Jody was at her wit’s end. No matter how she approached Caleb when she was upset, he responded as if Jody was attacking him. We all have to give our partner feedback at times about what is upsetting or not working for us. Some of us do this with tact and consider how our words might impact our partner; others simply shoot from the hip and say whatever is on their mind (seemingly unconcerned about how their message is received).
Jody fell into the tact category. She was always thinking about how to communicate better. She didn’t want marital conflict or drama. But she wasn’t about to be in a marriage where she didn’t have a voice.
After the fact, Caleb was usually able to see that his wife’s intention wasn’t to attack or be critical. But by that time, the wounding had occurred. Jody was tired of being seen as the enemy.
Understanding Unhealthy Relationship Patterns
At the epicenter of many marriage problems lie patterns of wounding and defensiveness. Once emotional wounding occurs (triggered by something your partner said or did), you may counter with defensiveness—“That’s not true!” or “You are so wrong, you’re the one who always does that. Not me!”—or you may pull away emotionally from your partner.
Typically, when we become defensive, we feel we’re standing our ground—we’re pushing back against unreasonableness or a perceived injustice. And while there is a time and place for setting healthy boundaries when our partner is being unreasonable, defensiveness and boundary-setting are quite different from each other.
- Boundary-setting (e.g., “If you don’t lower your voice we’re not going to have this conversation”) is deliberate and intentional;
- Defensiveness (“You’re no different than your father!”) is reactive. It’s a hasty response that we feel we have little control over, and it tends to inflame rather than calm.
Ongoing patterns of defensiveness and/or withdrawal are toxic to your relationship.
Understanding what keeps these negative relational patterns alive is essential to maintaining a healthy marriage or relationship.
How to Fix a Broken Marriage?
“Doc, can you help us find out what’s causing our marriage problems?”
Jody and Caleb came to me in crisis, looking for ways to turn the tide of their relationship. By the time couples seek marriage counseling, they’ve already tried to fix their marriage. Frequently, counseling is a last-ditch attempt to save a relationship before divorce is considered. Jody was definitely at her wit’s end.
Let’s examine several possible explanations for why entrenched relationship problems develop.
1) A Change in Circumstance
A good starting point is to look at the current circumstances of your relationship. Are there particular stresses or major changes occurring that might be causing undue pressure on one or both of you?
For instance, transitions into parenthood or retirement can present challenges for couples even if these events are eagerly anticipated. Just because something is positive doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful. Acknowledging that there is stress and that you’re having a difficult time adjusting can go a long way in helping your partner understand what is happening.
2) Avoiding a Relationship Fault Line
Another possibility is an underlying issue that isn’t being dealt with. When important issues aren’t addressed, flare-ups can occur over the most minor issues because the real marital/relationship issue is left festering. This is especially the case when one or both of you are conflict-avoiders (you have the tendency to avoid the discomfort that may arise when addressing sensitive issues).
Relationship harmony at the cost of addressing important issues will backfire. Jody knew this and was doing her best to unearth any issues that needed to be examined.
3) Lacking Good Communication Skills
Couples who know how to communicate do several things right: They express what they need in a clear and open manner; they are gentle in how they approach each other (especially around sensitive issues); and they are good listeners (they take the time to patiently listen to each other’s needs, concerns and fears).
They address issues when needed and they even argue from time-to-time and know how to make amends if the conflict gets a little out of hand. In short, they feel emotionally safe and can be vulnerable with one another.
4) Understanding Each Other’s Core Wounds
Our central relationship expectations were established long ago, in our childhoods. Each childhood leaves a legacy that we carry forward (consciously and unconsciously). And as part of that legacy, we enter our adult relationships with certain strengths/resiliencies as well as particular sensitivities or core wounds that shade our current relationship.
For instance, you might easily feel rejected in your marriage despite your spouse’s best efforts to make you feel secure. Or you might feel smothered by your spouse even though s/he is independent and has a full life outside the relationship. In these two examples, these relationship struggles may be a remnant from your past that intrudes on the present.
Let’s get back to Caleb and Jody. Caleb experienced Jody as being highly critical of him. Yet she did her best to address him in a thoughtful manner. And in fact, she was a very good communicator. Her effective communication skills served her well in many aspects of her life…except, it seemed, with Caleb.
In an individual counseling session Caleb disclosed some pretty disturbing childhood events that he had long ago mentally shelved. It turned out that his “militant father” was constantly disappointed in Caleb; he failed to meet his father’s rigid and excessive standards and Caleb repeatedly heard some variation of how he wasn’t going to amount to much of anything in life. With this information in hand, I openly wondered with him if these early messages had taken root somewhere in the recesses of his mind.
“Caleb, could it be that these deep-seated messages of being a failure are impacting your perception of Jody at times?”
At first, Caleb discounted this as a possibility, abruptly stating, “It was so long ago, I’m not going to wallow in pity just because my father was impossible.” I had to convince Caleb that our goal wasn’t to get him to wallow in a painful past but rather to be open to the possibility that some aspect of his internalized relationship with his father was being triggered whenever Jody was upset with him.
At this point I got Caleb’s attention, and the journey toward understanding how his past was impacting his marriage had begun.
Is it possible that there are core wounds from your childhood that get triggered in your marriage/relationship?
While the above list is not exhaustive, it is a good starting place for assessing what may be contributing to your relationship problems. And while examining what’s not working in your relationship, don’t forget that there may be already-existing positives for you to build on. Too often, problems eclipse these strengths. Be sure to celebrate and nurture what is good between you and your partner, even as you set about working on trouble spots.