“All too often the person we idolised and were madly in love with becomes the person who ‘fails’ us, the person we bitterly divorced in the end.”
A love-hate relationship exists between us and our parents/caregivers. We attached to them, but we also eventually ran from them. There are things we love about our attachment figures, but there are also things we don’t like. Attachment theory suggests there is a very distinct correlation between the things we loved and hated about our attachment figures and the things we love and hate about our marriage partners. The bizarre thing is we are attracted to marrying people who remind us of our attachment figures.
This has more to do with our unconscious selves than we realise.
The tragedy of many marriages is partners never get beyond the inevitable power struggles that occur because of who we are, individually, that we are not even aware of. But if we are to understand this tragedy, as it unfolds individually first and only later within the couple, we need to understand the journey of marital love.
Three Simple Phases of Marital Love
These three simple phases are: 1) the romantic, 2) the power struggle, and then, if the power struggle is negotiated within the bounds of self-awareness, 3) acceptance.
The romantic phase, where we only had starry eyed love for this wonderful other being, lasts from a couple weeks to a couple of years, and it finishes with a bang—in argumentative chaos usually; enters here, the power struggle. By far the majority of divorces occur because couples cannot get past the power struggle. But if they can get through the power struggle, by becoming aware of their inner woundedness, which was inflicted at childhood, their marriage has a very strong chance of surviving the distance, and even entering the glory of the sanctity of true love.
Most married people know this: true love is not to be assumed in marriage. It requires much work, devotion, and ongoing self-sacrifice for our spouses. But when we work through and beyond the power struggle, reaching acceptance, the work, the devotion, and the ongoing self-sacrifice is easier.
Getting Through the Power Struggle
The marriage work making marriages work is the mutual, though individual, negotiation of the often years-long power struggle.
Successful marriage is more of an individual work, than a group work. I can qualify this by saying that no marriage partner can reach their potential as a marriage partner without having become conscious of their own inner woundedness, such that they can see why it was they married this particular partner. When we understand that what attracts us to our partners is that primal urge of attachment, we can understand also that what irks us about that attachment will irk us in marriage.
History has a way of repeating itself. Why is it that we attract the similar sort of partner? It is because of who we are; it’s not really much about them at all, apart from the fact they remind us of our attachments as children. We are drawn to them like magnets.
Overcoming the power struggle, then, is about understanding the things we loathe about our partners, and understanding this loathing comes from deep within us; our partners, in this way, merely reflect back to us, like a mirror, the things we hated from childhood.
If we can become conscious of those facets of our personality that are easily irritated, and we can accept why it is we are easily irritated, we have a better chance of seeing marital conflict through a new lens. It is not our partner’s fault that we are irritated in these ways. When our viewpoint is aligned this way we are ready for acceptance—to experience the blessedness of the unconditional love fuelling a good marriage.
Successful marriages are successful usually because both partners have taken responsibility to do their self-work. We, as individuals, are more central to the problems in our marriages than we realise. Being conscious of our shortcomings is the beginning of true love.
© 2012 S. J. Wickham.
General Reference: Harville Hendrix, Ph.D, Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide (New York: Pocket Books, 1993).