The presenting complaint of couples who come to see us for counseling is often that they are regularly fighting. They are in our office instead of a lawyer’s because they do love each other and still have hope for regaining the love and trust that brought them together in the first place. If they knew how to solve their issues, they would have done so already. Seeing us is a last ditch effort to save their marriage and their own dignity.
Our job is to build on that hope. People always have the capacity to solve their differences. Often, they need a new understanding of what they are fighting about and some new skills for conflict resolution. There is plenty of information on the internet about conflict resolution. In this article, I will focus on the common issues that transform everyday conflict into painful fights.
Family of Origin Issues
Carl Whitaker, one of the founders of family systems therapy, used to joke that couples are made up of two scapegoats sent out to see which family will prevail. One of the tasks of becoming a couple is navigating differences in upbringing. Do we follow my family’s traditions, approaches to decision making, parenting style, etc. or yours – or do we make something uniquely ours? Couples get stuck when one or the other is unwilling or unable to compromise.
Unresolved loyalty issues with family of origin: In some couples, one person gives his or her parents more say about decisions about money, time and parenting than the partner. Instead of turning to the spouse in times of trouble or indecision, one or the other consults with parents about what to do.
Membership in the family of origin is incompatible with marriage: One or both believe that to continue to be loved by their own parents they must put the parents’ needs over those of their spouse. For example: In some couples, one (or both) believes that they must always be “on call” for their mother. In other families, the role of one adult child is to always take care of the ill sibling, even if their spouse needs them. In one couple I counseled, the husband left his wife who was in labor to bail his brother out of jail. It was expected by everyone in his family that only he should do it.
Unresolved pain: If a parent was abusive or emotionally unavailable or overly critical, it’s possible that any behavior by the spouse that reminds the other of that parent surfaces old pain. The conversation then quickly shifts from the issue at hand to “You’ve not going to treat me like my father did!”
Lack of Role Models
In some couples, one or both are “pioneers.” They did not grow up seeing adults around them engage in healthy give and take and problem solving. This situation can be because of the early death of a parent; alcoholism, addiction or illness of one parent; parents who actively fought and disliked each other; parents who had a contentious divorce; or a parent who was mostly physically or emotionally absent. Not having observed a healthy relationship over time, they didn’t have the opportunity to absorb and learn skills necessary for maintaining a loving, strong marriage.
Growing into marriage: In some couples, one or both believe that a relationship should continue in the mode of romance. They don’t understand that every day marriage isn’t about fireworks and flowers. Once the “zing” is over, they think the relationship is too.
Shifts in life tasks: A couple may have done fine when things were stable but add in one of the predictable life changes or milestones and they seem to fall apart. They don’t know how to recalibrate their relationship in response to their new reality. The precipitating event may a the birth or adoption of a child, a change in finances, job change or loss, kids leaving home, the death of important people in the family, etc. They haven’t recognized or taken into full account the impact of the change.
Unresolved Trauma: Sometimes a history of trauma for one or both members of the couple hasn’t been sufficiently resolved in prior treatment or has resurfaced because of other life events. For example: When a daughter reaches the age her mother was when molested, it may trigger the mother.
Post Traumatic Stress comes from the convergence of a traumatic event and the lack of sufficient supports and skills to deal with it. The event may have been bullying, sexual assault, death of someone important because of an accident or sudden illness, natural disaster, combat, or something unique to the person. A current problem may be a painful reminder.
Further, if coping skills and supports weren’t in place at the time, the person may have somehow gotten past the event but not developed such supports for the present. It’s not unusual for someone who didn’t have the loving support of those around him or her then to have partnered with someone who doesn’t know how to provide it now. The cycle continues.
Dove-tailing of issues
It’s a truism in couple work that people’s issues often dove-tail. The pursuer marries a distancer. The needy person marries a rescuer. The extrovert marries an introvert. What was a fascinating difference or an introduction to a different way of being during romance becomes an irritant in the marriage. Roles that are rigid can become a major obstacle to maturing as a couple.
For example: She loves the way he is loyal to his family and believes that he will be as loyal and responsive to her. He admires her strength and independence and believes she will not need much support from him. A situation develops where she feels abandoned when he puts his mom’s needs before hers. He feels torn between the two when he thought his wife wouldn’t need him as much as he thinks his mother does.
An important service we can provide as counselors is to normalize conflict as an important opportunity to grow – and to normalize the distress that comes with it. Growth does require the willingness to be unhappy for a while as we figure it out. Done well, therapy helps couples develop a more compassionate understanding of what each of them brings to their relationship that makes solving problems difficult and provides them with new skills for supporting each other in doing so.