Mike and Kate sat in my office, staring at the walls with defeated looks on their faces. Mike was annoyed. Kate was frustrated. Neither wanted to be in counseling, but both of them realized they needed help. It was the second marriage for each of them, and they were desperate to keep it together. After a short honeymoon phase, the couple began to run into major conflicts with each other.
“You wouldn’t believe the way he talks to me! Sure, I’m not perfect, but isn’t a person allowed to make a mistake without being yelled at? I thought Mike loved me, but I really just think he loves himself!” Kate exclaimed as a tear grew in her eye.
“She expects me to read her mind, and she’s so controlling! It seems like everything I do she needs to criticize. I don’t experience this in any other relationship in my life but with her! I didn’t sign up for this.” Mike complained, as his face grew red.
As I listened to Mike and Kate lament for about twenty minutes, it became evident that a few essential qualities had been missing in their relationship: Boundaries, unconditional love, effective communication, and healthy intimacy. But where to start? Sometimes in cases where a couple is lacking so many characteristics of a healthy relationship, I find it helpful to tell them a story from my own marriage.
Sherry and I have been married for ten years. We have five small children, which equates to a lot of stress. We both have type-A personalities, and neither of us likes to surrender when the other is mistreating us, behaving poorly, or otherwise not loving correctly. Needless to say, we have done quite a bit of personal and marriage therapy to heal our wounds and learn how to love and live well with each other.
When I see a couple falling into one of the classic traps that kills relationships, I usually disarm them by telling them a story about when my wife and I used to do that, how we realized the harm it caused both of us, and the steps we took to overcome that particular struggle in our marriage. I find this takes the pressure off the couple and provides a bit of hope that they too can make it through with a little bit of work, some good counseling, and a lot of prayer.
As I told the couple our story, they both began to laugh. Mid-way through, Kate began sobbing, and Mike admitted that he felt out of control but didn’t know how to “fix” himself. Mike had learned his unloving, demanding behaviors from his mother. He admitted that it didn’t work in his first marriage, and was starting to eat away at his second. At that point, Kate’s whole demeanor changed. It was as if her bubble had burst and deflated all over the couch.
“I had no idea your mother was like that. That must have been so awful.” Kate replied with an empathetic look in her eyes.
Mike, clearly embarrassed, but somewhat relieved, spoke a little more about his family of origin and the emotional abuse he suffered. It might have been the first time he told anyone about these experiences, since he was from a different culture than Kate and wasn’t accustomed to revealing these deep secrets about his past. As the counseling session came to an end, I affirmed them for the courage they showed in revealing their deep emotions and wanting to work on the marriage.
As is my custom, I then suggested they look up a book or two before our next session to begin understanding some of the unhealthy patterns they were engaging in. They agreed, and left my office gratefully with a sense of hope that their marriage could be saved from another divorce.
Why do marriages fail?
I wish there were a clear formula to safeguard your relationship and keep it healthy. Unfortunately, I have yet to find the manual on how to maintain a healthy marriage. However, I have had the privilege to discover some important principles in ten years of marriage and over seven years of professional counseling that has not only helped my own marriage, but improved the marriages of many of my clients.
But before I do that, let me make one disclaimer: I do not have a degree in marriage and family therapy. While I have been trained in various models of healthy communication, relationship counseling, and family systems therapy, I do not pretend to be an expert when it comes to counseling married couples. While I have worked with hundreds of individuals and families in long-term outpatient and short-term intensive therapy, marriage counseling is not my greatest strength.
Nevertheless, as a licensed professional counselor that is Christian, I receive a lot of referrals from churches that have struggling couples, some of whom have been married ten or twenty years more than I. So, my style of counseling is typically client-centered, psychodynamic, and Biblically based.
What that means, in layman’s terms, is that I believe most Christian couples fall into very similar problems that can easily be addressed by helping them look into their past hurts, challenge their unhealthy coping mechanisms they have formed to deal with that pain, help them process their unexpressed grief and emotions, and invite them into what the Bible says about them as a person and a spouse.
Typically, this also requires some individual therapy for each spouse to help them unravel these past issues and how they are affecting present-day dilemmas. When we are able achieve this, marriage counseling becomes much easier, because we now have two healthier individuals that are operating out of their adult states, not reacting from childhood wounds that are being transferred onto their spouse.
Who, exactly, are you arguing with?
Transactional Analysis (TA) is a concept that was conceived by Dr. Eric Berne, who believed that individuals react out of different maturity states within their relationship.[i] Modeled after Sigmund Freud’s three ego states (Id, Ego, Superego), Berne theorized that many common problems in romantic relationships occur because spouses trigger each other’s childhood wounds, and thus, end up conversing with each other, not as adults, but as imperfect parents and wounded children.
When I explain this concept to couples in counseling, I usually start off by saying to them: “It’s important when engaging in conflict with your spouse that you realize who, exactly, you are arguing with.” Then I draw them a diagram:
In his book I’m OK, You’re OK -- A Practical Guide to Transactional Analysis, Dr. Thomas Harris discusses the concept of Transactional Analysis in his clinical observations with clients who exhibit these three states (Parent, Adult, and Child):
It is as if in each person there is the same little person he was when three years old. There are also within him his own parents. These are recordings in the brain of actual experiences of internal and external events, the most significant of which happened during the first five years of life . . . These states of being are not roles but psychological realities . . . The state is produced by the playback of recorded data of events in the past, involving real people, real times, real places, real decisions, and real feelings.[i]
Much like Kate and Mike, many couples have remarked to me that their conflicts are usually around trivial, benign topics. They don’t necessarily struggle with serious issues such as adultery, abuse, or sexual incompatibility; rather, they get hung up on how they treat and react to common, everyday problems.
“Before I knew it, I was calling him a jerk, and I never name-call!” Kate remarked.
“Before I knew it, I was tempted to walk out the door and never come back, and I am not someone that runs away from problems!” Mike exclaimed.
Why does this couple, and so many like them (including my own marriage at one point), resort to such infantile behavior? The reason childish behavior comes out at our worst moments is that, at that moment, we are in our child states. Harris calls this childlike response “traumatic neurosis,” as it displays
…unrealistic, irrational, non-Adult responses (that senses a) danger, or ‘bad news’ signal (that) hits the Parent and the Child at the same time it hits the Adult. The Child responds in the way it originally did, with a feeling of NOT OK. This may produce all kinds of regressive phenomena. The individual may again feel himself to be a tiny, helpless, dependent child.
These triggering scenarios played out quite a bit with Mike and Kate. Mike had a hard time empathizing with Kate’s emotions. He hung in there for a while, but eventually got tired, worn out, and shut down. It didn’t help matters that Kate would often attack him in the middle of the conversation about all that he didn’t do for her, all the while ignoring the positive things he did do.
This took Mike right into his child state, where his mother, whose multiple husbands cheated on her throughout Mike’s childhood, emotionally abused him. As a result, Mike’s mother unconsciously transferred those wounds onto her son, instructing him to “never be like those terrible men” who cheated on her, and criticizing him any time he did something she considered selfish or chauvinistic.
This created deep wounds in Mike’s masculinity, often times making him unable to assert himself in the relationship with Kate without being aggressive or controlling. He was reacting out of fear that his wife would reject him, act harshly towards him, or withhold love — much like his mother once did.
When Kate got into an “overly emotional state,” as Mike called it, he simply shut down and detached from her. When Kate would pursue Mike, he would feel enraged and belittle her, say she was “making a big deal” out of nothing, or refuse to engage in the conflict.
As you can imagine, this did not help Kate one bit. She saw things through her own emotional wounds: After all, her father had a hard time listening to her emotions in adolescence. He would often attribute Kate’s anger or sadness as a part of her menstrual cycles and simply dismiss her, tell her she was irrational, or just ignore her problems. This left a deep wound in Kate’s heart for healthy, paternal love. It’s no wonder that her first marriage was with a man 15 years her senior who appeared to be her “knight in shining armor.”
But ten years into the marriage, Kate discovered that her “mature, sensitive husband” was cheating on her with multiple younger women, all the while complaining to her that they didn’t have enough sex! Mike’s inability to empathize with Kate’s pain triggered a series of male wounds that ran very, very deep. When he shut down, Kate felt emotionally abandoned and betrayed. She would then pursue Mike even harder to try and get her needs met, only for him to put up his walls, much like he did in childhood with his mother.
Both Kate and Mike were operating, in various times, out of their child states. Mike would trigger Kate, and he would become daddy, while she would transform into a hurt little girl. Kate would trigger Mike, and she became mommy, while he went into a defensive, boy-like state in order to protect himself. This vicious cycle had been going on for months, and both spouses were literally exhausted.
“We have turned into roommates, and I’m starting to resent her.” Mike lamented.
“I have a hard time feeling any love for him. Some days, I wonder why I married him? Kate said dejectedly.
When counseling a couple about these issues, it’s important to help each spouse remember all that they love about the other person, while reminding them that they are both imperfect, wounded people that are simply hurting each other out of unresolved childhood wounds and poor coping mechanisms. When each couple starts to realize that the other has been triggered into a child state, it takes the mystery out of why they are fighting and turns the conflict into what happened to you before that triggered you to feel this way now.
When this realization occurs, spouses are often are much more able to recognize and take responsibility for their own reactions, firmly stand in their adult self, and communicate legitimate needs with their spouse. After a while, it becomes very clear to at least one spouse that the other has been triggered into a child state, while the other has stepped into the parent state. When this realization occurs, the answer is often very simple.
The spouse that is in the parent state can simply allow the spouse in the child state to express their emotions and feel the pain together, a scenario that did not happen in childhood. As the spouse in the child state bottoms out, as I call it, their emotions are released, and they are slowly able to rise up to their adult state (see figure 7.1), relate with their spouse not as a parent, but as an adult, and recognize who triggered them, what they are responsible for, and how their spouse can help them if this situation occurs in the future.
This is an excerpt from chapter 5 of The Meaning of Sex: A New Christian Ethos (January, 2018). For more information on how to obtain a copy, please contact our office at IHFINFO@InstituteforHealthyFamilies.org. Christopher Doyle, MA, LPC, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor and the Executive Director of the Institute for Healthy Families.
[i] Harris, T.A. (1967). I’m OK – You’re OK: A Practical Guide To Transactional Analysis. New York, NY: Harper & Row, pp. 18-19.
[i] Berne, Eric (1964). Games People Play – The Basic Hand Book of Transactional Analysis. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.