The list is long of the sundry ways we can suffer in a marriage or romantic relationship. We can, for starters, feel controlled, trapped, restricted, deprived, refused, criticized, belittled, disrespected, betrayed, rejected, abandoned, undervalued, and unloved.
If we’re really eager for punishment, we can feel many of these painful emotions at the same time, for much of the day and night. This inevitably produces growing resentment against one’s partner because we blame our partner for the strife that we ourselves are determined to experience and act out.
On the surface of our awareness, we all want tender love and intimacy. But deeper down we can have an unconscious program in place to act out negative emotions that are unresolved from childhood.
Of course, happy marriages and romantic unions exist in large number. Yet the more we are dysfunctional or neurotic, the more likely we are to turn our relationship into a turbulent free-for-all that is doomed to end in divorce.
Unresolved issues can converge around marriage and intimate relationships like singles at a love fest. Why? The hurt of feeling wronged by someone we are intimate with can be so much more intense. Thwarted love can be the greatest of all hurts, especially when we’re blind to the depths of our own contrariness. The thrill of new love is often a homing beacon for the desolation of rejection, betrayal, and abandonment.
Divorce is usually a result of our own failure to escape the clutches of self-suffering. We lug into marriage our toolkit for making misery; we stagger way from the divorce settlement unwilling to part with that baggage.
This idea that we are unconsciously interested in re-experiencing old unresolved emotions, no matter how painful they are, is a revolutionary proposition in psychology, one that the psychological establishment is loath to consider. I’ve worked as a psychotherapist for more than thirty years, and I say with supreme confidence that this unpleasant aspect of human nature is indeed a major problem for our species. (The story of where this knowledge comes from in psychoanalysis is told in my eBook, Why We Suffer: A Western Way to Understand and Let Go of Unhappiness, available at Amazon.com.)
Unconsciously, we go looking for opportunities to recycle and replay those painful emotions that are unresolved from our past. In failing marriages, even as divorce and its agonizing effects on a family loom ever closer, estranged partners typically will reject the knowledge of exactly how each one is contributing to the dysfunctional relationship. We stubbornly hate to see our ignorance and contrariness, and we accept much self-defeat and self-damage to keep it all a secret.
Nonetheless, some couples do come into an awareness of this self-defeating dynamic. The knowledge produces great empathy for each other. Each one’s self-understanding supports the other as they struggle together, usually successfully, to overcome the vagaries of human nature.
Try to imagine the vast difference between suffering in a relationship that’s headed for divorce and one that tumbles into the satisfaction of deep, abiding love. There’s a vast chasm between the emotional poverty of painful separation and the richness of union with one’s beloved. We usually do succeed in creating intimacy and great mutual respect when we overcome our resistance to seeing our own contribution to the disharmony.
When marriage fails, the unconscious part of the psyche of each partner has determined this outcome. With what’s at stake, doesn’t it make sense to study this unconscious part and override the self-defeating program with self-knowledge and expanded intelligence? Unfortunately, our unconscious determination to suffer with what is unresolved often overrides our good sense.
Injustice collecting is one notable way that partners create and hold on to strong feelings of animosity toward each other. Injustice collecting is a psychological process whereby we gather and accumulate an inventory of grievances concerning our subjective perceptions of having been mistreated by others or by the circumstances of our life. Injustice collecting reflects our unconsciousness interest in remaining stuck in negativity. In marriage, we often can collect injustices through our irritation over trifles. Partner A can feel great annoyance over some harmless idiosyncrasy or behavior pattern displayed by partner B because, like a child who for a moment hates mother because she denied him a candy, partner A has not outgrown intense infantile reactions to small events.
Injustice collecting, when it devalues our partner, also serves the purpose of providing an outlet for the manner in which we allow our inner critic or superego to devalue our own self.
Negative transference and projection soon kick into action. Now we are ready to feel refused, controlled, and criticized by our partner, based on old emotions that go back to childhood. We start to see and hate in our partner the flaws that we cover up in ourselves.
We convince ourselves we would be happy if our partner didn’t have the flaws and behaviors that we increasingly dislike. Our conviction is that he or she “causes me to feel this way.” As we shift more blame and criticism toward our partner, he or she begins to react in a way that provides us with what we are unconsciously looking for, namely some deepening experience of our unresolved negative emotions. The couple descends into an increasingly painful acting out of their individual issues.
Soon, hatred and bitterness sweep away what love there was. Restoring love can mean that we have to let go of our defenses—the main one being our determination to blame the other. As mentioned, we can be reluctant to see clearly our role in the dysfunction, often out of fear that our acceptance of responsibility will translate into self-criticism and self-loathing.
Try approaching marital conflict as if dealing with a no-fault situation. The dysfunction is not your fault or your partner’s fault. Both of you are decent people. You just need to become more conscious. This is the process of our evolution, and it’s dependent on our acquisition of insight into the dynamics—resistance, defenses, and attachments—of unconscious functioning.
We won’t really get that insight from academic, behavioral, cognitive, or transpersonal psychology. Even much of modern psychoanalysis is void of good insight. A great book that penetrates into the heart of relationship dysfunction is LoveSmart: Transforming the Emotional Patterns that Sabotage Relationships (Prospect Books, 1999). It was written by my late wife, Sandra Michaelson, and is available here at this website as a paperback or as a formatted PDF file.