One of the common themes in couple therapy is each partner complaining about behaviour in the other that they find really hard to deal with. ‘If only my partner would change that behaviour, then everything would be ok,’ they say to themselves.
A common example in heterosexual couples is the ‘rational’ man who finds his partner’s emotionality irritating, while she complains that he is too logical and unfeeling. Or there is the partner who is fiery and sometimes quick to anger, while the other is extremely laid back and avoids conflict.
Another instance is where one partner is very responsible, in areas such as household finances, while the other is much more spontaneous and loves splashing out on purchases.
The interesting thing about these kind of ‘opposites attract’ couples is that, when you scratch beneath the surface, you find that often they found their partner’s differences endearing in the early stages of their relationship. So, the over-rational man was charmed and excited by his girlfriend’s high emotions, while she felt somehow secure with someone who seemed so stable.
But this initial appreciation of differences can begin to fade when the honeymoon period is over, which is usually from six months to two years into the relationship. A major life event, such as the birth of a first child, can also bring to an end this phase. At the end of the honeymoon period these opposite qualities in the other person start to seem less attractive. In fact, they can become downright annoying.
‘I loved her fieriness at the beginning, it was exciting. But now it feels more like she’s always nagging,’ he complains. She replies: ‘His laid-back nature was very reassuring when we started going out, but now it feels like he’s so determined to avoid an argument that we never resolve problems.’
Psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone describe this process in their book Embracing Each Other, arguing that we are all made up of many different parts or selves. Some of these parts we feel comfortable with and others we unconsciously ‘disown’ because they were not welcomed by our family or environment growing up.
When we are in an intimate relationship all these different parts, or sub personalities, are present, they say: ‘It is not just two people who sit down for a nice, friendly, sensible chat. We each have within us numerous selves or sub personalities, each vying for attention, trying to get its needs met.’
Viewing the problem as potentially healing
A couples therapist who works in a soulful way will view the kinds of relational conflicts couples bring as not necessarily negative but as potentially playing a positive role in helping each individual to grow and mature.
This is because, although the process of falling in love is mysterious, we are often attracted to people who have a quality that we have disowned or repressed in ourselves.
So, for example, a child may grow up in a family where showing anger is taboo or the opposite, where one of the parents is excessively angry. The child may then, unconsciously, repress his anger because it feels wrong or scary. But it is not just his anger but also his fieriness or willingness to risk confrontation by sticking up for himself that is also repressed. As an adult he may find himself attracted to fiery women because they carry that part of him that he has disowned and, at some level, misses in himself.
The therapist can help each partner to move away from such strong judgments of their partner, and instead help the individual to get in touch with their own disowned qualities. In this way, each partner can take responsibility for their own psychological growth and therefore not expect their partner to ‘carry’ all the anger or all the vulnerability or whatever the quality is that is being disowned.