There’s a reason men and women are creating better marriages than ever before. We’re living in the era of what some have termed self-expressive marriages. Many married people are now more interested than ever in personal growth and self-fulfillment, and they see marriage as a means, through mutual exploration and supportive partnership, to achieve those ends.
I‘ve acquired some personal know-how on this subject. My first marriage ended in divorce in the 1970s because I was too neurotic to make it work. My second marriage was a mutual adventure in personal growth. It lasted 21 years, until my dear Sandra, an author and psychotherapist like me, died of breast cancer in 1999. Now I’m happily married to Teresa Garland, an occupational therapist who gives training seminars around the country on autism, ADHD, and sensory disorders. She’s my editor and I’m hers. Her first book, Self-Regulation Interventions and Strategies, has just been published. We’re devoted to each other, and we actively support each other’s pursuit of personal and professional fulfillment. (Quick plug for Teresa’s book: Available here at her publisher’s website and here at Amazon).
The desire for intimacy is a prerequisite of good marriages. Intimacy depends on mutual trust, respect, and affection. It’s also a measure of the openness and sincerity of each partner. Intimacy also hinges on a couple’s ability to refrain from acting out, with each other, each one’s own unresolved personal issues. (In an earlier post on intimacy, I approach the subject from another perspective.)
Of course, many individuals resist doing the inner work of self-development. That means they’re likely to have more difficulty dismantling the personal issues that block intimacy. The divorce rate has remained at a steady 45 percent since the 1980s and mediocre marriages abound. I’m sure the divorce rate would fall substantially if more people had a better understanding of psychological dynamics. In any case, more couples than ever are willing and determined to facilitate each other’s personal growth. They can sense they have a better shot at success and happiness with a trusted, loyal spouse who’s on the same mission.
Seldom does the openness and trust of a loving union occur by chance. Intimacy has to be simmered in the cauldron of conflicting needs, desires, patterns, and beliefs. To get the best results, some self-reflection is needed to enhance our awareness of what makes us tick. What are some important components of this self-reflection? We start by looking into our old hang-ups or trigger-points, understanding, for instance, how it happens that we can so easily “go negative.”
Ideally, you develop the feeling you have nothing to hide, either from yourself or from your partner. As you feel more openness, you can share that evolving sense of self with your mate.
Intimacy is also a source of great pleasure. Smart people are able to grab hold of (and hang on to) that pleasure. And they understand—more than previous generations did—the individual and mutual processes through which intimacy is created.
You and your partner might be an ideal match, but don’t expect him or her to make you happy. It’s your job to make yourself happy. You have to look within to consider the issues that, independent of your partner, can make you unhappy. These include unresolved sensitivities left over from childhood such as feeling refused, controlled, criticized, rejected, slighted, and abandoned. We can be quick to “go negative” or get triggered, and turn against those we love, whenever we become entangled in these negative emotions, as invariably we do when they remain unresolved.
In the initial stage of romance, our partner certainly does make us happy. We’re feeling so accepted, validated, and loved by the intense admiration and affection of the other person. This admiration overrides our own inherent self-doubt. But that pleasant effect is soon going to wear thin when we harbor sizable unresolved issues in our psyche.
Unconsciously, we’re always ready to act out these unresolved issues with our spouse. Unwittingly, we can even provoke our spouse into a fray in which these issues are experienced. When one partner, for instance, has unresolved issues with control or criticism, the other partner will unwittingly play into this dynamic and either become critical or controlling or become passive to being criticized and controlled. In this way, we bring out the worst in each other.
The Journal of Marriage and Family reports in a recent study that people who had difficult relationships with their parents are more likely years later to experience rocky romances. (Most people do feel they had a difficult relationship with at least one parent.) The study only confirms what depth psychology has known all along. We act out with our romantic and marriage partners the same basic issues we experienced with our parents. Much of our psychological profile can be traced to childhood and how we experienced those early years. Even with good and decent parents, children (who are subjective in their appraisal of what’s happening) can at times feel refused, deprived, controlled, criticized, or rejected. These negative emotions continue to be trigger-points for us as adults. We can, of course, act out these emotions with bosses and friends, but a spouse is always “so handy.”
We unconsciously pick romantic partners who remind us of traits and characteristics we experienced with one or both parents. This means we’re ready to go on living through old experiences, even unpleasant and painful ones. For instance, someone who had a cold, rejecting mother is likely to pick a partner with those traits. Or, conversely, the individual who had the cold, rejecting mother picks a partner who is going to be, for the most part, on the receiving end of that treatment. In this case, the one who doles out the rejection still resonates with that familiar pain because he or she identifies unconsciously with the one on the receiving end of it.
In this regard, an important concept to understand is transference. This refers to our expectation that someone (such as a spouse) will relate to us emotionally in line with how we’re unconsciously prepared to suffer. We transfer on to our partner the expectation that he or she will frequently relate to us in, say, a critical or controlling fashion. We’re now prepared, in such a situation, to experience criticism or control even when none is intended.
This self-knowledge is a great asset to the marriage. The couple understands that their negative acting-out is a compulsion based on their ignorance of the underlying dynamics. Once the dynamics are made conscious, people lose interest in acting them out, and they can now more easily refrain from doing so.
It’s also of great value to understand the role that the psychological dynamics of projection and identification can play in a marriage. Through projection, one partner can see and hate in the other partner what this first partner is refusing to acknowledge in himself or herself. This dynamic often occurs in issues involving passivity. A wife might hate it when she sees her husband acting passively, and she gets upset or angry at him for his passivity. In this process, she is covering up her readiness to feel the passivity within herself. In other words, she resonates with her own passivity, and her anger at him is a defense that serves to cover up this passivity. In fact, she may, in large part, have chosen him as a mate because of his passivity, since unconsciously she’s compelled to associate emotionally with passivity. So, in fact, both are harboring unresolved passivity and, unconsciously, both go looking for opportunities to act out their attachment to that negative emotion.
If she sees this and, through insight, begins to resolve her attachment to passivity, she’ll be able to stop getting angry at her spouse. Now she’s able to help herself (as well as him) resolve the passivity that’s hurting both of them and blocking intimacy.
Through identification, a husband might get triggered by his wife’s critical assessment and rejection of his father. The husband identifies, through his father, with the feeling of being criticized and rejected. He instinctively defends his father, which leaves his wife feeling isolated and misunderstood. So the husband is not objective because, emotionally, he’s prepared to take on the feelings of criticism and rejection and then to defend against the realization that he’s doing so. Again, he likely was attracted to his wife in the first place because he sensed her capacity for criticism and rejection, thereby enabling him to recreate and replay those old unresolved hurts. Though he’s attached to feeling his wife’s criticism and rejection, he hates it when it’s happening and gets angry at her. The anger serves as a defense that covers up his attachment: “I don’t expect or want to feel criticized—Look at how angry I get when it happens.”
When couples understand these dynamics, they’re able to resolve them. With this understanding, they communicate much more objectively and honestly. This clearing of the fog of inner conflict creates greater intimacy.