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.

Feel trapped in a sexless marriage? Here’s how to change that!

What if you could transform your sexless marriage into one where you "make love" all the time?

“Not possible, Chuck!”

But it IS possible, when you understand what it means to truly make love.

Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt wrote a book entitled

Click on link at bottom of page to request your free copy


It’s brimming with hope, isn’t it?

(By the way click on the link at the bottom of this page to go where Harville and Helen are offering this book free. This book is “required reading” for my clients.)

The title implies what we all know intuitively. That there’s more to making love than having sex.

Sex is the “icing on the cake”.  And of course what is a cake without the icing?

But then again, what is the icing without the cake? 

The point is - there’s a whole lot more to making love than just sex.

What are you talking about?

Making love involves building a safe and connected relationship, 

– where open communication happens, 

– where you embrace the differences of your partner, 

– where anxiety evaporates, 

– where defenses come down, 

– and you experience feelings of being fully alive.

And all this happens before you have sex.

If you want to transform your sexless marriage, here’s where it starts!

Sex is that fantastic thing that results from this kind of close and connected relationship. 

Sex is what celebrates a relationship like this.

If you have a close and intimate connection with your partner, sex will not only be awesome…

it will be regular.

And you don’t build this kind of relationship, sex will be…well, 

not so regular.

Result: Sexless marriage.

Are you in a sexless marriage?

What is the definition of a sexless marriage?

Experts define a sexless marriage as having sex no more than 10 times in any given year, or less than once per month.

That includes 20% of couples married today.

But 40% of couples report being unsatisfied with their sex life.

I don’t see how they can define it that way because everyone is different.

So for our purposes, let’s stretch the definition a bit. 
Then take a look and see if you fit. (rhyme intended).

For example, if you want sex daily and you get it less than once a week, some experts say you fit the “sexless marriage” category.

I guess it’s all relative.

So what’s so bad about a sexless marriage?

1. A sexless marriage is A painful disappointment

This certainly was NOT what I was expecting in my marriage.

And it hurts to think about all I’m missing.

Sometimes the disappointment is so painful the marriage doesn’t survive. 

In one study 50% of men surveyed said that they would not have married their partner had they known their marriage would have been sexless.

My bet is, if you asked the wives of those men, you’d get the same answer.

2. A sexless marriage misses all those wonderful health benefits

Medical studies show that frequent sex helps us maintain youth, because it triggers more human growth hormone.

It also reduces the risk of prostate cancer, burns calories, boosts immune and cardiovascular systems, and relieves stress.

That’s great. But if you aren’t getting it, this just adds to the pain of all I’m missing.

3. A sexless marriage misses out on the closeness That makes us feel fully alive

Sex promotes the flow of oxytocin, the chemical that promotes the feeling of bonding.

And that bonding is what helps us feel fully alive.

When sex is regularly experienced as a special activity shared only with each other, this bonding enhances the relationship, keeping it monogamous, loving and strong.

4. A sexless marriage makes my marriage vulnerable

When I’m not experiencing intimacy, I become vulnerable to substitutes that aren’t so healthy.

There are plenty of “illusions of intimacy” I may fall prey to. Anger and disappointment over a sexless marriage can drive us into cheating, sex addictions, and other unhealthy exits we use to try and fill that huge vacuum that exists.

One husband said that after years of being rejected on a regular basis, and after begging his wife to change with no result, he started signing up on dating sites online. 

He said, “I no longer feel anything for her, and I don’t even care if she finds out.”

Imagine the pain of living in this “silent divorce”.


OK, Chuck I get it. What can I do?

Learning how to truly make love is the key to enjoyable sex.

Making love involves two people, with two separate realities, coming together in an intimate connection.

Making love means making the relationship safe, regulating your defenses, and listening to each other, so that every pain is shared, every fear is understood, and every desire is expressed.

Making love results in all the happy chemicals flowing, creating passion, connection, and a feeling of being fully alive.

Making love like this prepares the way for the best sex possible.

So, for a moment, remove your focus from just sex and put your focus on this fuller idea of making love.

Here are some things you can do to bring sex back into your marriage.

Use the Imago Dialogue process to communicate four things to your partner. 

And then listen as your partner communicates these four things to you.

(I’ve included guides along the way.)

1. Communicate your appreciation

Break the power of the negativity that your sexual dissatisfaction has produced.

“Why are you so cold and resistant to sex?”

“Why is it that every time we cuddle you have to have sex?”

“I feel like you only need me when you want sex. It makes me feel used.”

“I’m tired of your rejecting me.”

Our brains are biased toward negativity. And criticism activates this bias so that everything positive is lost.

Dr. Herb Tannenbaum says, “Our brains are Velcro for negatives and Teflon for positives.” We naturally dwell on the negatives. 

It’s like the little girl who was enjoying a day at the beach. As she walks in the soft sand, she notices the warm sun, the gentle sound of the waves, the color of the clouds in the sky, the way the light shimmers in the water. 

She’s taking it all in and feeling fully alive.

But then she steps on a razor sharp shell that cuts deeply into her foot.

The pain floods her psyche, and everything else but that pain disappears. 

The beauty around her is now irrelevant. The pain is all she can see and feel from that moment on.

In the same way many of us are stuck in the pain we experienced with our partner, and have lost sight of everything else. 

In our pain, all we see is negative. The pain eclipses anything positive.

But, I promise, if you look past the pain, the beauty is still there.

All the reasons you fell in love with your partner are still there.

And if you’ll take time to see it, and express it in the form of an appreciation on a daily basis, you’ll both be transformed.

Take turns using the guide below to share and mirror your appreciations.

As the sender completes the first sentence, “One thing I appreciate about you is…”

The receiver says, “What I hear you saying is…” “Did I get that right?”  “Is there more about that?

Then the sender completes the second sentence and the receiver mirrors, and so on.

It may feel awkward at first, but using this tool to slow things down can unlock the unconscious, and allow the sender to go deeper into feelings, uncovering things not previously known by both of you.

Sharing an appreciation immediately pushes the negative energy out of the space between you and opens your eyes back up to see the positive things about each other.

Plus it feels good:-)

2. Communicate (and embrace) your differences

Let’s say you are one who needs to feel an emotional connection before you can be open to sex.


But, for your partner, sex is the way he or she gets to that emotional connection.


So you and your partner are different.


Sex for your partner is an event. But for you, sex is an experience that includes an event.

There are many reasons we are different. Some of those reasons go back to our childhood experiences where our adaptations limited our growth in some way.

Imago Dialogue can help you communicate and embrace your differences.

When you MIRROR, VALIDATE, and EMPATHIZE with your partner, you experience differentiation, which transforms your relationship and makes it possible to connect on a deep level.

What is differentiation? 

Differentiation is what it sounds like: seeing that your partner is different from you!

Differentiation enables you to fully hold your reality while holding your partner’s reality at the same time.

Differentiation means you don’t have to always be right. That your partner can be validated even though you may not agree with the way they see things.

Without this differentiation couples cannot feel connected.

A breakthrough comes when you stop expecting your partner to be like you.

When you give up those romantic projections and expectations that have nothing to do with who your partner really is.

When you make a commitment to listen and really know your partner and embrace your differences, that’s when the breakthrough comes.

3. Communicate your frustrations

Frustrations happen and if you don’t talk it out you’ll act it out.

Most people act it out by either withdrawing or becoming outwardly explosive. Both strategies make the relationship unsafe.

The key is being able to communicate your frustrations in a way that results in connection rather than conflict.

Use the guide below to share and mirror frustations with your partner.

I encourage couples to share three things, just to get the ball rolling.

– What happened (the trigger for my upset)

– What I felt (my emotional reaction)

– What I did (my defense mechanism)


For example...

“When you passed by me at the party twice without speaking or even looking at me, I felt abandoned, so I didn’t speak to you during the whole next day.”

The dialogue process will uncover the fact that most of our upset comes from history. 

What my partner did was only the trigger for some much deeper pain I wasn’t aware of.

And my reaction usually points to a defense strategy I learned in childhood.

In this example the wife who felt abandoned was able to relate it to one particular pattern in childhood that resulted in her feeling abandoned. 

This helps your partner to “see you”, and helps your partner realize they are not to blame for most of what’s going on with you. 

Powerful stuff!

Here’s a guide to help you share your frustrations in a productive way.

4. Communicate your desires

Harville Hendrix says that behind every frustration there lies a hidden desire (a deep, unmet need).

If you are learning how to have safe dialogues like I’m prescribing, then you can use that process to communicate your frustrations in a safe way that unlocks your hidden desires.

When the conversation is safe, you can uncover your hidden desires and communicate them to your partner in the form of "change requests".

This is where healing and growth occur in the relationship. 

Healing for the person expressing the desire, and change and growth for the person granting the change request as a gift to their partner.

In the example above, the wife who felt abandoned uncovered a desire to feel connected with her husband, even when they are in a crowd.

The request she made was, "The next time we are at a social event, would you find me every 30 minutes, touch my hand, look into my eyes and ask how I am?"

If this husband had not seen how the source of her pain was rooted in childhood, he might have laughed it off as a “silly request”.

But, after not only mirroring her, but validating, and empathizing with her, he was MORE than happy to do this for her, although it was a stretch for him.

And it brought real healing to her.

That kind of sensitivity is what she had been longing for all her life.

This is an example of how our relationship can be an amazing partnership for healing (as she experienced) and growth (as he experienced).

Not to mention the way it swings the door wide open to the best sex we've ever had.

Once you have established safety in the relationship where your deepest desires can be shared and honored…

…well you can imagine what effect that could have in the bedroom!

It’s my desire that each one of you would see your relationship come to a point where you are…

Making love all the time!

Here’s to making love all the time – and enjoying sex too!

Until next week,

P.S. Don't forget to share this post with your friends. 

Oh no! Wait a minute. That might offend someone. 

Even if they are in a sexless marriage, they probably don’t want you bringing it up.

Maybe share it discretely. 

But encourage your friends to sign up for my weekly post below.

And if you haven’t done it yet, please subscribe yourself using the form.

It’s my desire to give everyone free tools that will help them in their most important relationships!

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

4 warning signs that your marriage is in trouble (and what to do about it)

Perplexed about problems in your marriage? Looking for solutions?

“I didn’t know we had marriage troubles, but then, without any warning, she left!”

“I felt a little strain in the relationship, but didn’t think it was a problem until I saw a text message revealing his affair!”

Marriages blow up! And sometimes it happens unexpectedly!

If you’re reading this and thinking “Who me? No, we’re doing fine.”

Good. I hope so.

…but read on, just in case.

Because some couples don’t see the signs of the end until it’s too late.

What are the signs that my marriage is in trouble?

John Gottman researched it, and what he found was this:

Four communication styles that predict the end of a relationship with over 90% accuracy.

Gottman calls them, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.


As I briefly describe these warning signs, ask yourself, "Are any of these present in my relationship?"

And if so, consider the answer I provide at the end, and let’s head off the horsemen before it’s too late!



Instead of dealing with the problem, you attack your partner’s character.

It looks something like this.

“You’re so selfish!”

When a conflict happens are you prone to attack your partner?

But Chuck my partner IS selfish!

Sure it feels that way, but can I let you in on a little secret?

It’s because he’s only seeing his reality and not yours. 

But guess what?  The same is true for you! 

You’re only seeing your reality and not his.


You say he’s selfish. And what is he saying (or thinking)?

"You're selfish!"

"No! You're selfish!"

Am I close?

It’s that limited, one-sided view of your relationship, that makes you seem selfish to each other. The psychological term for this is symbiosis.

So what do we do? How do we stop the mudslinging?

The answer is differentiation. The ability to hold your reality and his at the same time.

Differentiation can happen through the Couples Dialogue.

The Imago Couples Dialogue will help you begin to see your partner not just as someone who is “selfish”, but someone who is actually trying making a legitimate need known. 

Harville Hendrix said

Every criticism is a wish in disguise!

You just didn’t know there was actually something very legitimate behind that expression of “self”. 

But perhaps this was the real problem:

Your partner expressed it in a way that didn’t acknowledge your reality, making you feel stepped on.

Well that makes sense!

This is what causes us to be defensive and see our partner as selfish.

We both have the idea, 

“You and I are one. And I am the one.”

And there’s this power struggle.


The Couples Dialogue can help you transform a conflict into an awesome opportunity for growth and healing. More on that later.

Let’s look at the second of the signs of demise.


Contempt is when you assume a position of moral superiority.


“What an idiot!”

Remember that saying by Irving Becker?

“If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind.”

Contempt is fueled when couples don’t feel connected. They start not liking each other.

“The way he hold his spoon make me furious.”

“I can’t stand all those annoying habits.”

“The way he eats disgust me.”

That’s contempt.

Things that really didn’t bother you when you were close, now repulse you.

Here’s a secret.

It's not the annoying habits that are the problem, it's that you don't feel connected.

Once you reconnect all this contempt goes away.

I promise.

But here’s a sobering reality.

If I don’t deal with contempt, that is the beginning of the end.

Gottman says, of all these predictors, this one is the biggest predictor of divorce.

There is an answer; a way to turn your contempt into close connection and rekindled love. 

We’ll get to that later.

But first, for those who still looking for danger signs in your relationship, here’s another one. 

Keep your eyes open. Grab some more coffee if you need to.


Rather than seeing my role in the relationship problem, it’s easier to blame you.

“It’s not my fault we’re always late!”

And wherever you find defensiveness there is always blaming.

“If you weren’t so controlling our children wouldn’t be so out of control!”

Have you ever wondered why your partner sometimes reacts in a way that is extreme? Or have you noticed yourself doing that?

There’s a reason behind that extreme reaction that your may not be seeing.

If that’s true then your partner is only the trigger. 

The source of your reaction might be a childhood wound, frustration or need of which you’re not even conscious.

This means you might be blaming your partner for a frustration they are triggering, but in reality that is not where the pain is actually coming from.

I think I would want to know this, if it is indeed true.

It sounds complicated and mysterious but really it isn’t.

And there is a solution. Keep reading.

The final sign that my relationship is tanking is…


Stonewalling = Rather than talk about our problems, I’m too hopeless to even try.

“Just forget it.”

You stonewall when it’s just too painful to even hope that things could ever change.

There’s a fatal sense of resignation that is palpable when partners are stonewalling.

Some see stonewalling as a way to keep the peace.

But things that aren’t talked out always get acted out.

In one way or another.

Sometimes a partner will stuff it until it blows like a volcano.

Others will stuff it until it severs the feeling of connection completely. 

Then they don’t even care to resolve it.

That’s when stonewalling becomes your lifestyle.

You’re no longer living with your partner; you’re only living with his or her defenses. Yikes.

Stonewalling may avoid conflict temporarily but it won’t help you reconnect.

Is there a better way?


"So, what is the answer, Chuck? How do I eliminate these destructive patterns from my relationship?"

Imago Couples Dialogue

This is the tool I use with couples every week in many different forms.

(Click here to print out this tool for your own use.)

Everything we do in Imago Relationship Therapy is based on this basic and powerful approach.

It’s more than a communication tool. Communication isn’t your only problem. You can communicate and still not feel connected. 

It’s more than conflict resolution. You can even resolve your problem but still not feel connected. As a matter of fact, if you’re just talking about your problem, you may never solve THE problem, which is not feeling connected.

It’s more than active listening. It’s listening in a way that leads to differentiation – seeing your partner’s reality as valid, and empathizing in a way that transforms how you see your partner while making it safe for you to connect.

Imago Couples Dialogue can help you transform your relationship.

You can turn...

CRITICISM into healthy self-expression that results in connection.

CONTEMPT into a safe connection where romance is rekindled.

DEFENSIVENESS into a conscious awareness of my own part in the problem, and that my partner is not the villain I thought she was.

STONEWALLING into a new hope that I can be heard and validated by my partner, and that he can be with me in my pain and in my fear.

Wow! I want that.

Here’s how the dialogue works.

There are thee parts: Mirroring, Validation and Empathy.


Mirroring slows things way down.

Mirroring involves taking turns talking, where one talks and the other listens.

It seems awkward and wooden at first but keep going because it works.

If you’re the one listening, after your partner gives a few sentences about their concern, repeat what was said in your own words. Then ask, “Did I get it?” Then ask, “Is there more about that?”

Those questions help you stay curious and regulate your own reactions.

Let her continue talking until she feel completely heard.

MIRRORING says to your partner, “You matter. I see you. You’re worth being heard and understood.”

After your partner says everything needed to be said, SUMMARIZE it, to once again make sure you got it.

Then the next step is Validation.


To validate what your partner said simply complete this sentence:

“What you said makes sense. And what makes sense about it is…”

VALIDATION says to your partner, “Even though I may see things differently, you make sense.”

Did you get that part about “I may see things differently”

That’s right. Don’t let your need to be right sabotage the dialogue that will help you connect.

Here’s the point: Your partner IS different! 

Your partner is not what you project on him or what you expect her to be. 

That’s romantic fantasy. 

Now you’re in reality. 

A real relationship with ANOTHER person. Did you get that?  an “other” person. Different from you. Wow!

Though the Dialogue process what you discover is she’s not what you thought she was.

But now you’re curious and exploring her, rather that playing tug of war with her.

And you find that, although there is brokenness and scars and sensitivities you didn’t know about, she really is beautiful and fascinating in all that brokenness.

Now you’re on your way t0 connecting!


You empathize by finishing these kinds of statements with what you now see and understand.

“Given all that, I imagine you feel…”

“Are those the feelings?”

Empathizing says to your partner, 

I know what it’s like to experience your pain or fear or joy.”

“And I’m present with you in that feeling.”

Keep going in this Dialogue until you see a breakthrough in your relationship.

So, if you see some of these predictors of doom in your relationship,

the Couples Dialogue can help you address and eliminate them, and bring you into a deeper connection with each other.

(Click here to print out The Couple’s Dialogue.)

Try it! And let me know if I can help

Also, please share in the comments below your thoughts, questions and stories so we can all learn from you.

Until next week,


P.S. If you want to share this with your friends on social media just click on the social media icons below. Or just cut and paste. That’s what I do