You might be wondering, what is the biggest relationship problem couples face? After over 25 years doing couples therapy, I can tell you what I have seen. Before I do that, what would be your guess?
What Do You Think are the Biggest Relationship Issues?
Communication problems are the most commonly requested relationship therapy issue and the one most couples self-diagnose. It is probably both in the public consciousness and quite reassuring to think ‘we just need some help with communication.’ However, while this might be a component, this is not the issue (in fact, communication is frequently ‘an issue’ but more often not ‘THE issue.’)
Well, certainly infidelity is an issue which drives many couples to therapy. While infidelity is a common problem, it is not the main thing that brings couples to therapy. It may, in fact, be this other issue, which at times might lead to infidelity.
Falling Out of Love?
Couples do seem to fall out of love sometimes. Often it seems they have gotten busy with careers, children, and life. Often it is the case that they forget to pay attention to the relationship and to nurture it. A possible result is that both partners can feel taken for granted. There is an unconscious case of ‘bait and switch.’ Often, the partners will put on their best behavior during courting. However, once they are married, they no longer behave in their best manner.
‘Falling out of love’ is a common problem and one which requires a conscious effort to resolve. Often it is not as dire as it might seem. One big problem can be that the couple waits a long time before coming to therapy to resolve this issue. This delay can mean the problem has time to grow, along with building resentments and a sense of growing apart.
While the feeling of falling out of love is usually quite workable, it is common in our busy culture. It is not, however, the biggest problem facing couples.
Problems with Intimacy?
Problems with intimacy, or more precisely, a difference in the ability to be intimate is a significant problem which often sends couples to therapy. It’s as if we establish a thermostat for intimacy in childhood. What is comfortable for one person might either be too close or too distant for the other partner. Our early attachment experiences are essential in determining how we experience intimacy and what feels desirable or comfortable for us. Problems with intimacy can be a component but are not the biggest issue.
Drinking? Drugs? Domestic Violence?
Substance abuse or domestic violence are serious problems, and can pose safety concerns; we would never want to minimize the significance of these real and potentially dangerous issues. These are significant issues, but still not the biggest issue.
So, What is the Biggest Relationship Problem Couples Face?
The biggest problem couples face is one of repetition. What does that mean? We tend to repeat relationship patterns and dynamics which we encountered growing up.
A little background to make this idea clearer. We get into relationships, and we assume we know HOW to be in a relationship. After all, we have friends, parents, possible siblings, and many other types of relationships. However, a romantic relationship is a different kind of relationship. Romantic relationships tap into something more primal. They pull for our earliest sense of what – almost exactly what – it felt like in our earliest loving relationships. If we had a parent who was unavailable or rejecting, or unpredictable, or angry or depressed, or …. we very often will find a way to replicate the relationship and the dynamics in our present primary (couple) relationship.
Let’s say you had a parent who could be loving under certain circumstances, but then could be rejecting in other circumstances. You might have grown up trying to control and please that parent. These efforts to control might be efforts at self-protection. If things went well, you would (hopefully) face less of the rejection and gain more of the loving aspects. However, since love feels unpredictable, the absence of rejection might raise your anxiety. Counterintuitively, it is entirely possible that in dating if you found someone who was loving, but was not rejecting – you might:
1) find this person nice but boring
2) not feel chemistry
3) you might actually – even unconsciously – try to provoke your partner. Getting them to get them to reject you like your parent did both makes it predictable and reduces the anxiety. This allows for a sense of control. This is even true if you have told yourself a hundred times you never want to have to deal with this again!
How Does this Repetition of Relationship Patterns Develop?
We grow up in some constellation of a family. How we were cared for becomes the model of what it feels like to be cared for or loved. If your parent/grandparent/guardian was warm, touched or held you a lot and was emotionally available, this might be what you come to expect from a partner. If your guardian was more distant, cold and perhaps task-driven – you might come to expect love to feel like “actions speak louder than words.” Neither one is objectively more correct, but one is ‘more correct’ for YOU than the other. The other may just seem foreign or disappointing or ‘not really love.’
Unconsciously, we are attracted to people and relationships reminiscent of earliest relationships. It is like ‘home cooking,’ the food at a restaurant or a friend’s house might seem great, but nothing is quite ‘like mom used to make.’ Similarly, we are drawn to the feelings, the contours or the nuances and details of what it felt like to be loved. These become the model of intimate relationships. The model of love.
By way of analogy, let’s consider the phenomenon of imprinting from the animal kingdom. One commonly observed phenomenon is that soon after ducklings are hatched, they might take the nearest large creature or even object to be their mother. These early experiences or ‘relationships’ can have profound effects later. People with pet birds will know that birds hand fed as chicks (fed and nurtured by humans from the earliest age) tend to be much better with people than birds raised by their mother.
All this is to say that we develop a sense of what love ‘feels like’ and the manner in which we experience our earliest caring, nurturing and loving relationships can almost ‘imprint’ the pattern on us. This is, unfortunately, even true in situations in which we did not get the type of loving we wanted. But, this also helps to explain why we keep choosing people who seem not to work out, or we keep getting into the same kinds of relationships.
The Role of the Unconscious in Finding Love
OK, so we may have this imprinting-like issue going on. The fact is, so does everyone else. So does your partner. They are also trying to replicate their past, unconsciously. In fact, if you think about gears meshing, this might be a visual for how our issue needs to fit with their issue.
Imagine a complex machine. It might be made up of:
- your relationship history
- issues that ran through your family
- relationship styles
- intergenerational patterns
- the influence of culture
- point in history or historical events
- the impact of immigration and any associated issues or trauma
- unresolved desires
- your relationship history with each parent
- what your parents modeled as a relationship
- and many other factors.
Your partner comes to the relationship with an equally complex machine. Their issues and history are influencing them unconsciously as well. (Sure, it might seem like even more than yours, but a likely guess would be that that would be their perspective as well!).
We are Attracted to People Whose Problems Align With Ours
Some of the gears from both machines include problematic relationship styles, unresolved desires, ungrieved losses or other things. In fact, these issues NEED to be there if the gears are actually to align. This seems paradoxical. However, we are drawn to a partner not only because we find them attractive, intelligent, they have similar morals, they have a great sense of humor or other factors.
We also need to assess (likely unconsciously) that their issues work with our issues. We are likely not to be deeply drawn to a person whose issues do not align with ours. They will not seem familiar. Ever notice that sense that the person you are powerfully attracted to seems somehow familiar? (A bit of a double-edged sword!). For example, someone who had a parent(s) who was unsatisfyingly distant may swear to him-or-her-self they would never partner up with an emotionally unavailable person. They might, in fact, find themselves drawn to someone who is ‘a little more distant than I would like’ but expect it will improve over time.
When it does not, the ‘distancer’ can rightly point out this is how she or he was before the wedding “you knew what I was like!” The ‘pursuer’ might have (even unconsciously) held the fantasy things would change, perhaps even that they could change or fix their partner. Somehow, instead, they find them self in an unsatisfyingly distant relationship. The ‘distance’ may be developed in a ‘smothering/controlling’ relationship with someone who was too needy (like a dependent parent) or, conversely, they could be disavowing their own need for closeness that was potentially unmet in earlier years. This might allow them to have a sense of mastery over a previously very difficult situation (Freud called this ‘turning passive into active’).
What To Do About It?
A great reason to go to therapy is to resolve the unresolved issues of the past. The more they preoccupy our minds, even unconsciously (* more on that in a moment), the more we tend to circle around the same topics, issues and types of relationships. As an analogy, ever notice when you buy something new you tend to see it a lot more in the environment around you? Even if you are not consciously thinking about that car/phone/item, it is on your mind, and you see it more frequently even though nothing else has changed.
This is true of our unresolved issues. If you felt unloved by a parent, it might seem like your boss, teacher or other authority figure does not care for you either. You might find yourself in a relationship in which you feel your partner does not ‘truly’ love you, or you might be overly suspicious that they would leave you if they had the opportunity. These are only a couple of the possibilities.
By definition, something that is unconscious is not something of which we can consciously be aware. That does not mean it does not impact us. In fact, it might be even more impactful than things of which we are aware. Things that are on our mind unconsciously, influence what we notice in the environment, how we feel and think about things. Again, for example, if we feel we are not worthwhile, we will tend to pick out experiences that confirm that belief. If we feel relationships are destined/doomed to (fill in the blank here!), we will find people to help fulfill that destiny. Moreover, we might even unconsciously push them to behave in ways which confirm our unconscious expectations.
Childhood experiences influence us in almost innumerable ways. Our earliest experiences very strongly affect our basic sense of self. If we are gently cared for and made to feel valued and safe, we will be more secure. If care was irregular or unreliable, we might:
- be more anxious
- have lower self-esteem
- not trust others cannot be counted on, or may not ‘really want us.’
If a parent was stressed, needed to work a lot or was overwhelmed with other issues, we may feel less important.
Unconscious narrative – developed in childhood – erroneous but not tested in adulthood
More problematically, we very often come up with a narrative – a story as to why our parents are not available, not consistently gentle and loving, maybe drink too much or are abusive. This story is based on our childhood perspective. One thing we know is that early in childhood we tend to be egocentric. This means that we think it is ‘all about us.’ Because of this normal developmental mindset, we can tend to create a story such as,”If I were a better kid, my parent would…” This is very common.
The problem is that we do not later re-evaluate that story in our teen years or adulthood. Instead, we move through our lives and we think we have a handle on how things work. The story we developed in childhood tends become unconscious. This could be because psychological defenses repress it out of our conscious awareness, or it could become automated just like driving a car (you mostly don’t think about how to drive once it is well established).
Since we have this unconscious narrative, and we tend not to test it against reality – it stays there unconsciously influencing how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive our partners, how we experience the relationship. We might hope to leave our problems behind in our parents’ home, but without work, that is not likely to happen. Instead of becoming freed up, we tend to fall into relationships based on our unconscious story about ourselves, our sense of what love should feel like (even if it is not ideal).
One More Factor – Defenses
Psychological defenses are little unconscious tricks our mind plays on itself to avoid painful ‘realizations.’ These ‘tricks’ might help at the moment but often might work against us in the long run. We might feel better at the moment not realizing something which seems painful or scary. That might help briefly but may actually prevent us from recognizing some larger issue. For example, the denial of a frightening potential health problem may prevent us from taking potentially life-saving steps to improve our health.
You can’t see through, around or get around your defenses. Thus, the only way to recognize some of these painful patterns, unconscious story-lines, untested ‘realities’ is to work with a skilled therapist who is trained psychodynamically (that is, specifically trained to notice subtleties that may indicate unconscious issues to be explored).
A sensitive and skilled therapist can notice subtle cues, most often ones the client cannot notice him-or-her-self. It is through the awareness of the influence of the unconscious, and by reading many subtle cues – including her or his own experience in the room that a psychodynamic therapist can help to uncover some of these unconscious patterns which may cause a lot of problems in the couple’s relationship. In my opinion, therapies that do not address this issue do not address the biggest relationship problem couples face.