The Hidden Dynamics of Marital Strife

Many of us elect to betray love rather than look at ourselves.

When marital conflict leads to divorce, conflict in the human psyche is the culprit, not the institution of marriage. Many people are too conflicted and divided in their psyche to maintain the union of a loving relationship.

Rather than examine ourselves, many of us elect to betray love and skip town. We forsake our partner because we can’t stomach our own bile. We simply refuse to approach the unconscious part of us that harbors and cultivates the negative emotions that feed marital unhappiness. Through resistance and denial, we prefer to avoid the disturbing idea that we’re the architects of our own suffering. It’s just so easy to blame our tribulations on the annoying characteristics of our partner—or on faulty genes, biochemical imbalances, the malice of others, or the cold, cruel world.

In some cases, getting a divorce is the sensible thing to do. For various reasons, some feuding couples are too unlikely to re-establish harmony and love. Of course, many other marriages can be saved. Intimacy and love can be restored and enhanced if we look deeper into our personal issues.

For starters, try approaching marital conflict as a no-fault situation. Recognize that the pain you’re feeling is not your fault or your partner’s. Both of you need to become more conscious. You can agree to have a partnership that’s intent on helping each other discover and resolve the hidden dynamics of human nature.

What are these hidden dynamics? The essentials can be found in Divorce Won’t Help, a classic written more than fifty years ago. This book by Dr. Edmund Bergler is available at used-book websites and also from International Universities Press in Madison, CT (www.iup.com). Bergler writes:

There are four parties involved in every marriage. In addition to the two people who took out the marriage license, there is for each of them an invisible unconscious partner. This unconscious partner is really the deepest part of the person himself, but works so silently that the person is unaware even of its existence. Yet so powerful are the unconscious partners, and so efficient in their work, that they determine the whole course of the marriage and every other important aspect of the lives of these people.

It is a curious situation. The man and woman think they make their own decisions about their marriage and that its fate lies in their own hands. But the truth is that the conscious life of each of them is only the outer expression of a huge network of deep-lying motives and complexes of which they are quite unaware. In comparison with the total structure of their personalities, the conscious aspect is of no more importance than an underling who carries out orders but has no part in making decisions. . . .The person who consciously carries out the orders . . . fancies that he himself determines his own acts; he does not realize for a moment that he is acting on orders from the forces within.

Bergler says that the “orders from forces within” arrive as impulses or compulsions to act out in present time those old negative emotions we acquired long before we even met our partner. These emotions are usually acted out with our spouse through projection, transference, and identification.

Though Sigmund Freud introduced those terms 100 years ago, we still fail to monitor or regulate these processes as they pertain to our suffering and self-defeat. Many divorces and other acts of self-sabotage—with their accompanying suffering—wouldn’t occur if people were psychologically more astute. I believe failure of mainstream psychology to teach and disseminate this depth psychology is a terrible disservice, comparable to denying educational opportunities to women in centuries past.

Divorce isn’t a solution, Bergler said, because divorced individuals typically haven’t resolved the inner conflicts that led to divorce in the first place. These inner conflicts cause them to repeat the pattern of disharmony in their next romantic endeavor, or else they avoid subsequent relationships for fear of failure.

As an example of transference in marital disharmony, I cite at length a passage from LoveSmart: Transforming the Emotional Patterns That Sabotage Relationships, written by my late wife, Sandra Michaelson. Here she describes a complication of our early marriage:

It was another of those ho-hum nights. I’m on the couch and my husband Peter is relaxed in his easy chair, glued to the TV. I initiate small talk about the events of the day, and he responds with unintelligible grunts. I conclude from his meager display of communication that he doesn’t want to be with me or that he isn’t interested in me or what I feel. Consequently, I take it as license to indulge in feeling deprived and rejected, much in the same way that I felt with my father who rarely talked to me except to order me around or scold me. Since my husband is revealing little about himself and his feelings, I’m unable to resist the temptation to feel deprived, denied, and left out of his life.

When I attempt to talk about this arid state of affairs, he gets up from his chair, claims he’s tired, and goes to bed. “I might as well be living alone at the South Pole,” I moan to myself. However, the resolution of my feelings doesn’t depend on getting him to change, but in understanding the emotional underpinnings of my reaction to him.

The emotional freeze I experienced was almost identical to what I’d endured with my father. From my perspective, my father had shown no enthusiasm for me as a person, not for my homework, grades, or other accomplishments. He communicated to me and to my brothers and sisters in the form of orders and lectures. I felt like a burden, required to make up for being a nuisance by always helping around the house. . .

This emotional deprivation I’d felt with my father allowed me to relive with Peter the familiar feelings of being ignored and neglected [transference]. Fortunately, with therapeutic intervention I was able to see the deprivation and disappointment I was secretly willing to maintain. I learned not to take my husband’s lack of responsiveness personally, as a deliberate attempt to deprive or reject me. He was simply acting out what he learned in his family where no one talked about their underlying emotions.

Peter told me that revealing his deepest feelings felt like trying to speak a strange language. “It’s very hard to put feelings into words,” he said. “In my family, weakness and shame were associated with any unsettling or disturbing feelings. I would be seen as weak and experience my feelings being discounted, dismissed, even scorned. There was also the feeling that family members not only would be embarrassed by any such disclosures but that they weren’t interested in knowing me in this way.”

Once Peter and I began to discover our past patterning and its influence over us, we began to open up to each other and talk more intimately about our personal feelings. I no longer have those old feelings of being ignored and deprived.

Marriage is a spiritual and emotional investment that can grow at a high rate of interest. Sandra and I were together for twenty-two years. We worked hard to resolve our issues and deepen our relationship. It’s a growing source of happiness to me now that, when she died of breast cancer in 1999, we were deeply in love.

Related reading: “The Dire Determinants of Divorce.”