As a marriage and family therapist, I do my best to stay informed about the latest findings in my field. Therefore, I once attended a fascinating class called "Quarreling," offered at a nearby university. The Sociology department had done a number of studies in which they examined videos of couples quarreling in order to figure out patterns in relationships.
Their most amazing discovery was that every committed couple fights the same three or four fights during the duration of their relationship! Whether the relationship lasts a few months or many years, the couple returns over and over to familiar disagreements about the same things.
As I reflected on these findings, I realized that this premise held true in the couples I have counseled over the years. One of the most common topics that people get riled up about is money: earning it, spending it, saving it and worrying about losing it. Other important issues have to do with sex: how often, what kind, satisfaction, initiation and expectations. Dissention may also arise about child rearing, doing chores, relationships with in-laws, infidelity and personal habits and appearance.
Sometimes the smallest thing can set someone off, and it turns into a violent war where they overreact to their partner in ways that they later realize were out of proportion to the situation. I recall a client named Maggie who was puzzled by this type of triggering.
Maggie explained that one Saturday night she and her husband were having a potluck after she came home from teaching an all-day seminar. Maggie knew that she wouldn't arrive until after 5 pm. Since she needed some time to unwind before the party, she asked her husband to please put the leaves in the large dining room table before she came home so she could quickly get everything ready before their guests arrived.
When she got home, looking forward to some quiet time before the party, the table wasn't open. Maggie went ballistic with intense anger, disappointment and an feeling of devastation that overwhelmed her. As she related this to me, she realized how "crazy" her overreaction was. She found herself suddenly swept away by the most horrific feelings, a mixture of deep despair and helplessness that had no words.
When Maggie recounted this puzzling and unpleasant incident she remembered two other occasions in which she experienced the same intense reaction of feeling enraged, uncared for and powerless. They too were triggered by a supposedly unimportant request involving her husband. And yet she always reacted off the charts. She said "I feel like if he doesn't help me, I am going to die!"
Scientific studies of the brain now allow us to understand what creates these unpleasant reactions. Why do well meaning couples keep triggering each other over the same topics? Dr. Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want, maintains that in an intimate relationship, we re-injure each other’s childhood wounds. What does he mean by that?
In Maggie's case, it meant that certain present-day experiences triggered her remembrance of the unmet needs from her early infancy. Maggie's mother became extremely ill during her pregnancy and had to be sent away to recuperate right after giving birth to her. Other relatives took care of the newborn. Therefore, she wasn't able to bond with her mom. Keep Reading...
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