHMENT.

    As the third born of four children, Mario grew up feeling left out and invisible. Lost in the chaos surrounding a single mom struggling to meet the needs of four children, he often felt abandoned. His way of surviving that wound was to always be in control, and to be aggressive enough to get the attention he needed.

    So who does he marry?

    Rosa, who had traits similar to his mom. Mario was drawn to Rosa’s loyalty, and he later discovered her depression and ‘distant nature’ triggered his old wounds of abandonment.

    Rosa’s Imago

    Rosa’s father’s had many positive traits, including WORKING HARD, and some negative traits including ANGER and the need to be in CONTROL.

    She learned early on to stay out of the way, to detach emotionally, and avoid the conflict that seemed to always surround her dad.

    And who does she marry?

    Mario, who had traits similar to her dad. Rosa was drawn to Mario’s hard working nature, and she later discovered that his angry outbursts and controlling nature triggered her old wounds and fear of closeness.

    OK, wait! Why would I be drawn to someone who triggers my pain and brings out the worst in me?!

    Keep reading. This will all make sense. Trust me.

    The Romantic Stage

    When you meet your Imago, you become intensely attracted and fall in love, because your lower brain signals the ‘ok’ to release dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin into your system. That’s when you realize there’s ‘chemistry’ between you.

    When Rosa and Mario fell in love, they felt fully alive and saw life in vivid color! They felt they had finally arrived! They felt they had found someone who ‘not only understands me, but is willing to meet all my needs’!

    In this ‘drugged up state’ they were totally unaware of how their negative traits would eventually affect each other.

    Can you relate?

    This is called ROMANTIC FANTASY and it doesn’t last! The drugs wear off and the rose-colored glasses are soon ripped from your face.

    The Power Struggle Stage

    About nine months after Mario and Rosa said ‘I do’, their romance began to fade and the Power Struggle began.

    When Rosa felt the slightest inkling of Mario’s anger and control, she would detach emotionally in order to feel safe. This is what she learned to do growing up with a father who could explode at any provocation.

    Rosa’s withdrawal would then trigger more of Mario’s anger and controlling behavior. It activated the lonely feelings he felt when his mother couldn’t be there for him. He learned to be aggressive to get what he needed growing up.

    And, you can probably guess how it went down from there’¦

    Mario’s angry reaction triggered more withdrawal in Rosa causing him to become even more angry and controlling…

    And it was ‘game on’! The Power Struggle.

    A destructive cycle of cat and mouse!

    It was Mario, overly aggressive in his pursuit of connection, and Rosa, withdrawing in her fear of connection.

    Rosa and Mario fell in love not just because Rosa was beautiful and Mario was handsome, or any of those normal reasons we imagine, but mainly because they were an Imago match!

    Becoming aware of their Imago match was the first step toward seeing conflict as the key to healing and growth.

    The second step was to realize…

    2. Our unconscious relationship agenda is to HEAL the past.

    This matching of Imagos is driven by an agenda to heal past wounds.

    It’s actually two lower brains colluding to fulfill nature’s drive to heal wounded emotions.


    Rosa’s lower brain perceived Mario as one who, because he was similar to her dad, could activate the old wounds she experienced from her dad’s anger.

    OK Chuck, now you ARE talking crazy! How could this be a good thing?!!

    Because experts tell us our emotional wounds heal best when they are activated by someone similar to the one who caused the wound.

    If this person triggers that old pain, and then responds in a healing way rather than a hurtful way, there is nothing on the planet that can facilitate your healing better than this!

    This is why marriage is the best place to find healing. Better than any therapist alone can facilitate.

    Rosa’s need for healing

    Rosa’s unconscious relationship agenda was that Mario, when triggered, would not explode in anger, but respond in a different way. She needed Mario to be present with her making it safe for her to stay connected with him.

    Her hope (and her real reason for falling in love) was that Mario would heal the wound that her father’s anger inflicted.

    This is the love that Rosa always secretly longed for. And she discovered that the best person to give her that love and help her heal her past was Mario, the one who happened to have the greatest potential to bring her more pain!

    Mario’s need for healing

    Mario’s unconscious relationship agenda was that Rosa, when triggered, would not withdraw like his mom did, but respond differently and stay present with him.

    His hope (and his real reason for falling in love) was that Rosa’s presence would heal the wound that his mother’s emotional distance inflicted.

    This is the love Mario always secretly longed for. And he discovered that Rosa, while being the least capable person to give that love, was the best person on the planet to help heal his past!

    The Couple’s Dialogue

    The Couple’s Dialogue provided a process for them both to validate each other, and to empathize with each other in a way that began to turn their conflicts into this kind of healing connection.

    And here’s a wonderful reality that brings lots of hope!

    Our lower brain doesn’t register time. It exists in a constant present tense. Therefore, when you finally get the love you’ve always longed for, it doesn’t complain, ‘Well you’re about 15 years too late! That’s what I needed as a child!’

    No, it says, ‘Finally, I’m getting what I always needed!’ And the healing begins!

    So conflict becomes an opportunity for healing when we discover our unconscious agenda to heal the past.

    There’s a final reason to embrace conflict…

    3. Our unconscious relationship agenda is to GROW toward wholeness.

    Mario’s need for growth

    Rosa’s need for healing was a call for Mario to grow in the skills needed to regulate his anger, and patiently wait for Rosa to respond to his need for connection. It was Mario’s growth in this respect that would bring healing to Rosa.

    This required Mario to stretch grow and discover a part of himself that was there all along, but was lost or never developed growing up.

    As Rosa learned to voice her frustrations in the form of positive requests, Mario grew in his ability to regulate his anger, and to let go of his need to be in control. This made it safe for Rosa to stay present with him.

    Rosa’s need for growth

    On the other hand, Mario’s need for healing was a call for Rosa to grow in her ability to stay present with him and to overcome her fear of closeness. It was Rosa’s growth in this way that would bring healing to Mario.

    As Mario voiced his frustration in the form of positive requests, Rosa grew in her ability to lower her walls of protection and become vulnerable and emotionally present with Mario.  She learned the skills needed to share her feelings in a way that helped her gradually overcome her fear of intimacy.

    From Rosa’s and Mario’s example, we can see that’¦

    Your marriage partner’s need for healing provides a blueprint for your own growth, and vice versa.

    Conflict is a sign that growth is needing to happen. It’s a sign that something new is wanting to emerge in your life and relationship. It’s your partner’s need that points to the specific area you most need to grow.

    When you give your partner the very things you feel you just CAN’T give (because you never developed that ability), you end up getting a piece of yourself you never had before.

    Partners who grow by stretching into these new ‘caring behaviors’ often report feeling more fully alive than they ever have before. It seems they benefit even more than the partner who receives healing!

    What about you?

    Is your relationship in conflict?

    Has your romantic love faded, turning your dream marriage into a nightmare?

    Does it seem like falling in love was simply nature’s way of getting you to hook up permanently with the most incompatible person on the planet?  

    Are you asking ‘Why would nature drive me into the arms of someone who ends up frustrating me to no end?’

    Well, now you know!

    It was your inner drive to heal past hurts, and to discover and grow lost parts of yourself that caused you to fall in love.

    And there’s no better person to heal and grow with than the one you’re with right now!

    Click here to download a Brief Relationship Workup that will help you learn about your own Imago.

    Click here to use the Workup to discover your own Unconscious Relationship Agenda.

    Ping me if you’d like help and I’ll walk you through it!

    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! 

      Build your dream marriage part 1: Reconnect your disconnected relationship

      Has your dream marriage turned into a nightmare? Are you facing the future with a hopeless feeling that nothing in your relationship will change?

      When you’ve been together for years, and you’ve tried everything, it’s so easy to just settle into ‘I guess this is just the way it’s going to be’.

      Let’s take the next seven weeks to explore how we can stop settling and start building our dream marriage.

      What is a dream marriage?  It’s a relationship where there are deep feelings of safety, connection, passion, and joyful aliveness.

      Who wouldn’t want that?

      But I’ve learned from experience, you won’t get there unless you change how you relate to each other.

      Someone said (probably not Einstein), ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’

      Jessie Potter said (she did, I googled it), ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.’

      So for the next seven weeks, let’s talk about DOING SOMETHING DIFFERENT!

      ‘Let’s do what we’ve never done so we’ll see what we’ve never seen.’ (I might have actually said that).

      Here is the first of seven powerful steps we will take over the next seven weeks that will help us build our dream marriage!


      Disconnection is the fundamental problem that keeps us from the relationship of our dreams.

      It’s not poor communication per se, or differences we can’t reconcile, or conflicts we can’t resolve, or even problems we can’t overcome. You can conquer all these, and still feel just as disconnected.

      Couples fight for one fundamental reason: They feel disconnected and don’t like it!

      What’s the answer? Reconnecting your disconnected relationship of course. Connection is everything.

      You won’t solve your marriage problems by talking about the problems.


      Buried beneath every marriage problem is a hidden desire for connection.

      That’s right. The great paradox is that your partner is a ‘pain in the neck’ because he or she wants you. It’s as simple as that.

      It’s connection that we all long for. If we get that, working through problems together is a piece of cake.

      Let’s look at how the Imago Couples Dialogue helped Karissa and Doug, not just solve a problem, but reconnect their disconnected relationship.


      Karissa: ‘The problem is that Doug never helps me discipline the kids! I feel like I have to be the bad parent and he always gets to be the good guy!’

      Before I could direct her to dialogue with Doug, she was already complaining to me. And then Doug jumped right in with his own reaction.

      Doug: ‘Help you discipline?! What do you mean? You make every decision and you’re so controlling and overprotective. It’s going to ruin our children. And you want me to help with that?!!’

      At first glance you see only the problem – what they’re fighting about. You don’t see their desire for connection.

      Their desire for connection was buried deep beneath a flood of pain, negativity, and defensiveness.

      Karissa’s and Doug’s self-absorption only allows them to see their own reality and not the reality of their partner. Doug sees her as critical and controlling. She sees him as never helping, and leaving her to do all the hard work with the kids.

      And what does all this this criticism, labeling, and name calling result in? Feeling even more disconnected in their relationship.

      That’s why trying to fix a relationship problem usually makes it worse. Because the problem is not the problem. The real problem is the feeling of being disconnected.


      The Imago Dialogue process went like this. After an appointment was made, and an appreciation was given by Karissa to Doug, she asked to share her frustration with him.

      Doug’s role was to MIRROR, VALIDATE, and EMPATHIZE.

      You can download this tool here.

      (Note to self: Always ask for an appointment for a dialogue. Respect your partner’s boundaries. And always share an appreciation before sharing a frustration.)


      Karissa: ‘The problem is that you never help me discipline the kids. I feel like I have to be the bad parent while you always get to be the good guy.’

      Doug: ‘What I hear you saying is that I never help you with the discipline of our children. And you feel like the bad parent while I always get to be the good parent.

      ‘Did I get that? (checking for accuracy)

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

      At this point I coached Karissa to incorporate “sender responsibility” which means to not use accusatory or critical words, or statements like “you never…”, but rather to talk about what she felt when she saw Doug not helping her. And then to connect that with what it reminds her of when she was younger. After that I prompted her to share any deeper fear she became conscious of.

      Karissa: ‘I feel so all alone. It’s like when I was little and my parents were arguing, and things felt out of control, and I felt helpless to do anything about it. My brothers and sister would just leave, and I felt so all alone and responsible. My biggest fear is that you’ll never be there for me and I’ll be all alone.’

      You could see tears welling up in Doug’s eyes.

      Doug: ‘What I hear you saying is that you feel all alone. Like when you were young and your parents argued and you felt things were out of control and you felt helpless. No one was there for you and you felt responsible. When I don’t help you with the children you feel that same sense of helplessness and being alone. And you fear that this won’t change and that I won’t be there for you.’

      ‘Did I get that?

      ‘Is there more about that?’

      The dialogue continued. Then I asked Doug to SUMMARIZE what Karissa was saying.

      Then I asked him to VALIDATE her.


      Doug: ‘Karissa what you’re saying makes sense. I can see how, when you don’t feel supported by me in your efforts to discipline our children, you feel alone. And then all those feelings of helplessness you had when you were little and your parents were fighting all come back, and you feel extremely alone and helpless to do anything. And it makes sense that my lack of support would cause you to fear that this will never change.

      ‘Is that the validation you need?’

      Doug learned that he can validate Karissa without having to agree with her.

      He disagreed with how she was disciplining the children, but through the dialogue process, he could regulate his defenses enough to see how Karissa’s inner logic made sense, even though he saw things differently.

      Then I asked Doug to EMPATHIZE with Karissa.


      Doug: ‘I can imagine not having me present with you in the discipline of our children feels really lonely and scary. That must be very hard for you.

      ‘Am I’m empathizing with what you’re feeling?’

      Suddenly Karissa felt like Doug was truly being present with her. Her pain began to lift, and her anxiety dissolved.

      Then she felt an openness to hear Doug’s perspective through the dialogue process.

      And here are some of the things that came out of that process as Karissa MIRRORED and VALIDATED Doug, and then EMPATHIZED with him.

      Doug felt left out because Karissa always went ahead of him in to discipline their children without consulting with him. This triggered Doug’s childhood feelings of inadequacy. He never felt he could please his dad.

      Doug feared that their children would not receive good parenting, because Karissa was too controlling.

      Karissa was able to see that Doug had wisdom to add to their parenting process.

      The dialogue helped Karissa regulate her own emotional reactions enough to see and validate Doug’s reality. This activated a new process where Karissa and Doug were able to ‘re-compensate’ for each other.

      Re-compensate? What’s that?!

      The best way I can describe what I mean by re-compensation is’¦

      ‘Because you have validated me, I feel open to seeing new things which I can validate in you.’

      In our example, the boundary shifted where Karissa’s anxiety was relieved and she became less controlling. Doug, on the other hand, felt safer to become more engaged and present with Karissa in their approach to child discipline. Wow!

      This was the beginning of a new way of doing things. Karissa not only felt supported, but Doug’s wisdom was also integrated into their parenting process.

      With this skill now in place, Doug and Karissa now know how to use problems like this to bring them closer together rather than blow them apart.

      Does that make sense? Do you see how connection is the real issue? Do you see how just ‘solving the problem’ will not solve the problem?

      The first step to building the marriage of your dreams is to reconnect your disconnected relationship!

      Let me know your thoughts below!

      Next week we’ll look at’¦
      Build your dream marriage part 2:
      Discover your unconscious relationship agenda

      Meanwhile, if you haven’t already…

      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!