Multitudinous are the grisly details of how infidelity, jealousy, and verbal abuse can violate marital and relationship harmony. Love vaporizes when each partner’s underlying inner conflict is setting the relationship’s terms. Stories of relationship distress are treasure troves for novelists. Yet we can step out of the pages of a woeful narrative by addressing the underlying causes of dying romance.
The following seven villainous dynamics, all of them related, expose common forms of relationship self-sabotage. The first of these involves the repetition compulsion: People are unconsciously compelled to act out and recreate with each other, in self-defeating ways, their inner conflict and unresolved negative emotions left over from childhood.
An unconscious appetite for taking things the wrong way spills out of us to become conflict with our partner. Unwittingly, we make our partner the source of the hurts and slights we feel, rather than realizing that we are unwittingly using our partner to act out a painful repetition of the unresolved, original hurt.
Put more succinctly, we make our partner a participant in our unconscious compulsion to dramatize the pain and disunity that’s unresolved within us.
Unwittingly and instinctively, our partner tends to participate in the graceless dramatization. Our partner “takes the bait” and gives us—through confrontational, evasive, passive-aggressive, and defensive reactions—more opportunities to foster the negative experience we’re unconsciously willing to replay and recycle. This two-to-tango “hidden game” of opting for the negative experience paves the way for us to recycle unresolved hurts from our own childhood.
Most of us haven’t shaken off the first hurts of childhood, which are lingering sensitivities to feeling deprived, refused, helpless, controlled, criticized, rejected, abandoned, and betrayed. These sensitivities are infantile: They arise from our childish tendencies to be highly subjective and self-centered and to take personally, as actual mistreatment, the perceived or actual moods, behaviors, and inattention of parents and siblings.
In troubled relationships, we’re unwittingly recycling these old feelings. We’re prone to feeling offended and hurt by our partner’s attitudes or behaviors because of our own unhealthy sensitivity. The world’s abundance of neurotics is prone to replay or recycle—compulsively and painfully—the first hurts of childhood with a romantic partner, family members, friends, or the world at large. They act out with others what’s unresolved within themselves. Even those of us who aren’t neurotic will have, at times, neurotic reactions. We can still get triggered by others, even by their slightest missteps or when they’re entirely innocent of wrongdoing.
Let’s look now at transference, the second of the seven relationship villains. (It’s similar to the repetition compulsion of the first example.) Through the unconscious process of transference, we’re quick to be subjective rather than objective. We perceive, for instance, that our partner is being refusing, controlling, critical, or rejecting toward us. With transference at play in our psyche, we are, to some degree, unconsciously distorting reality to recycle our own unresolved, painful sensitivities.
As one example, people consciously want to feel independent and autonomous (a good thing), though unconsciously many are sensitive to feeling controlled and restricted (not so good). Consequently, when experiencing their partner, they’re prone to feeling controlled. Unconsciously, they’ll feel controlled even when their partner’s behavior is innocent of the attempt to control. Now they make their negative reaction the fault of their partner. They put themselves on alert to see, in their partner’s behavior, evidence of his or her attempt to take control. But what they take as “evidence” of control is often very scanty or just fabrications of their imagination.
In doing this, they experience negative, emotional symptoms or reactions such as feeling angered, disrespected, or devalued. This reaction covers up (or defends against) any recognition of how they’re unconsciously willing to recycle and replay feeling controlled (or any other of the unresolved first hurts from childhood).
Irrationality now envelops them, and it’s likely to be negatively charged. The more we absorb self-generated negative impressions, the more we become disturbers of the peace, in the sense that we spread this negativity around. We often feel entitled to inflict our reactive negativity upon our partner and others, though we do so as part of a cover-up that protects our fragile ego. Our neurosis and its accompanying irrationality induce us to interpret our partner’s words or behavior as insensitive or malicious and thereby the direct cause of our distress or misery.
Even if our partner is indeed being controlling, we will, when aware of our own emotional sensitivity to that impression, become more capable of making the problem amenable to sensible discussion and mutual understanding. When we see clearly our participation in relationship disharmony, we acquire more self-regulation and refrain from overreacting. We see that our partner is not the dispenser of our distress. Without blaming ourself for anything, we start to take responsibility for how easily we can misread situations and stumble unwittingly into pain, anger, and conflict.
The third villain on this list is sensitivity to feeling unsupported. It’s common for adults to feel that, as young children, they didn’t receive sufficient emotional support from their parents. Indeed, many parents are clueless or negligent, yet as adults we can, with insight and determination, avoid continuing to be willing unconsciously to replay and recycle the associated hurts. Our relationship doesn’t have to be a replay of what we experienced in childhood or what we saw our parents experiencing. We can resolve within ourself the conflict between consciously wanting to feel supported emotionally versus unconsciously expecting to be unsupported and thereby chronically on the lookout for “evidence” of being unsupported. When we recognize this inner conflict and keep the self-knowledge in focus, our intelligence will likely, over time, resolve the conflict.
Codependents act out being and feeling unsupported. While they give the appearance of being supporting of their partner, they typically find themselves attached to self-centered people who are too dysfunctional to be supporting of them. The fawning behavior of codependents is a magic gesture, an unconscious, psychological defense that reads, “I’m not looking to feel unsupported. Look at all the support I give my partner. That’s how I want to feel—supported!” This is just one of many ways we deceive ourselves.
Fourth on this list is the problem of injustice collecting. As the term implies, we can be eager collectors and dogged hoarders of the injustices we perceive to have been inflicted upon us. Ensnared in the irrationality that permeates inner conflict, we’re convinced our partner is the source of our negative reactions. With resentment and animosity, we hold our partner responsible, conveniently overlooking our unconscious willingness to experience some rendition of victimization.
Again, the trouble starts in childhood. Some children accept the restrictions imposed on them by parents and take their necessary socialization in stride. Other children, fated to become neurotic, will create the impression that mother and father, through “evidence” of their imperfections, their clumsy application of authority, or simply in their unwillingness to cater to the child, are cruel, refusing, and unjust. The child generates impressions of injustice through self-centered misinterpretations of parental behaviors.
A child can also misinterpret as oppression and injustice the need for parents to be in command of decisions made in the best interests of the child. Later as an adult, a person can interpret in a similar manner a partner’s evenhanded or even well-intentioned words and behaviors—as oppressive or unfair. This person’s oversensitivity makes it difficult if not impossible to be a role model of benevolent authority, thereby undermining his or her children’s capacity to learn appropriate assertiveness and command. Such parents, disconnected from their better self, aren’t accessing a sense of benevolent authority.
The fifth villain of inner discord makes its appearance when one or both partners have a judgmental, critical mentality. Such individuals likely had a parent or sibling who inflicted this mentality on family members. Blaming others, though, is unhelpful: We’re dealing here, at this juncture of evolution, with the flaws of human nature and our stage of consciousness. The compulsion to be critical stems largely from the liberties taken by our primitive inner critic and by our dearth of awareness of inner passivity. A person afflicted with a stern inner critic is inwardly passive to that self-aggression, which is a condition of inner conflict that frequently induces people to impose that punishing, critical mentality on others.
Meanwhile, the partner on the receiving end of the other partner’s critical mentality is likely, as a child, to have identified with the experience of a parent who was passively receptive to inner criticism as well as criticism from others. As an adult, this partner is now likely to continue to endure chronic criticism from the other partner, often reacting passive-aggressively and being moody, even as resentment is building to a breaking point.
A judgmental mentality is often experienced in one’s stubborn annoyance with trifles. This happens when we quickly become irritated by a partner’s particular mannerisms, appearance, or harmless idiosyncrasies. Everyone has their quirks, and we won’t get triggered by them when we’re healthy enough emotionally. The trifle triggers us because it reflects back on us and our own inner conflict. On an inner level, we’re often on the receiving end of mockery and scorn from our inner critic. Sometimes the sense of wrongdoing goes back to childhood themes and circumstances. A partner’s trifling mannerisms or idiosyncrasies trigger in us an emotional association from childhood. We feel once again the criticism or disapproval that was once directed at us—from parents, siblings, or our own inner critic—over what we perceived as a trifling matter. In that moment when we pounce on our partner for the trifle, we’re identifying with our partner’s feelings as the recipient of the disapproval.
At such moments, we can resonate emotionally with how mother or father would or might have disapproved of us for some misstep we considered to be of minor significance. “No,” we say in our unconscious defense, “I don’t want to feel that disapproval. My annoyance at my partner (for the trifle) is proof that I hate that feeling.”
Sixth on the list is the common affliction, fear of intimacy. This anxiety or fear is based on one’s unconscious tendency, due to inner conflict, to anticipate, should greater intimacy occur, the prospect of being controlled, rejected, betrayed, or abandoned. We feel that intimacy makes us more at risk of experiencing these negative emotions in an especially painful manner. We feel, in other words, that the more we allow ourself to love our partner, the greater the danger we will be devastated emotionally by what we unconsciously anticipate from our partner: control, rejection, betrayal, or abandonment (from among the first hurts).
Fear of intimacy derives from our lingering emotional attachment to what we fear consciously (but are unconsciously willing to recycle and endure), namely one or more of the first hurts that remain unresolved in our psyche.
This predicament can be understood in terms of inner conflict. As an example, we want consciously to feel supported and loved, yet unconsciously many of us anticipate, fear, and dwell upon the prospect of being controlled, rejected, betrayed, or abandoned. Back and forth we go between desiring freedom from these hurts (and producing unconscious defenses that attest to that desire) while concurrently and compulsively replaying the hurts through our memories, expectations, and experiences.
Finally, the seventh dynamic or villainy we harbor involves the unconscious tendency of many people to say and do things that leave them feeling more disconnected from one another. In doing this, they are, at a deeper level, acting out the degree and manner in which they each feel disconnected from their own better self.
This dynamic makes it extremely difficult for couples to develop intimacy. Essentially, each partner is lacking intimacy with his or her own self. There’s a gap in consciousness, an emotional disconnect, from one’s better self. Often, people are simply and desperately protecting an ego-ideal. They lack deeper belief and trust in the worthiness of self, and they’re burdened with self-doubt. Inner conflict, in the form of unresolved emotional attachments to the first hurts, is blocking them from accessing their better self, rendering them unable to consistently value the essence of their partner.
Each partner tends to experience much of this disconnection through the other partner, “seeing” the other as unavailable, insensitive, and uncaring. When couples do this with each other, the effect undermines the love for the other and acceptance of the self. The painful impression is that one’s partner is unavailable. Yet again, however, each partner is unconsciously being used by the other as a kind of second self to replay and recycle one’s identification with a flawed, unchangeable sense of self.
In being aware of these seven villains in relationship harmony, a couple can protect each other from needless suffering. Each sees the other with new sympathy, recognizing their common plight in psychological dysfunction and naiveté. Each partner can support the other as together, in testament to their love, they overcome the resistance to exploring their underlying psychology.
Much more insight on this subject is provided in the three relationship books of Sandra Michaelson (1944-1999).