When a couple sits down with me in my consulting room for the first time, the partners usually come prepared to describe the problems in their marriage. Often, they are angry and have lost their patience. They’re ready to point fingers at the other with accusations of “He always . . . ” and “She never. . . ” However, the partners are rarely prepared to discover that old, childhood disappointments can sometimes linger into adulthood.
Early emotional injuries can remain alive in the psyche for a lifetime. Most don’t cause daily pain, although often they do. However, they can certainly shape how we view the world. Importantly, they also shape our search for a partner and our behavior with our partner.
Exploring the unique relational mechanism of any partnership and unlocking dysfunctional patterns bring us face to face with injured aspects of the self. There are, essentially, a spectrum of injuries—ranging from trauma to developmental disappointment—that can fester in the psyche, impacting the relational mechanism of the partnership and seeking both expression and healing, particularly within the charged environment of a romantic relationship. Whether we refer to these as the area of trauma or the area impacted by developmental disappointment, nonetheless they have significance. Since they are often areas of deficit and unmet need, they imbue the self with life-long feelings, wishes, longings and hopes. They influence perspectives and decision-making, impact identity and self-esteem, and underlie the search for love. When the partners are in the silent grip of their own search for healing, we find that their needs and injuries can—uncannily—correspond with one another’s, working in tandem to trigger reactions and counter-reactions that ultimately drive them apart.
What triggers you? Are you ever accused of “over-reacting”? Or, have you ever accused your partner of “over-reacting”? Chances are the over-reaction was due to a trigger—an old area of injury or disappointment harbored in the self, and sensitive to present-day acts or comments. Have you noticed that the triggering often seems to be mutual? When one partner is triggered, often the other follow’s suit, which typically leads to conflict. When partners start to trigger one another repeatedly, it’s hard to understand what’s happening and why. Especially when the couple had a typical honeymoon period in which they fell in love and had mutually positive feelings about the other. How did two people, once in love, become enemies?
Good marriage counseling can provide help. Part of the answer is in decoding the specific developmental disappointments that each partner carries—even the mild ones, to discover what is still needed. And part of the answer is in decoding how the partners trigger the old injuries and needs, causing “over-reactions” in the other. Finally, good marriage counseling teaches the couple how to communicate effectively, including how to hear the silent injury in the other, in order to assure, soothe, and provide a bit of what is needed, especially in a potentially triggering moment.