“I can’t believe it! After going through all the pain and expense of my divorce three years ago, I ended up marrying another wicked witch of the west that behaves just like my first wife!”
“I can’t believe it! After all the stress and emotional upheaval divorcing my husband four years ago, I ended up marrying another SOB just like him.”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard those words as a therapist. When working with clients struggling with marital conflict, or going through a divorce, I developed a list of suggestions and insights designed to help them avoid joining the “I can’t believe it club” down the road.
The list consisted of four important insights they needed to understand and then embrace. I encouraged divorcing clients to tape these suggestions to their bathroom mirrors and review them daily until they became a permanent part of their conscious mind.
Most Common Marriage Problems
Insight #1: Marriage is about more than “love”. When we choose a life partner, our primitive ego is looking for someone who will help us heal the wounds of childhood. Until we are conscious of that reality, we will, more often than not, marry someone who reminds us of the parent we struggled with the most growing up. For example, if we were invisible to one of our parents, we will marry someone who makes us invisible. It doesn’t make sense until you “see” the problem through the “eyes” of your childhood primitive ego.
The unconscious dialogue our primitive ego goes through will sound like this…. “I couldn’t get my (parent) to see me or acknowledge my presence, so I will marry someone who doesn’t see me so I can figure out how to be “seen”. It’s a painful thing to be invisible, so I’m going to figure it out no matter what it takes.”
The important part of this insight is embedded in the reality that we tend to marry someone who does not have the ability to make us visible. Stated simply, they are not withholding visibility from us; they literally don’t have the ability to “see” us. That’s why we married them!
The wounds of childhood have to be understood and fully conscious to us. The healing of our childhood wounds is a work that we have to do for ourselves. No other person can heal those wounds. We also have to understand that the pain of that childhood invisibility will never fully go away. But most importantly, we can’t ask our partners to fix our pain or blame them when they remind us of our childhood wounds.
Insight #2: There is no such thing as a perfect marriage. No one is perfect. You’re not. Your partner isn’t. Both partners have their wounds from childhood; and until both partners do the work of understanding and healing those wounds internally, the pain from them will be projected into the subjective relationship called your marriage.
The corollary to Insight #2 is also very important. No matter how hard you want to, no matter how hard you try, you cannot heal your partner’s childhood wounds. They have to do their own work internally. You can be empathic and understanding of their pain, but you can’t fix them. If you try, you will fail, and the attempt will leave you exhausted. Not a good formula for a successful marriage.
We are all wounded and fragile at times. We all have “hot buttons” from childhood that our partner will push from time to time. What is important, is recognizing that it’s “your hot button”. It’s your pain. They didn’t cause your pain. You came into the relationship with the childhood wound. You have to do the work of disconnecting that hot button from your partner……who will push it from time to time.
That said, it’s important to remember that forgiveness and struggle are part of being in an intimate relationship with another person. In marriage, we are simply choosing who we want to want to spend our life struggling with. Healing our own wounds is what makes marriage an intimate relationship.
Insight #3: It’s not always about you. We are all vulnerable from time to time. Marriage, and the intimacy that evolves in a healthy relationship is the simple reality that it’s not always about you. Sometimes your partner will project or blame you for their pain. That’s not evil. It’s just being human. It happens. So when it does happen, you don’t have to react to their blame by blaming back. Learning to sit with our partner’s pain while they do the work of healing is a powerful gift. The intimate relationship of marriage is one of the greatest gifts that life has to offer because it is a dance you do together as you both dance toward healing. And if you are successful in that dance of healing, you will enter old age holding hands with your partner…..because there is no other imperfect person you would rather be with.
Insight #4: The dance of marriage is not just about healing, it’s also about achieving insight from the Velcro Loop. The best way to understand this part of the marriage dance is to recognize that we all have different needs for intimacy and space. The person who likes closeness will almost always choose to marry a person who likes more distance in their intimacy. And vice versa. The person who likes more distance in their intimacy will usually choose someone who needs more closeness. It’s called the paradox of marriage.
The Velcro Loop
So let’s take a look at why it’s called the Velcro Loop.
Let’s begin with the partner that likes intimacy and closeness. They are called the “pursuer”. They usually come from a home in which they often felt unloved, rejected, or emotionally abandoned. Their motto is “No one is ever there for me”. They experience too much distance in a relationship as painful abandonment. As a result, they tend to move in closer and aggressively seek more intimacy and attention from their partner.
The “distancer”, on the other hand, is often from a family in which closeness was uncomfortable or perhaps even dangerous for some reason. They may have come from a controlling or “impinging” family. They often grew up fearing criticism, a lack of autonomy, or a lack of appreciation. Their motto is “No matter how hard I try; it’s never enough”. They experience too much closeness as smothering or dangerous. The distancer defends or protects themselves from too much intimacy in a relationship by physically or emotionally withdrawing from the relationship. They just passively “disappear” emotionally.
Ok, now we have the pursuer and the distancer. Let the dance begin.
Step One In The Velcro Loop Dance
The pursuer and the distancer meet.
The attraction is immediate.
The pursuer showers the distancer with loving intimacy and appreciation.
The distancer is initially attracted to all of the pursuer’s attention and appreciation.
The pursuer mistakenly assumes the distancer’s need for attention and appreciation is a need for closeness. It’s not! It’s a need for attention and appreciation.
Step Two In The Velcro Loop Dance
They experience love at first sight. They get married.
The lid on the box called marriage slams shut. They are now committed.
The honeymoon period goes well.
However, the defensive strategy of each partner soon begins to trigger the fears of the other partner.
Step Three In The Velcro Loop Dance
Picture the “distancer” velcroed to one end of the marriage box and the “pursuer” velcroed to the other end.
Now assume the “distancer” is getting a bit smothered by the closeness of the “pursuer”.
The “distancer” begins to withdraw and shut down a bit.
The “pursuer” begins to feel abandoned. So they “push” to get closer.
The more the “pursuer” pushes for connection and closeness, the more criticized and smothered the “distancer” feels and pulls even further away.
Now the “pursuer” gets scared of being abandoned and begins to get more aggressive in their demand for closeness. Perhaps even angry.
Now the “distancer” experiences criticism and a lack of appreciation. Danger!! So they pull way back and emotionally shut down.
The Velcro Loop dance continues to build in intensity until the pain both partners are feeling blows off the top of the marriage box. They begin to talk about divorce, and unless they go to Insight #1 above, there is a high probability that their marriage dance will fracture and come to an end.
As a therapist, I experienced the Velcro Loop Dance to be systemic to most marriages. The intensity may vary, but the Velcro Loop Dance is part of most marriages. And the interesting part is the “pursuer” and the “distancer” can be either male or female. The determining factor in who will be the “pursuer” and who will be the “distancer” is the type of childhood wounding that each partner experienced, not their gender.
Summary of the Most Common Marriage Problems
A marriage relationship is an opportunity to turn inward and begin the “self” transformation that leads to healing the wounds of our childhood. An opportunity to rewrite our childhood “self” story. An opportunity to listen to our own “childhood story” and the “childhood story” of our partner. An opportunity to free ourselves of the past and bring deeper meaning into who we are as individuals and as an intimate couple as we do the work of writing our intimate “us” story.
If we are successful doing our own inner work and healing our own wounds from childhood, if we can listen deeply enough to our partners childhood story as they share their struggle to heal within, and if they can listen deeply enough to our own childhood story as we share it with our partner and do our own inner healing, there will come a day when you might experience what it feels like to hold hands with your partner, because there is no one you would rather be with.
I only offered four insights. I am leaving the fifth insight for you to work on. Every marriage is going to be slightly different. Some of your insights could easily be added to this list. So I would suggest that you see my four insights as the beginning of a list that you and your partner will create for yourselves as you evolve your marriage.
The four I listed above seem to be “generic” to all marriages. So they are a good place to begin your own personal list.
My hope is that the day arrives when you can hold hands with that one person, that one imperfect person that more than any other, you would prefer to walk with into your shared future……struggles and all.
That kind of intimacy is a very precious gift….a shared gift of self-transformation and deep self-awareness.