“What makes a good marriage?” I once posed this question to a 99-year-old man with some experience in this matter. He replied, “Hard work. We should know. Harriet and I have been working at it for over 75 years.” He went on to describe some despairing periods when he wanted to walk out and not look back, insisting that persistence during such times of weariness is the key: “We’ve had at least ten thousand misunderstandings, ten thousand hurts, and another ten thousand apologies.”
My husband and I consulted a counselor early on in our relationship who had been assisting couples for over 35 years. She taught us that all couples have three or four basic conflicts that they fight over and over again. The content changes superficially, but certain fundamental issues can be detected underneath as the source of the energizing animosity or hurt. She convinced us that these undercurrents almost always arise from each partner’s family of origin.
The hard work of a relationship hinges on identifying these core issues and getting good at recognizing when they are running the show. Unfortunately, the surface details of an argument tend to provide a compelling distraction from what really needs to be addressed. Even petty grievances feel entirely valid and worthy of complaint, especially one’s own, and any suggestion that old hurts from years ago could be at play are easily swept aside with passionate justifications about current circumstances.
Our therapist insisted that it only takes one of the partners to wake up to what is going on during an argument:
When couples fight, most of the time neither person is listening. You’re both putting all of your energy into arguing your own side. You’re getting caught up in the enthusiasm of blaming, which is like a reflex. It requires no effort and happens automatically unless you oppose it with all your might.
But if one of you is able to stop and give the other some compassion, really try to see the other person’s hurt, the steam goes right out of the fight. Something different happens, something interesting, instead of the same fight over and over again.
To this day, I wince when I recall how our therapist used to fall asleep during our sessions. She was in her late seventies and admitted to some problems with insomnia, but the primary source of her sleepiness was boredom. We kept marching in there, week after week, re-playing the same few basic arguments with almost no self-awareness. We could both see how the other’s old family issues might be coloring the current conflict, but we refused to examine our own contributions from early life. It is no wonder that she slipped into much-needed rest while we engaged in fruitless repetition.
Our turning point came out of earshot of our therapist. We were standing in our garage, arguing over some trivial arrangement before getting into the car. Suddenly, I saw that my husband’s fury contained echoes of a loneliness from his boyhood, and I felt a surge of sympathy for him. Then, no longer needing to defend myself against anger I could comprehend, I saw how I had fallen into an old outrage against unfairness that had nothing to do with him. I dropped my counter-assault, apologized for my prior insensitivity, and put my arms around him. He began to weep. The long-awaited feeling of having been seen and understood dissolved his anger, and my tenderness opened up his heart in a way that had never happened between us before. I wept along with him.
A new phase in our relationship began that afternoon. It is not that our three or four basic fights ceased arising, but we became more conscious of when we were in the grip of them. Fairly often, one of us would notice mid-fight that we were back into our pattern and would back down. More and more, we employed humor to call off the conflict. Our therapist rarely fell asleep in our sessions, once we were willing and eager to delve into the underlying issues rather than reside in the relative safety of the trivial. We got down to the hard work of building an intimacy that would not only endure but would grant us both the supreme relief of growing beyond the stuck places in ourselves.
Long-lasting love pays off as the years go by and this mutual emotional fluency gets better and better. A simple gesture of understanding may suffice, instead of a sentence. A sympathetic look may replace an argument altogether. Lovemaking gets sweeter as comprehension of each other multiplies on all levels. It is well worth the effort.
Adapted from: What's Worth Knowing, Tarcher/Penguin, 2001.