When Zack and Tiffany started counseling with me, they were on the verge of divorce after 16 years of marriage. Neither really wanted to end the marriage, yet both were miserable. Both of them believed that their misery was because of the other person, and both could clearly articulate what the other person was doing wrong.
"Tiffany is just so distant and unaffectionate most of the time, and when we are together she is so critical of me. I can't seem to do anything right in her eyes. I try really hard to please her, but no matter what I do, it's not good enough."
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"I just can't seem to connect with Zack. He's a really nice guy but I just can't feel anything with him. I feel irritated with him a lot and I don't really know why. He just annoys me. I feel like he's always wanting something from me and I just don't like being around him. And he's so darn nice! What's wrong with me that I don't like someone being so nice?"
I could see immediately that the underlying problem in this relationship was that both Zack and Tiffany were stuck in various forms of controlling behavior, yet neither of them were consciously trying to control.
Zack was a caretaker. He tried to control by being a "nice guy" and doing everything he thought Tiffany wanted, including making dinner every night, doing the laundry, and doing most of the child-care, even though both of them worked. He secretly believed that if he was nice enough, he could have control over Tiffany loving him and being turned on to him. What he didn't realize is that his niceness was really a "pull" on Tiffany, which is one reason she kept her distance. Underneath, Zack had a big fear of rejection and was trying to have control over Tiffany not rejecting him.
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Tiffany was trying to control Zack primarily with her criticism. She was critical any time she felt Zack wanting something from her to make him feel safe and loved. She had a secret hope that if she criticized him enough, he would stop pulling on her for affection, sex and attention. Unconsciously, Tiffany had a huge fear of engulfment, and was trying to protect herself from being engulfed and controlled by Zack. In addition, Tiffany could not experience who Zack was because he was putting himself aside to please her. She could not connect with him until he was authentically himself.
Everything Zack did to protect against rejection tapped into Tiffany's fear of engulfment, while everything Tiffany did to protect against engulfment tapped into Zack's fear of rejection. The more Zack pulled with niceness, the more Tiffany moved away, and the more Tiffany moved away, the more Zack pulled. What was the way out of this protective circle?