Marriages fail. In fact, the American Psychological Association tells us that 40-50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. Why? Here’s an explanation . . .
I want to try to write here about the unlikely union of Joe, the only child of middle-class parents and the object of his father’s distain for much of his life. A gentle man who was not much of a talker, Joe married Emily. Emily, the fifth of five children, was a generous woman with a strong work ethic, a love of family, and a fierce need for orderliness in the home. Within 3 months of their wedding, Joe was having in an affair.
Joe and Emily came to marriage counseling bewildered about their circumstances. Emily complained that Joe didn’t really care about keeping the home neat and that he deliberately did a poor job with his chores so she’d get frustrated and take over. She just felt he didn’t understand her. She was lonely and missed the “old Joe” who seemed to pay more attention to her.
Joe, for his part, explained that Emily was always right, that he was constantly making mistakes, and that he felt bad about the affair and about his many mistakes in the marriage. He wasn’t sure he wanted to work on the marriage, but was willing to give it some serious thought.
We can see here that Joe seems to be describing Emily’s behavior as echoing the critical, disdainful tone of his father. And, although they are very different people, Emily, indeed, appears to share Joe’s father’s inclination to criticize Joe, and to view him as having disappointed or failed her.
And, if we listen carefully, we can hear Emily describing Joe’s behavior as echoing the lack of recognition and affirmation that characterized her own early childhood environment. Joe, indeed, appears to share Emily’s mother’s inclination to ignore or overlook Emily.
Clearly, Emily and Joe didn’t start their relationship on such negative footing. At the start, Emily thought Joe’s carpentry was impressive and hoped he’d make a piece of furniture just for her. She admired his quiet dedication to his craft and loved him for it. Joe basked in Emily’s affection and in turn, paid close attention to her. He took care of items around her apartment that needed fixing, and Emily felt taken care of and attended to. For a while, the couple seemed blissfully happy.
Until they weren’t. Joe woke up in the arms of another woman. Emily realized she’d been criticizing Joe rather constantly lately for not paying attention to things. Joe realized he’d been ignoring Emily and Emily realized she’d been angry at Joe’s sloppy habits.
Indeed, the couple went from fulfilling each other’s deepest longings, to fulfilling each other’s worst fears. They went from engagement that was like a blissful, upward spiral, to conflict that felt like an angry, denigrating downward spiral.
This is not a new idea—that we choose a partner who is like someone in our past: a parent or sibling, for example. But the question remains: Why? Why do we choose partners who behave in the same abusive ways as did those from our past? Why do we appear to repeat our past?
The answer has to do with our search for healing and reconciliation. And, the answer has to do with a certain logic that says: when we are injured by someone, it’s only the perpetrator, or someone like the perpetrator who can atone. If person “A” punches you but person “B” apologizes, there’s no healing or reconciliation. We need person “A” to apologize. That’s the logic of repetition.
And so, in searching for a partner, we unconsciously are looking for someone “like” the perpetrator, since he or she’s the person—the stand-in for the real perpetrator—who can heal our injuries.
This logic was in operation with Joe and Emily too. Both unconsciously sought partners who were like their original childhood perpetrators. Each chose someone who reminded them of their original injurious experiences. For Joe, Emily had similarities to his critical father; for Emily, Joe had similarities to her distracted, overworked and unacknowleging mother. Joe and Emily were able to operate as the unconscious stand-ins for the other’s perpetrator. And so here we have all the ingredients to repeat the original trauma: Joe and Emily each hoped that the other would not repeat the injuries perpetrated by their unconscious predecessors, but rather, that each would do the opposite—renounce their “evil ways,” apologize, take responsibility for the harm they caused, and proceed with kindness and caution. Each hoped the other would repair past injuries!
And, indeed, this was the situation at the start of their relationship. They were each able to fulfill the hoped-for healing and repair that the other needed. But over time, their small, or even medium-sized mistakes and breaches brought about a shift. Both Joe and Emily began to feel that rather than repairing and healing their respective traumas, the other was repeating those old traumas. Essentially, both Emily and Joe began to believe that their worst fears were coming true—their chosen partner was going to hurt them just like they were hurt in the past. And so their hope for healing shifted into anticipated of injury.
Now, instead of expecting the best from each other, both Emily and Joe expected the worst. They saw the worst in every move, attributing hurtful motivations to each other, and acted in defense of anticipated injury. Their marriage was in a full downward spiral.
And the downward spiral is terrible: You know you’re in it when neither partner trusts the other anymore to heal and repair. When each views the other as the source of potential pain and injury. When empathy and mutuality are withdrawn and antagonism and fear take over.