When a couple seek therapy for ongoing conflict between them, each of them tends to believe that it is what is happening between them is the problem. Their hope is that the therapist will provide the magic wand that will restore harmony between them. Of course, there is no magic formula but there is a wonderful opportunity to explore the creativity of the conflict between them that is masking more serious disconnections within each of them. It is in this sense that there is double trouble when a couple are at loggerheads and that what is crying out for resolution is not what is happening between them but what is happening within each of them. It is a clever projection on each of their parts to put the focus on what is occurring between them because what is within them is a much more challenging task. In most cases, each of them is not conscious of the deeper hidden emotional conflicts and bringing this to their consciousness is a subtle, gentle and compassionate process. The typical scenario is where the male declares that he has only come for therapy because she (his partner) wants it and was threatening to leave if he did not come. From the female’s point of view she believes that he is the problem and she is hoping that the therapist will sort him out. Incidentally, in same-gender relationships a similar dynamic presents itself.
It comes somewhat of a surprise to the couple, following actively listening to each party’s complaints about the other, when the therapist suggests that he is concerned with what is happening within each of them and his request is that he would like to see them separately. The therapist further explains that the source of the conflict between them pre-dates their relationship with each other and, ultimately, what lies at the heart of their couple conflict are unresolved emotional issues from earlier relationships in their childhoods. It was in their earlier relationships that they encountered threats to being themselves, to being real, to being authentic and to inhabiting their own individuality. Each of them would have created powerful defences in the face of these threats. Indeed, the relationship between them is highly likely to have been formed from defensive places, each unconsciously hoping that the other would make them happy. However, it was inevitable that this task would put pressure on each other, with the consequence of the emergence of conflict between them.
It is the responsibility of each adult to create their own happiness and, rather than bringing an emptiness to the other, to bring wholeness. This reality is captured accurately by Neale Donald Walsch when he wrote “the purpose of relationship is not to have another who might complete you, but to have another with whom you might share your completeness.” All very easy to say, but the fact is that there are few people who do not have serious doubts about their lovability and capability and there are nearly as many who have not resolved these insecurities. Couple conflict provides the opportunity for bringing to consciousness what has long lain hidden – earlier disconnections from self and the repression of the spontaneous expression of some or all expressions of self – physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual, behavioural, social, creative and spiritual. The challenge for each individual is to begin to identify the nature of his or her relationship with self and the defences that have masked that inner disconnection and repressions that have long held sway within and without. There are no greater emotional pains than those of a child not being loved for self and, now as an adult, not loving one’s own unique self. This abandonment in childhood occurs, not because of deliberate malice on the part of anyone, but because parents or other significant adults were themselves operating from defensive places. When the most important individuals in your life were not in a place to hold you unconditionally, then, unconsciously, you fear that every other person may abandon you as well. When, later on as a young adult, you have the wonderful experience of ‘falling in love’ you hope that this time you will be loved for your self but, at the same time, you are in dread that once again you will be let down. The early highs of a new relationship certainly temper the unexpressed fears and doubts, but, inevitably, they begin to rise to the surface in the shape of possessiveness, passivity, manipulation, control, disappointment, sulking, physical, sexual, emotional withdrawal or some combination of these. Arguments begin to develop and differences are seen as disagreements rather than expressions of individuality. In spite of the fights and flights, each party to the relationship finds it hard to let go and a defensive dance ensues that will become more complex as the hurts pile up. Neither partner is yet in a place to appreciate what the psychologist Carl Jung had to say about couple conflict “everything that irritates us about others can lead to an understanding of ourselves.” It is in this way that couple conflict offers the opportunity for each person to come into rhythm with self.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker. His recent book with co-author Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship: The Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s topic.