Why Fixing Problems In Your Relationship Won’t Work
by Dana Boyle on April 24, 2012
I’m reading Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want: A Guide For Couples. I’m not all the way through it yet, but I have read the foundational theory of his work and had my eyes opened wide about why we all have problems in our relationships.
By Tristant ObOss
Every problem we have in our relationships, with rare exception, comes down to the part of our brains that is wired for survival…I call it our reptilian brain – the part of the brain that fights or flees when faced with a threat, the part of the brain that makes your heart beat and keeps you breathing when you fall asleep.
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The premise of Hendrix’ work is that we choose our spouse because they match a set of characteristics that our subconscious brain has memorized and stored about our childhood caregivers, AND they possess qualities that we have been socialized by our caregivers to deny in ourselves. (If your mother taught you that boys don’t cry, you might seek out expressive women who will emote for you. If your dad taught you that girls should look pretty and be nice, and smarts in women don’t matter, you might marry an intellectual man who can make up for your inability to express your cerebral side.)
During the dating phase, when we first meet and while we’re courting, there is research to support the assertion that we are literally on drugs…our brains are producing four of five chemicals that they don’t usually produce in such high amounts, and we literally see the beauty in things we never noticed before. While scientists can’t yet explain why this happens when we find that match we’re talking about, they can substantiate the chemicals in our brains when we fall in love. This is why we only see the good qualities in our spouses when we’re first dating.
As Hendrix’ theory goes, about the time that we commit to our partners, whether that is marriage or moving in together, or having a child together, those chemicals in our brains begin to diminish. This is because we suddenly flip a switch when we commit. Before commitment, we are subconsciously trying to get our partner to commit to us, to stick around, to meet our needs and make us whole again, like when we were born. But as soon as they commit to us, we subconsciously change our motives. Now that they have committed, their purpose is exactly the same as our childhood caretakers’ purpose – we want them to intuit all of our needs and meet them. We no longer woo them and do nice things for them, because we are waiting for the “pay off” for all our efforts, which is that they will now complete us, make us whole and take care of our every need. (Again, this is all subconscious. If anyone acted like this on purpose, we’d call them a sociopath or at least a narcissist.)
This is why either abruptly or gradually, at the stage where commitment takes place in your relationship, you begin to see the negative qualities of your partner. Suddenly, they possess all the negative traits of your mom or dad, or step-dad. Even if they only possess a few of those negative traits, because our subconscious goal is to heal our childhood wounds, we will project any missing qualities onto our mate to produce the desired scenario in an attempt to relive those wounding moments, subconsciously believing that our mate will do it right this time, in a way that our parents could not. We believe they will love us more than our parents did.
What’s more, is that suddenly they will also possess those shadow parts that we have denied in ourselves, because they always did possess them, but now the dynamic of the relationship – us trying to get our needs met just like a baby does – by “crying” (anger/temper tantrums/pouting) will bring out the traits we hate in ourselves – the ones our parents told us were bad (like showing real anger, being selfish, blaming others, acting like a victim, or whatever it may be). Again, we chose them because they had all the qualities we feel we are missing, plus the positives and negatives of our parents – which helps them make us whole, we think. And we do all of this in just a few minutes on dates, by observing things like how fast they talk, how quickly they answer our questions, their tone of voice, dominant facial expressions, posture, etc. It’s not conscious or calculated, but our reptilian brain is very good at it.
And remember, your mate did the same thing choosing you – so you are now possessing the negative traits of their parents and showing them the ugliest parts of themselves that they were taught are too ugly to come out and meet the world.
When we find ourselves in this power struggle stage of our relationship, a place where 50% bow out (get a divorce, leave), and many of those who stay and can’t get past this stage just live parallel lives, we think we have to solve the problems that cause our fights.
Most couples have the same general fight over and over. What’s underneath the fight isn’t what we think it is. It isn’t even what we think is behind it.
What is behind our fights and the scenario that we keep playing over and over in our marriage is two wounded children who want their partners to heal the wounds that were caused in their upbringing and help them be whole again.
And let me be clear…we are all wounded, some worse than others. No matter how well-intentioned or wonderful your parents were at raising you, they inadvertently caused you wounds. Even if you had a rosy, noodle salad upbringing, you’re wounded in some ways.
Can you see why marital counseling or coaching that aims to simply resolve an issue that you’re having or negotiate a solution for you won’t work?
Nothing is going to work until you can engage your new brain, the evolved part of your brain that is logical and loving, knowing what your reptilian brain is trying to do.
You can’t begin to do that until you understand what’s happening in your reptilian brain and your spouse’s, understand why you chose them at a subconscious level, and realize that it’s not personal either way. The two of you really can help each other feel less wounded and fill in the gaps by first understanding what’s actually going on.
I’m sure I’ll have much more on this as I continue to learn the techniques in Hendrix’ book. For now, this is a lot to wrap our heads around.
I, myself, have been having fun isolating the traits that I subconsciously chose in my husband and guessing based on the buttons I push, the traits he subconsciously chose me for.