There are many reasons for our choice of partners. There may be strong physical or intellectual attraction, shared interests, humor, religion or values, or some ineffable connection.
However, couples often find themselves wondering, after some time, “What happened?” The initial “honeymoon” period is over and there may be a change of the relationship structure with the addition of children or job changes, etc. Conflict and/or distance grows.
Sometimes it is the difficult unconscious relationship to a parent that is triggered. They may be “pushing each other’s buttons” which have a heavy load behind them.
This concept may be best explained by some case examples
(None of these are actual clients but composites of past clients):
Donald and Ellen
Ellen and Donald met through a mutual friend. They felt a strong sexual and emotional attraction. Both loved reading, watching old movies and dancing.
Ellen’s father was a kind but distant, emotionally unavailable, man. Donald was extroverted, engaging and a charming storyteller. This attracted Ellen, partly as a way to have a type of connection with a man that she had never had with her father.
Donald came from a family with a mother who was devoted but rather cold and not very nurturing. He was attracted to Ellen’s warm, nurturing personality.
After they had a baby, Ellen’s nurturing was naturally focused on the baby more than on Donald. Donald had many friends through sports and work. He began using his socially engaging charm on friends and co-workers but being more distant with Ellen. To Ellen it seemed that Donald, like her father, preferred everyone to her. Feeling rejected made her angry and withholding of affection and nurturance. As Donald experienced her being more like his mother, he started getting his need for nurturance and warmth met by others. He began having an affair.
Andrea and Charlie
Charlie and Andrea met through a hiking club. They connected around their love of outdoor sports, religion and their intelligence.
Charlie’s mother was high strung and emotional. She also was quite critical. He learned to be a pleaser and high achiever to keep her calm and happy as much as possible.
Andrea’s father was a rough, hard talking man. Andrea was a little afraid of him and learned to keep a low profile. She was an introvert by nature, anyway, and liked a lot of alone time.
Charlie was drawn to Andrea’s low-key quality and she was glad to find a gentle man who aimed to please her. But Charlie’s high achieving led to continued promotions at his very stressful job.
He’d come home from work exhausted and overstimulated. He would withdraw to “chill out”. This left Andrea feeling rejected. When she tried to talk to Charlie about it, he experienced her as critical (like his mother). This made him defensive and angry, which made her fearful (as with her father). Her response was to retreat into more alone time, which then made Charlie feel rejected. They were caught in a cycle of increasing distancing.
Nate and Harriet
Harriet and Nate met at college. Both were active in campus politics and shared views on social justice. Nate was attracted to Harriet’s rebellious spirit, intelligence and that she chose him over numerous, more traditionally attractive, suitors. Harriet loved Nate’s sensitive nature and modesty. She also admired his filmmaking.
Harriet came from a very wealthy family. Her father was a successful filmmaker who was lacking in empathy for others, judgmental and insensitive. Her mother was well meaning but controlling.
Nate grew up with a critical, volatile mother. He learned to avoid her as much as possible but would often get pulled into screaming fights with her. His father had left the family when Nate was very young.
Nate was struggling in the highly competitive field of filmmaking and couldn’t support Harriet and the children in the way she was accustomed to. Her father constantly gave Nate “advice” on filmmaking, which was thinly disguised criticism. Nate became depressed and withdrew. Harriet would try to get him to go back to the sensitive, engaged husband she married by constantly reminding him of how he used to be, how happy they had once been. Hearing this, Nate would feel terribly criticized and like he had failed as a husband. As with his mother, he began to avoid her and then would end up screaming at her to just leave him alone. Harriet would alternate between attempts at controlling and shouting matches with him.
The fighting was escalating to the point of putting them on the brink of divorce.
Through couples therapy the unconscious dynamics can be brought to light and worked through. Often a breakthrough comes from gaining understanding of what is getting triggered from the past that is making the situation so intolerable. It takes hard work, but most couples have the desire and ability to do it and renew their lost connection.