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Relationships • Conflicts

A Way To Break Logjams In A Couple

At moments of particular fury and despair with our partners, there’s an exercise we might perform that stands a chance of breaking through some of our impasses and perhaps of introducing a new more imaginative and compassionate atmosphere into the couple.

We should ask ourselves two interlinked questions: 

– What is it I find most infuriating about my partner? 

And then:

– What was it that my partner needed to learn to do – and to be – in order to get through their childhood?

The Birthday, 1915, Marc Chagall, Wikimedia Commons

We probably know the key bits of their early story well enough by now, but the exercise asks us to consider their development from a newly distinctive angle. We’re being asked to see how the most difficult sides of their present temperaments are not merely exasperating (though they are evidently that as well); they had their genesis in a childhood that was harder than it should have been and which the younger versions of our partner had to struggle to endure. They are – we can learn to perceive – adaptive responses to previously suboptimal circumstances. They were clever defence mechanisms that our partner developed to make it through to adulthood. These defences may have grossly outlived their rationale; but they definitely had one and it may make us tearful to reflect on what it was.

None of this makes it completely easy to be on the receiving end of – let’s say – a hyper-logical pedantic manner. Or a severe guardedness and coldness. Or a person who ramps up every dispute until it becomes a crisis. Or someone who is extremely status-conscious and keen always to meet ‘the right sort of people.’

But rather than seeing these dynamics only as vexing, we can come to view them as – originally at least – canny adaptations to turbulent early lives. How smart (in a way) to assume a detached, entirely rational manner when one is faced with a volcanic and intemperate father. How understandable that one might become closed off and wholly guarded if one had to deal with a mother who drank too much and never respected one’s boundaries. How touching (almost) that someone would become obsessive about money and status given that they had to escape from severe deprivation. It’s evident that these strategies are no longer relevant, but imagining their origins can open up a much-needed seam of tenderness in our battle-weary hearts.

We must then turn the lens on ourselves – a harder task yet – and with the same psychological principle to guide us.

– What is it my partner finds most infuriating about me? 

And then:

– What was it that I needed to learn to do – and to be – in order to get through my childhood?

We too stand to emerge as tricky not because we are mean or stupid, but because we honed particular patterns of behaviour in circumstances that were similarly less than ideal. We are testing to be with because a parent implicitly encouraged us to be always on the look out for betrayal. Or we learnt to turn everything into joke because humour was the only thing our family responded to. Or we sulk a lot because no one was ever overly interested in our frustrations.

When a couple run into trouble, it is almost always because the skills learnt in two childhoods are getting in the way of trust and tenderness. It can be easy to despair, but it is wiser to get curious. Our weapons were in their way extremely sensible then; they are entirely dangerous and must be candidly and urgently put down now.

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