Millions of couples are stuck in particular forms of relationship dysfunction that push them over the brink into painful acrimony and separation. Often they have no idea of the deeper psychological dynamics driving them apart.
These unhealthy relationship dynamics repeatedly lead couples into confrontations, defensiveness, angry words, and heartbreak. Each spouse or partner reacts to the other according to set patterns and emotional expectations, and they snipe at one another like hand puppets consigned to a tragic script.
Most relationships that disintegrate do so because of what people don’t understand about themselves. One of the most common and damaging scripts that couples act out involves this conflict: One spouse or partner habitually complains that the other partner is not being emotionally supportive enough, while the other partner feels that no matter how hard he or she tries it’s never good enough. In such instances, both partners have unconscious issues that feed the dissension between them.
Let’s look at the unconscious issues that plague each partner, starting with the partner who chronically feels unsupported. This partner can be, of course, either a man or woman. For this example, I’ll choose a woman (Sarah) as the partner who frequently and painfully feels emotionally unsupported. She’s constantly disappointed in her husband (Larry), and he’s convinced he can never hope to satisfy her and that he’ll always be a disappointment to her. Larry and Sarah both feel that their relationship, rather than growing and becoming more loving, is fatally drifting apart.
Sarah was raised by a mother who was critical and self-preoccupied and by a father who was distant and aloof. As a child, she obviously felt some considerable lack of affection, warmth, and support from them. Now as an adult, she still feels the lack of emotional support in her life. Certainly, she wants, on a conscious level, to feel appreciated, supported, and loved. Yet she’s still haunted emotionally by her past. She has inner conflict involving the feeling of being unsupported: She wants to feel supported but at the same time she’s prepared to experience herself and her life through the old, familiar impression of being unsupported. This unresolved conflict didn’t magically go away when she turned twenty-one.
Sarah is quick to interpret situations as if emotional support were being withheld. Unfortunately, she’s not aware of her conflict between wanting emotional support yet being unconsciously determined to feel that it’s not being offered. She continues to believe Larry is the problem. She’s not aware of how determined she is unconsciously to use Larry’s imperfections as a way to continue feeling unsupported.
Lacking insight, she has no choice but to recycle the old, unresolved hurt that arises through her inner conflict. She doesn’t have the insight to see how she unwittingly recycles that hurt. She hasn’t resolved the inner conflict or even become aware of it, so she’s entangled in it. She’s unable at this point to live in freedom from it. Insight into the existence and nature of the conflict is the key to that freedom. Her intelligence will free her once she acquires the self-knowledge that was previously unconscious.
Sarah protests in a demanding, sometimes angry manner against her sense of being unsupported. She complains frequently to friends and family members about Larry’s lack of attention. These protests and complaints are her psychological defenses. She doesn’t want to see her role in the conflict. So through her defenses she makes this assertion: “I don’t want to go on feeling myself and my life through the negative emotion of being unsupported. Look at how much I hate it when I’m not supported. I complain about it to my friends. And look at how angry I get at Larry when I see that he’s not being supportive.”
Through this defense, Sarah is trying to cover up her transference. She transfers her own willingness to feel unsupported onto Larry, and thereby attributes to him a false intention. (Larry has his own agenda, which we’ll look at in a moment.) When Sarah understands transference, she will gain valuable insight concerning her unconscious determination to continue to replay and recycle the negative emotion of feeling neglected and unsupported.
Sarah is emotionally attached to feeling unsupported—and feeling unsupported creates a lot of her suffering. Paradoxically, whatever we’re attached to, no matter how painful, is what we pursue. Like a bloodhound, we can easily pick up the scent of our old trail of tears.
Let’s now look at Larry’s role in the conflict. Sarah assails him on a regular basis with accusations that he’s not supportive enough; indeed, he’s not an innocent bystander in this dynamic. He was raised by a father who was critical and demanding and by a mother who was quite passive and very often the target of her husband’s accusations and meanness. Unconsciously, Larry identified in large measure with his mother. He grew up to be like her—passive and willing (unconsciously) to be on the receiving end of someone else’s disapproval and aggression. This also means that, on an inner level, he’s on the receiving end of self-disapproval and self-criticism from his inner critic.
Through this dysfunctional dynamic with Sarah, he’s back in the emotional associations and attachments of his own childhood. He says he hates it when she comes after him, and often he fights back with angry accusations directed at her. Unconsciously, though, he absorbs into his emotional life the allegations and accusations she hurls at him. Even when he knows she’s being unreasonable in her claims that he’s unsupportive, he can’t manage to avoid absorbing her unfair accusations.
Larry is often preoccupied with the unfairness of it all. Even when he feels he’s trying his best and is largely innocent of Sarah’s accusations, she still attacks him. He’s prone to self-pity and feels helpless to reform either himself or the situation. He’s not aware, however, of the extent to which he goes looking for disapproval and criticism. He’s attached to these negative emotions as well as to passive feelings of not being able to measure up to her expectations. Like Sarah, he also gets tripped up by transference. He transfers onto her the expectation that she will, like his father, see him as a disappointment and find him wanting.
In addition to transference, a kind of unconscious malice is involved in their dysfunctional interactions. Sarah and Larry’s emotional attachments form an unhealthy collaboration. She provides what he unconsciously is looking for (criticism and disapproval), while he provides what she’s unconsciously prepared to feel (being unsupported). Both of them, at various times, provoke fights that cast them back into their unresolved negative emotions. For instance, Larry will passive-aggressively withhold support from Sarah (“forgetting,” for instance, to do a specific task that she needs done) in order to instill in her the feeling of being unsupported. Sarah, meanwhile, feeds him with her disapproval for even his slightest missteps. While couples often bring out the best in each other, they can, as in this dynamic, also bring out the worst.
This is an example of how couples generate emotional suffering. It’s tragic that people are not better educated in these dynamics. In our psyche, emotional dynamics are often configured in a way that’s completely indifferent to our wellbeing. Yet we can change that inner programming when we learn the psyche’s hidden coding. Through the self-knowledge provided by this depth psychology, we become, figuratively speaking, expert programmers of our psyche, able to greatly improve our living experience.
Many other kinds of inner conflict instigate relationship disharmony. Another common dynamic arises when one partner is the aggressor and the other is defensive and passive. In these disputes, the subject matter of the conflict is of secondary importance to the fact that the couple is compulsively acting out the aggressive-passive dynamic. The passive partner feels the hurt and shame of being submissive and absorbing the abuse, while the aggressive partner unconsciously identifies with the submission and weakness of the passive partner. They could be arguing about anything. What drives their dysfunction is not the content of their dispute but the underlying emotional attachment they both have to inner passivity.
Readers can figure out their own particular dynamic—and resolve the conflict—by identifying their emotional attachments. For further reading, a list of emotional attachments is available here, in Chapter 2 of the latest edition of my book, Freedom From Self-Sabotage: How to Stop Being Our Own Worst Enemy.