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!
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A “Caring Behavior” is something your partner has expressed to you that makes her or him feel loved.
In last week’s post, Katie made a “Behavior Change Request” of Frank. That request pointed to a “Caring Behavior” – something that, when done, makes Katie feel loved.
Her request was, “Next month, will you choose one weekend and plan something for us to do together?”
When Frank gave up his weekend golf to plan a suprise weekend with Katie, it was a positive experience for them both.
Katie felt loved, and her response made Frank feel like he could move closer to her.
It doesn’t help to just close your exits. You must redirect that energy into the relationship in a way that works for you both. That’s when reconnection can occur.
How about you in your relationship? Perhaps you can relate to Frank?
Is it scary for you to think about giving up something you love on a slim chance that you might be able to make your partner feel loved?
I can relate!
So begin with small steps.
There was wife who would go jogging every day at lunch, and then again after work. She learned that jogging was an exit – a way she was avoiding intimacy.
A small step for her was to continue jogging during her lunch break, but stop jogging in the evening in order to spend that time with her husband.
She didn’t give up jogging altogether. She just turned some of that energy back into the relationship. They spent time using some of the Dialogue tools they were learning in therapy. It was a step in the right direction.
So closing the exits is not about giving up something. It’s about getting the love you’ve always wanted!
Instead of leaving the relationship, identify your defenses, call your exits what they are, close them, and redirect all that good energy into your relationship.
You’ll be glad you did!
Need help? Reach out to me. I do coaching with couples all over the world through video conferencing.
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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!
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“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.
2. Avoiding conflict keeps you from getting the love you want.
Why did I avoid conflict?
Because I feared intimacy.
This strategy of avoidance helped me survive a childhood, where I often felt smothered and controlled.
As a child, connection and attachment was not a pleasurable experience.
So, in my adult relationship, I feared intimacy because it was tantamount to intrusion and absorption and control.
And yet what I craved more than anything was that very intimacy I was missing by avoiding conflict.
Wow! Talking about a dilemma!
I craved connection with Sandy. And yet I avoided the conflict that could lead us to that connection.
If conflict is handled well, it can lead you to a deeper connection and to getting the love you want.
We get married because we have found someone who will help us finish our childhood, by healing and recovering parts of ourselves lost along the way.
We know intuitively that this person is the key to feeling fully alive and whole again.
So marriage makes a lot of sense.
The problem is that conflict is what catalyzes the healing and growth that results in wholeness and full-aliveness.
So, if I’m avoiding conflict, I’m missing out on the whole deal.
I realized that Sandy and I did not feel connected. And by continuing to avoid conflict I was settling for less, willing to live in that disconnected state.
And it doesn’t end there. If you don’t address this it will get worse.
The partner who is avoiding intimacy will look for substitutes for that intimacy in things outside the marriage.
Things that bring a temporary feeling of being alive but it doesn’t last.
In my case, I was first driven to pursue my career with passion.
Nothing wrong with that in itself, but when it’s a replacement for the real intimacy missing in your marriage, it always turns out to be an empty illusion.
The more I would seek my full-aliveness in work…you guessed it.
The more Sandy would feel abandoned.
And although she was careful not to criticize, her negative feelings came through.
I just wasn’t measuring up!
And it was true.
What a wife needs most is to feel connected with her husband. And that feeling of connection was not there.
When the glory my career accomplishments faded, I turned to my lifelong love affair with music and my guitar became the new “mistress”.
Then it was my infatuation with road biking…
…all good things, but all empty in the end.
When we’re in a marriage that doesn’t feel connected, we look for exits that we think can fill the emptiness and loneliness.
But they don’t really work. And the pattern continues.
Experts tell us that only 10% of married couples report having a truly satisfying relationship.
We were one of that 90% – staying married, but not happy campers.
The 90% settles for either a “silent divorce” where they remain together in agony and in separate lives…
…or they settle for a “parallel marriage” where they are relatively happy together, but most of their needs are being met outside the relationship through things like work, hobbies, social causes, sports, gaming, etc.
This is where we were.
But thanks to Sandy we didn’t settle there!
What did Sandy do? She talked about it.
And I’m glad she did, rather than settling for less.
I so admire her for that. She was able to identify what was missing in our marriage, and that is the reason we are where we are today.
So speak up. But do it in the context of a Safe Conversation so transformation of your relationship can occur.
Our marriage was transformed the day I realized that full-aliveness doesn’t come through all the things I was seeking outside our relationship.
Full-aliveness comes with safety, connection and passion in my relationship with Sandy.
Like Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, I realized that everything I needed was right here with me all along.
But how did this change happen?
3. The “Commitment Dialogue” helps the “avoider” stay present and heal the one who feels abandoned.
Nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe.
One drop of negativity renders a conversation unsafe and therefore nothing transformational can happen.
Whenever someone withdraws from a conversation, the conversation is unsafe.
Whenever someone criticizes someone (even so called “constructive criticism”), the conversation is unsafe.
And did I say that nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe?
Ok, so how did you get to a Safe Conversation that brought about this change in you and Sandy?
The most powerful tool we found is called the Commitment Dialogue from Imago Couples Therapy.
Here’s how it went for Sandy and me.
After I integrated the first two insights I’ve shared above, i.e.,
1. My avoidance was hurting Sandy at the deepest level, not because I was evil, but because neither of us were conscious of the childhood wound of abandonment that was so painful.
2. My avoidance was ripping me off from the experience of full-aliveness in my relationship with Sandy.
I was ready to do…
3. The Commitment Dialogue.
Here is a summary of what happened:
Chuck made an appointment to dialogue with Sandy.
Chuck began with the sentence stem, “One activity I use to avoid connecting with you is…” And I talked about how I withdraw when I feel criticized.
Sandy mirrored using the stem, “What I hear you saying is..” She checked for accuracy by asking, “Did I get it?” And then she remained curious by asking, “Is there more about that?”
Chuck continued with more details that went deeper into his childhood.
BTW: Curiosity helped Sandy regulate her reactive emotions, and made it safe for Chuck to access his feelings.
(As a result, several new insights dropped out of my unconscious mind, helping Sandy to better see and know the real me. And it helped me to see me too :-).
Can you see how it would have shut things down if Sandy had allowed feelings of abandonment to cause her to react rather than remain curious?
Did I say nothing can happen in a relationship that’s not safe?)
Sandy summarized what Chuck said and then VALIDATED it, using the stem “Chuck, what you’re saying makes sense, and what makes sense about it is…
Then she EMPATHIZED with Chuck saying, “I can imagine that it feels…”
Chuck finished the dialogue by saying, “I’m committing today to keep talking about this with words, rather than acting it out and withdrawing from conflict.”
At this point the new paradigm was integrated, a shift occurred, and Chuck transformed fundamentally into an “engager” rather than an “avoider”.
It’s not perfect, but it is truly a fundamental shift that has changed everything.
Now when I feel criticized or controlled, I’m working toward facing it and talking about it rather than avoiding it.
That new area of growth for me is hard. But it enables me to be present with Sandy when she needs it most.
When I do that, it brings healing for her.
The area of growth for her is learning to communicate her feelings in a safe way with zero negativity.
And of course that means healing for me.
And that makes it much easier to stay present with her and deepen our connection.
The old cycle of criticism and withdrawal is being replaced with one of safety and connection.
This new partnership of healing and growth is a “win-win” to say the least.
Share you insights and questions below…and, if you haven’t already, be sure to…
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Every marriage needs work. But what happens when a relationship goes flat and one partner is not willing to work on it? Is there hope for that marriage?
Yes, and here’s why.
One person can change the relationship!
Change happens when one partner starts doing something differently.
One reader told me…
“Chuck, we are trapped in that cycle of blaming and defensiveness you talk about. I feel stuck, and powerless, and it hurts because my partner doesn’t want to work on our relationship? I feel so alone.”
That’s really hard and can feel hopeless.
But if you will change the way you communciate, the dynamic of the relationship will change, and something will shift.
And your partner will have to change. Not by force, but willingly.
My experience tells me that at least he will become curious, and he’ll probably end up wanting to work with you toward change.
It’s a principle of the universe. If you change, your partner will have to respond differently.
It’s like when you change your tennis serve, your opponent has to change their response.
Quantum physics claims that, in our interconnected universe, anything you do anywhere impacts everything, everywhere. This is no truer than in relationships.
So here are some steps that are in your power to do, no matter how hurt or powerless you feel.
1. Listen before talking
Helen LaKelly Hunt said in an interview that on average we hear about 17% of what is being said in a conversation.
I believe that. Because as soon as my wife says something that triggers my defenses, I start “reloading”. At that point, I’m not listening to her. I’m listening to me! And I doubt if I even hear 17%!
So start listening to your partner.
How do I do that?
Mirror rather than react.
Use the powerful Imago Dialogue sentence stems to regulate your emotions, listen to every sentence, observe every inflection, and be attuned to every non-verbal message.
“What I hear you saying is…
“Did I get it?”
“Is there more about that?”
Mirror rather than react.
Validate rather than shame.
Be the one who lets go of the need to “be right”.
“While I may see it differently, you make sense; and what makes sense is…”
You don’t have to agree with your partner, but you do have to see that his reality is valid.
“If 6 turns out to be 9, I don’t mind. I don’t mind.” – Jimi Hendrix
If you are looking down at the number 6 and your partner who is across from you is swearing that it’s a 9, you can argue forever about “who’s right”.
Validation says even though I hold my own reality and won’t deny it, I can also see from your perspective why you say it’s a 9. Though I may see it differently, you make sense.
Empathize rather than villainize.
When you mirror rather than react, validate rather than shame, then you can actually empathize with how your partner feels. This is where your relationship is transformed.
“A first I saw you as a disrespectful person who was nagging me. Now I see that you’re upset because you’re in pain, and fearful of losing your connection with me. That changes everything.”
This will cause a shift in your relationship, draining the negativity that would otherwise fill the space between you.
So listen before talking.
2. Be curious rather than critical
One sure way to keep your partner in that uncooperative state is to criticize him for it.
Very often the reason a husband is not open to getting help is because he fears being railroaded into something that feels unsafe.
“But Chuck, I can’t help it. I just open my mouth and all these things I’m not happy about just come flooding out.”
“How can I not be critical when he’s being so difficult?”
This is where you should make curiosity your best friend.
It’s impossible to be curious and critical at the same time.
Being curious is one of the most powerful and pro-active things you can do for your relationship. That’s because curiosity helps regulate your emotions and makes the conversation safe for your partner.
Plus, when you are curious and stay curious you’ll actually find that your partner is far more interesting than you thought. That happens when you get curious and stay curious.
Still feel like you need to criticize?
Then it may be that you’re more frightened of intimacy than your partner.
Why do I say that?
I believe you when you say you want to work on the relationship, but you may be unconsciously maintaining your distance by criticism. Why? Your own fear of intimacy.
Whenever there is criticism the relationship is not safe. And distance is assured!
“I want to work on our marriage but you don’t.”
“I want to have sex and you don’t!”
Hey, someone is definitely not going to want to have sex with you if you approach it this way.
So what do I do?
Simply drop the criticism and be curious.
This will change the game!
Get curious about what’s going on and what’s making you feel disconnected. Say to your partner…
“I don’t know what’s wrong but I’d like to learn from you. How could I be the kind of person with whom you’d want to be more romantic, make love, spend more time with?”
If I’m interested in you, really interested in you, not interrogating you, but really interested and curious about what’s inside of you, you’ll open up to me.
And when I listen to you and not try to change you, you’ll start liking me and not react to me.
“Chuck, I did all that, but it didn’t work”.
That’s because his defenses were activated. When that happens, nothing will work. So start over with #1 Listen Before Talking. Refuse to come up against his defenses. Once either of you are defensive, the conversation is no longer safe. So start over, make it safe, stay in dialogue.
Listen before you talk, be curious rather than critical, and things will begin to change!
This final step will seal the deal.
3. Share appreciations rather than complaints
When you’re grateful rather than complaining, negative energy is replaced by positive energy in the space between you.
This will make your partner want to work with you toward a better relationship.
So no matter how you are feeling about your partner, share with him three things you appreciate about him every day. Tell him some of the many things he’s doing well and what it means to you.
“One thing I really appreciate about you is…”
“When I experience that I feel…”
And if possible, relate it to your childhood.
“When I feel that, it reminds me of when I was little and…
But will this really work???
The power of appreciation
There was a wife who went to counseling alone because her husband wasn’t interested in working on the relationship.
The counselor said, “Just tell him three times a day something you appreciate about him and see what happens.”
She said, “There is no way. There is nothing I appreciate about him. There is not one thing I can honestly say I appreciate about that man.”
“Come on, you can think of something.”
“Nope. There’s nothing.”
“Oh come on think about it. Surely there’s something. One thing.”
“Well…I guess you could say he’s good looking…even though to be honest I can’t stand to look at him right now.”
“Well, just start with that. Just tell him.”
So she did. And, to her amazement, there was a surprising openness she hadn’t felt before. That compliment sat rather well with him.
So the next day she said, “You know, I appreciate the way you are with the kids. In our parenting, you bring to the table things that I don’t have. I appreciate that.”
And in those first few days she began to feel a subtle shift in the relationship.
Over the next couple of weeks, as she continued to express appreciation each day, two things began to happen.
First of all, the more things she shared that she appreciated, the more things she saw that she appreciated.
Second, as she shared things she appreciated about him, she began to notice him trying more and more to live up to those things that were being said about him.
And, in time, it completely transformed their relationship!
Affirmation and criticism cannot travel the same narrow pathways at the same time.
So push all the negative energy out of the space between you and your partner and watch your partner change and become open to working on the relationship with you!
Please post your questions and insights below.
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Marriage incompatibility can be transformed into an intimate partnership for healing and growth!
Ever feel like you’re married to the most incompatible person on the planet?
You’re not alone. Turns out “opposites” DO attract!
And being opposite can feel like you’re incompatible.
But here’s a secret…
Incompatibility is the basis for a great marriage!
“Ok Chuck, I get it that opposites attract. But incompatibility…the basis for a great marriage? Give me a break! Is this going to be another post where you say the opposite of what we’ve always thought? Like ‘Conflict is a sign you married the right person’?”
I could hear your objections already and you’re not alone.
I googled “relationship compatibility” and found many who agree with you. Countless articles warning you NOT to be in a relationship with someone incompatible with you in areas like…
Strict punctuality vs. hang loose “I’ll get there when I get there.”
Neat-freak vs. slob
Spend-thrift vs. stingy-sourpuss
And God forbid you get into a relationship with someone who is not “sexually compatible” with you.
“Experts” are saying that differences like these will make life miserable!
“So don’t commit! Find someone compatible!!”
But recent neuroscience discoveries are turning what we thought about the marriage relationship on it’s head.
Think about it:
Each of those differences listed above represent opportunities for healing and growth…but only when those two “incompatible” people are together in a relationship!
Get my drift?
Here are two reasons I’m convinced “incompatibility” is the basis for a great marriage.
1. Incompatibility creates opportunities to heal the past.
Case in point: Nate and Susan.
Nate was a very intelligent, but very quiet young man in my premarital counseling group. When I tried to point out traits in Susan, his fiancé, that foreshadow future areas of conflict, he said, “No way! Those are the things I love about her!”
Nate was sincere, but he was also in the Romantic Stage of the relationship, and was seeing Susan through rose-colored glasses.
Isn’t it cute the way she’s so expressive with her emotions! I can listen to her talk all day.
So why is it that after only a year of marriage he found himself leaving the house because…
She never shuts up!
At some point after the wedding vows, the neurotransmitters that induce the romantic love coma subside.
That’s when we wake up to the fact that we have married someone different from us.
The rose-colored glasses are ripped off. Welcome to the Power Struggle Stage.
So what was going on with Nate and Susan?
Nate had married his “Imago match”.
Harville Hendrix uses this term, “Imago”, to describe an image you carry in your unconscious “lower brain” (brain stem and limbic system).
And that image consists of…
1) The positive and negative traits of your primary caretakers.
2) The disowned, denied, and lost parts of yourself.
Imago Relationship Theory posits that the selection of a romantic partner is partly unconscious, driven by an agenda which is to…guess what?
To finish childhood. To resolve the wounds, unmet needs, and frustrations that occurred while growing up.
That’s why we fall in love and marry someone who is like our parents!
Not in just their positive traits, but even more significantly in their NEGATIVE traits.
Now why would I want to do that? That doesn’t make sense.
Did I say that it happens unconsciously?
Those positive and negative traits in your partner feel familiar. This explains in part why you’re drawn to his person and why you fall in love.
But as you encounter the negative traits, old wounds are activated.
Nate had that mysterious quietness that Susan was drawn to.
And when we talked about how his childhood defenses could make her feel abandoned, she was confident that would not happen.
He just won’t. Because we’re in love. He’d never do that.
Don’t you just love the naiveté of the Romantic Stage of a relationship?
But at one point, when Susan felt Nate withdrawing from her, it did activate those feelings of abandonment. And that’s when their conflicts began.
Growing up, Susan’s mom was busy caring for younger twins, while her dad seemed married to his work. And then her dad spent whatever time left over with her brothers.
Her method of coping was to break the rules, act out – anything to get someone’s attention.
So when Nate activated this same feeling of rejection and abandonment by simply pulling away from her, she would become upset and demand to be heard and recognized.
And the more he withdrew, the louder and more controlling she became.
And the louder she got, the more he withdrew.
At that point, so early in their journey, there was no way that Nate could have understood the pain that was driving her.
But during therapy he was able to empathize with Susan, and to see how his pulling away from her triggered those deep feelings of abandonment from childhood.
He realized he was not the source of her upset. He was only the “trigger”.
In the Imago Dialogue process, Susan began making “change requests” of Nate that involved him being present with her during times of conflict, rather than “abandoning” her.
She asked Nate for things like this…
“The next time you feel like leaving the conversation, can we just stop talking, and will you just take my hand, look into my eyes, and just be silent with me for two minutes?”
As he granted those requests, Susan’s wound from childhood began to heal as her longing for connection was no longer being frustrated by Nate leaving.
Our lower brain holds pain from the past in an unconscious state, and also in the present tense (as if the wound happened yesterday).
And the lower brain does not distinguish between individuals. It only apprehends the traits of a person.
So when that past wound is activated by someone similar to the one who wounded you…BUT this time their behavior gives you what you needed, healing is the result!
And your lower brain doesn’t complain, “Well, you’re about 20 years too late!”
No! The love you’re receiving registers deep in your psyche, “Finally, I’m getting the love I wanted.” And it’s healing.
Do you see how your marriage can be an amazing partnership for healing you never even imagined before?
Incompatibility creates opportunities to heal.
Wow. Sounds simple enough, right?
Hold on a minute.
It sounds simple, but…it was extremely hard for Nate to grant that request.
Why? Because Nate had spent all his years protecting himself from this kind of vulnerability. A step like this was threatening…actually terrifying!
This leads to the second reason I think incompatibility makes for a great relationship.
2. Incompatibility creates opportunities to grow.
What Susan needed to heal pointed precisely to where Nate need to grow.
Nate had never had to be present and share his emotions until he married Susan.
Incompatibility provides an opportunity to grow and recover parts of youself that were lost and never developed growing up.
Nate was drawn to Susan because she was so effusive and free to share her feelings. Something Nate had never developed growing up.
How did Nate miss out on this?
His mother was controlling. So he discovered early in life that one way to maintain a feeling of autonomy around his intrusive mother was to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself.
Without this information, she was less able to invade his space.
Nate learned to hide behind a psychic shield he erected as a child to protect himself from an overbearing mother.
He felt smothered by his mom growing up, and now he was feeling smothered by his new wife.
So Nate would respond to Susan’s “intrusions” in the same way – by doing a disappearing act where he could hide his feelings from her.
Susan didn’t realize that when Nate left the conversation, he was only trying to survive his own pain and not trying to “punish” her.
But notice how Susan’s “change request” was a challenge for Nate to begin to learn to stay present and connect emotionally. Something he’d never had to do. Something he’d never developed. But something that he was actually very capable of doing.
Because, in doing this, Nate was recovering a lost part of himself.
So for Nate to provide what Susan needed most (his presence during conflict), required him to stretch. To stretch into behaviors he never learned as a child. And it was not easy.
But through this process Nate began to feel much more “whole” as a person.
So…not only can incompatibility create opportunities to heal, it also creates opportunities to grow.
“But, Chuck,” Nate could have said (he didn’t say it, but many partners do), “That’s just not who I am. I’m not a ‘feelings’ person. I feel like Susan wants to change me into something I’m not.”
I hear that a lot.
This growth challenge is not about changing who you are. It’s about becoming more of who your are.
It’s about recovering those things that are actually in us, but have been walled off by our childhood adaptations and defenses.
That’s why Nate felt more whole as a person after this.
Here’s a super big takeaway:
Your partner’s need for healing will always point to your need for growth. And vice versa.
An amazing thing this thing called marriage!
What about you today? Does your partner trigger this kind of upset in you? Or do you trigger it in your partner?
Have you felt like giving up on your marriage because you’re “incompatible”?
If what I’m saying is true, the best place for you to be is right where you are.
So stay put. And work toward building this kind of mutual partnership of healing and growth.
And let me help you. I can coach you though through this process online.
Click here for more info about my six-week starter program.
Now let me encourage you to share your responses, thoughts, insights and questions with us in the comment section below.
Go ahead! Don’t be shy! Leave a comment! Others will learn from you! And so will I!
Until next week…
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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.
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.
Looking for more help?
Check out my six-week starter program for couples. Get a great start all the tools you need to reconnect, rekindle, and re-envision your relationship as a mutual partnership for healing and growth.
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“Romantic Love delivers us into the passionate arms of someone who will ultimately trigger the same frustrations we had with our parents, but for the best possible reason! Doing so brings our childhood wounds to the surface so they can be healed.”
I’ve heard pain like Jessica’s expressed in so many different ways by so many frustrated partners, but underneath, the message is always the same:
“This dream I married has become my worst nightmare!”
This happens after the “romantic stage” when a couple enters what we callthe “power struggle stage” of the relationship.
It happens sometime between a few weeks and a couple of years after saying “I do.”
In the Romantic Stage you’re high on drugs!
What? That’s right. Your brain releases pleasure chemicals called dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin that cause you to fall madly in love and see your partner through rose-colored glasses.
It’s normal, and though it may be hard to fathom at the moment…
…it’s simply a sign that you’re with the right person!
It’s confirmation that you’re in the best place on the planet to heal, and grow and recover the wholeness you lost along the way.
Not every case is as extreme as Jessica and Ron’s, but most couples admit that at some point they wonder if they may have married the wrong person.
Tragically, half of all marriages fail and most fail at this point.
Many of us have relationships that failed because we didn’t know how normal the power struggle is, and how conflicts provide such great opportunities to grow.
Some of you understood it, but your partner didn’t and wouldn’t, and because it takes two, the marriage died.
No matter where your are it’s never too late to change your paradigm about conflict and get on the journey of healing, growth and transformation.
Somehow we got the idea that when romantic love fades, it’s time to move on.
Some of us are in love with being in love. So when the the feelings of love leave, so do we.
Others of us are so committed that we’re determined we won’t move on (at least for now), but we’re stuck in the power struggle and we’re wondering if we’re going to be sentenced to a life of unhappiness, or mediocrity in our marriage.
With your permission I’d like to challenge those ideas.
I see couples every week experiencing transformation in their relationship and that shift begins when they start to see their conflicts as opportunities.
You can move through the power struggle stage to mature love and experience healing and wholeness!
And not only that, after Mature Love comes the next stage which I call World Impact where your partnership for healing and growth becomes a positive force that begins to transform your family and the world you live in.
I’ll be sharing some tools that can help you get there in the coming weeks. So please stay tuned and open that email each week.