In our idealized vision of marriage, everyone is living the relationship of their dreams: giving the love they feel and getting the love they want. In real life, partners all too often end up living the marriage or relationship of their nightmares, feeling pain and inflicting the same on their partners. Even though the divorce rate has dropped some in recent years, there were still over a million marriages in the US that ended in divorce last year. In fact, the same has been true very year since 1975 in this country.
When you ask people why they broke up, they say: “Well, we just drifted apart”, “he/she was such a fill-in-the-blank”, “we were so different” or “I think I picked the wrong person”. These are the reasons people tell you.
In Imago, (a type of relationship therapy created by Dr.s Harville Hendrix and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt), we have a particular idea about why it is we all eventually end up in marital gridlock. Experience suggests to us that it’s not because we don’t care about one another, not because we haven’t been willing to try, and certainly not because we’re just mean or bad people.
In fact, in 35 years I’ve been a therapist, I’ve never met anyone who woke up one day, looked across the bed and said to themselves: “I wonder how I can make his/her life M I S E R A B L E .” We don’t tend to do these things to each other on purpose. (Well, maybe after a while you do some of these things on purpose, but in the beginning very few people sit down and think, “how can I screw up his/her life?”)
So, no, in Imago’s view, it’s an entirely different factor that drives us apart. It has to do with something we have not known about or understood – a hidden agenda – an agenda that we all bring into our relationships from our past. The exact content is different for everyone, but the core of it is this:
Deep down, perhaps in a place even we do not know about, we long to receive from our partners the type of love we needed and deserved, but did not receive, or did not receive enough of, when we were kids.
Let me clarify.
While almost everyone gets something good from their folks growing up, from an Imago perspective, none of us get all our needs met. For one thing, there’s no such thing as the “perfect parent” – and for another, we all grow up in, and are shaped by, society – that place that molds us to become who it wants us to be by rewarding us for certain behaviors and beliefs but shaming us for others.
All of which means that none of us got all the attention, all the love, all the hugs, all the warmth, all the “I love you’s” at just the right time, and in just the right amounts we needed. And a larger percentage of us than you might imagine, got some things that were downright hurtful.
Some had a parent or parents who were critical or raged, were alcoholic or had affairs. Or maybe there was benign neglect due to an absent or stressed-out parent, or a sibling with special needs that required the lion’s share of the caregivers’ attention. Some had to deal with overly controlling parents who tried to micro-manage their children’s every move. Perhaps there were parental arguments, abuse, or divorce or multiple divorces. Or all of the above. These things happen even in the best of homes, to the best of people. Trust me.
But one thing about humans – we are survivors, yes?
We innately know how to adapt to most situations and often times they make us stronger. But, whether we know it or not, despite our successes, we are often left with certain sensitive feelings, emotional wounds, or “raw spots”, if you will, which become the “triggers” in our marriages. When our partners do things that on some level remind us of those past hurts or unmet needs, we react, with anger and/or withdrawal, fight or flight. We can explain why this is, but for now, accept that these reactions are normal, self-protective responses dictated by a part of our brain that we have limited control over.
So this is the hidden agenda we all carry: to get from our partners a different response from the, rarely intended, but nonetheless hurtful interactions we experienced as kids with the people who mattered most to us.
But often, we don’t get those hoped-for responses from our partners, nor do they receive them from us. Again, not because we don’t care, but because we simply don’t know about them. How can we know what’s really happening when: 1) no one ever explains all this to us and 2) when people usually keep such things private, maybe even from themselves. Even when they do share their history, odds are, no one is connecting the dots between a partner’s past and what is currently happening in their adult relationship today.
Usually, most of us are simply trying to do the best we can to protect ourselves our partner and/or our relationship. It just doesn’t occur to us that through these actions we are often inadvertently rubbing up against, re-activating, the same hurts that happened to our partner in the distant past.
To be continued . . .
Options for learning more:
1) Contact Barbara with a question or to make an appointment
2) Purchase a copy (or two copies, one for you and your partner), of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples by Drs. Harville Hendrix and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt.
3) Consider investing in an Imago Weekend Workshop for Couples – hands down, the fastest and most economical way to creating, as we say, the relationship of your dreams.