“My wife doesn’t understand me.”
“My husband doesn’t do his fair share of the childcare/housework/financial planning…”
“I feel lonely even though I’m married.”
“I’m an early riser and my partner likes to sleep late. Weekends aren’t fun because we never seem to be on the same schedule.”
“I’m a neat freak and everyone else in my family is a slob. Why can’t they just clean up after themselves?”
Any of this sound familiar? In the past few weeks, I’ve seen several couples with these and similar complaints. Their complaints seemed to be reasonable, but they also seemed completely unable to compromise. One likes to sleep in a cold room with a thick blanket and the other likes a warm, cozy room with just a sheet; one is a vegan who never touches meat, the other on the Paleo diet, eats meat several times a day. There just doesn’t seem to be a reasonable, mutually satisfying solution to these incompatibilities.
When couples get caught in the same argument over and over again, it may signal that they are each caught up in what Freud called a “repetition compulsion” or a tendency to do the same thing over and over again, even though the outcome is unpleasant or upsetting every time. It may seem like a couple should just be able to just “cut it out” – to behave better. But there are a number of reasons that we compulsively repeat an experience that keeps making us – and our partner – unhappy.
We may unconsciously be trying to make an old and painful experience come out differently. A woman whose father was cold and distant, for example, may keep getting involved with cold, distant men with the unconscious hope that one of them will become warm and caring, thereby unconsciously proving to her that her father really did love her, and that she is really a lovable person.
A man who was teased for being fat by a girl he had a crush on in his early teens may get involved with a critical, hurtful woman with the hope that she will undo the old pain by telling him how handsome he is, and maybe even apologizing for all of the hurt she and other women have caused him.
Or we may be unconsciously re-enacting old experiences in reverse, finding a partner to whom we can do what once was done to us. It isn’t because we’re mean, but often because we’re unconsciously trying to work out a difficult experience. George Klein calls this process “active reversal of the passive position,” that is, we unconsciously shift positions so that we are in charge of the situation instead of a helpless recipient.
For example, as an adolescent, April* had been late to everything – school, dates, parties, doctor’s appointments and so on. She and her parents often fought over her tardiness, but nothing they did, including withholding her allowance, grounding her, and expressing their irritation, changed her behavior. Interestingly, when she met Burt*, she seemed to have found a soul mate. He was always late as well. They giggled together when they got to a movie so late that they saw the end before the beginning; and they laughed at their families’ frustration that they never arrived at a dinner or celebration on time. Eventually their relationship ended, and April became involved with Carl*, who she adored. There was only one problem that seemed to interfere with their ability to move forward into marriage. April had, somewhere along the line, become punctual; but Carl could not get anywhere on time. “Why can’t he change?” she demanded. “I did.” But whatever the reason, Carl did not or could not change his habit, which led to more arguments. In their relationship it seemed that Carl had become April, and April was treating him as her parents had treated her – and as his parents had treated him. In both cases, the habits of lateness and arguing seemed impossible to break. Carl wanted April to change by accepting him; and April wanted Carl to change by arriving on time.
I was thinking about what makes it so hard for one person in a couple to change when it would make everyone so much happier the other day, when a yoga teacher made a comment about our bodies that I think applies beautifully to this situation. After saying that one of the goals of yoga is to help you understand your body and do what you need to do to help it develop as well as it can, she said, “But you can’t make it do things it just isn’t built to do. You don’t go to the hardware store for roast chicken. By the same token you can’t ask your knee to bend in the wrong direction or – unless you’re an owl – your head to turn all the way around on your neck.”
I wondered if this idea might help April and Carl and other couples struggling to change one another. Was the problem that they were demanding changes that were simply not going to happen? Was the real issue that they were not able to accept or appreciate one another as they were – that they were always trying to get something more, something else, something that simply did not exist?
I was reminded of a session I had recently with Linda*, a mother of a very articulate teenage daughter. Linda was worried that she almost automatically corrected Brie*, her daughter. Brie had called her on it, asking why Linda was always so critical of her. In fact, Linda adores Brie and thinks she’s a terrific kid. “So why do I keep criticizing her?” Linda wanted to know.
Consciously, Linda was trying to make sure that Brie did not suffer from any of the difficulties that had troubled her own adolescence; but unconsciously, she was trying to change Brie into another person – perhaps into a person who would never suffer, or a person who had no flaws. To her surprise, when she realized this, Linda was less critical almost without effort. “I realized that Brie is who I’d like her to be; so what do I need to change?” she said.
Unfortunately it isn’t always this easy to stop criticizing a romantic partner. Sometimes the conscious thought is that we’ll just be happier if they’ll change in this one way; but unconsciously we may only be happy when we feel that we have the power to change the unchangeable. It is, therefore, an impossible task. Couples have to come to grips with the fact that they are different, that they are both flawed, and that in order to be together, they will have to accept some of the behaviors that they think are unacceptable. And if they can’t accept these things, it becomes important to realistically assess whether in fact the behaviors are deal breakers. Hard as it may be, it can be much healthier for both members of a couple to recognize that they are incompatible than to spend the rest of their lives locked in a battle over changing the unchangeable. If one of you is the hardware store, the other one really cannot reasonably expect you to carry roast chicken. On the other hand, it might be worthwhile for both of you to look carefully around the store before deciding to walk out. Maybe there are plenty of other things you like about each other. Maybe if you’d let go of the wish for the impossible, you might find that you’re quite content with what this store has to offer.
*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy
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