Allan came to therapy genuinely confused—his once healthy relationship was starting to fall apart. He was becoming increasingly annoyed and agitated with his wife Jean and he didn’t know why. It was as if these feelings crept up on him without any clear indicator, an experience he had no control over. Part of his confusion centered around his overall perception of Jean. She was great, according to him. “There are so many things I admire about her, so where is my anger coming from?”
It would have been easy for Allan to identify what was happening as a relationship problem that stemmed from something about Jean—that she had indeed morphed into some annoying version of herself. But at some vaguely articulated level, Allan knew that his reaction had little to do with his wife herself, that she was somehow acting as a psychic mirror, capturing and reflecting back his own unresolved issues that pre-dated their relationship.
Was there some long-buried issue that Allan needed to excavate in order to understand what was happening in his marriage? Did his past hold the key to what was currently troubling him?
Creating a Healthy Relationship: Understanding How Your Past Impacts the Present
“Consciousness succumbs all too easily to unconscious influences, and these are often truer and wiser than our conscious thinking” ~ Carl Gustav Jung
It has long been recognized in the field of psychoanalysis that our past colors our present-day perceptions. The long-forgotten memories involving others, significant relational patterns and traumatic events (like the death of a parent), set up shop in our minds where they create biases and expectancies of contemporary events. There is increasing research showing that “implicit” memories are encoded in the right hemisphere of the brain, and though existing outside of conscious awareness, these inaccessible memories can mold our experiences and behaviors.
Back to Allan: Throughout the course of therapy we were able to discern Jean’s specific behaviors that were proving triggering to Allan. A picture started to emerge that whenever Allan experienced Jean as passive (what she would call “accommodating”), he felt an uneasiness that would grow and consume him. I openly wondered about this connection. “So what you’re saying is that whenever you perceive Jean as being passive, you start to feel very uneasy… Out of all the behaviors you might find unsettling, why is her laid-back relational style so troubling to you?”
The Specific Trigger You Are Reacting to Is the Roadmap to Your Past
Allan appeared pained by my question. When he finally spoke, his words seemed tenuous and strained. “It’s like she’s helpless, totally helpless, like no matter what I say or do she’ll just fold at some point…”
Inwardly, I wondered whether it was Jean’s passivity that troubled him. Or was it Allan’s propensity for intense anger in relation to what he perceived as Jean’s inability to protect herself? Or was he unconsciously raging against his own helplessness?
It was the theme of helplessness, and what he would later call “weakness,” that brought Allan face-to-face with memories of his “meek” mother who would passively absorb the abusive verbal blows of Allan’s dictatorial father. This was a painful emotional journey to undertake, but Allan did so courageously, mentally traveling back to his childhood where he revisited his own experiences of helplessness as he witnessed his mother’s victimization. Within our exploration, he moved from raging against the memories of his mother’s helplessness to discovering the self-loathing he felt over not being able to protect her.
What continued to haunt Allan as an adult were his memories of experiencing passivity as a child, along with feeling immobilized with fear while he desperately wished he could rescue his mother.
So whenever he experienced Jean as passive, Allan was not only reminded of his mother’s helpless victimization, but he was also unconsciously revisiting his own powerlessness—a frozen-in-time inertia that led him to mis-perceive Jean. Allan decided to work to incorporate these insights into his relationship with Jean, to raise his awareness and tease out the his past from their relational present.
Healthy Relationship Action Step
We all get irritated with our partner from time-to-time, those fleeting, unavoidable annoyances that come with spending so much time together. What Allan was experiencing was quite different, however. It was a recurring reactive pattern of hostility that was starting to infiltrate his marriage. The vital step he took was to go beyond blaming her for “being annoying” and to examine himself instead.
One of the most powerful things you can do to build a healthy marriage or relationship is to identify any negative reactions you might be having and ask yourself, “Why is this behavior in my partner triggering me? Out of all the reactions I could be having, why am I having this particular one?”
And once you’ve taken this step, it can be very helpful to mentally travel back to your childhood and see if these current struggles existed back then, albeit in a different form or framework. If so, making this connection can go a long way toward gaining control over what sometimes can feel beyond your control.