I recently wrote about why you might have chosen a partner who is uniquely qualified to push your buttons. Now I want to start to describe what you can do about it. Let me save you some suspense: This will involve you changing your attitude, not you changing your partner’s behaviors.
We will often choose to partner with someone whose behaviors or very presence will trigger difficult issues from our past, usually from our childhood. The reason we do this is not because we are masochists, but because we are on a quest for wholeness. As long as we carry the pain and limitations from our past, we cannot be our best and most complete selves. There is no better method for liberation and wholeness, I believe, than the cauldron of a committed, long-term relationship.
Consider Carol and John, a fictional but archetypal couple who were initially head-over-heels in love with each other. Carol loved John’s spontaneity, his out-of-the-box creative thinking, and his artistic temperament. John loved Carol’s groundedness and practicality. Carol felt alive when she was with John; life had vivid colors and excitement. John felt safe and secure with Carol; in her presence he felt he could reach for the stars.
Fast forward 10 years and two children. The romantic love phase is long since over and the couple are eight years into a power struggle: Carol resents John’s impetuosity and irresponsibility and sees him more as a third child than an adult partner. John feels suffocated by Carol’s endless worry over money and responsibilities; she has become the proverbial wet blanket over their lives. Their household has become filled with tense sparring and each sometimes tries to enlist the children in their conflicts.
What went wrong here? How can this sad but oh-so-common tale have anything to do with wholeness? (For a nice Hollywood depiction of this, check out The Story of Us (link is external) with Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis.)
I have a teacher who likes to say, “We hire our partners to do a job and then we want to fire them when they start to do it.” Carol unconsciously chose John because she was brought up by a philandering, irresponsible, but charming father and a responsible but martyred mother. In her parent’s power struggle she sided with her mother. She identified with her mother’s sense of worry and adopted her belief system that life is a serious business and if you’re too much like Dad, the bills don’t get paid and bad things happen.
John was brought up by two happy but frivolous parents who knew how to have fun but couldn’t figure out how to make a living. They constantly moved from place to place; home life was chaotic and rules were minimal. All his friends loved to come over because his parents were so “cool.” John was brought up without many restrictions, a “free spirit.” Inwardly, however, he longed for the structure and routine he saw at his friends’ houses, to know what he could expect when he got home from school each day.
As children we see life in more black-and-white terms and make concrete decisions based on this kind of thinking. Carol decided it was too dangerous to be like her father: You hurt other people when you’re too free, so it’s better to opt for the responsible path like her mother. Yet what happened to Carol’s inborn creative side? Where could it find expression? Of course she would be smitten by John when she met him: He breathed new life into her “I always finish my homework before going out to play” existence.
And what about John? No matter how fun his childhood, he felt unsafe in a world without rules, and with the instability his parents’ lifestyle brought. He met Carol and she seemed the perfect embodiment of all he never had—order, safety, and a home that’s a haven from the chaos of the outer world.
All of that makes sense. So why didn’t they live happily ever after? Why couldn’t they perfectly complement what the other is missing?
The answer is that we cannot outsource our own development to our partner. Carol must reclaim her own vivacity and spontaneity—otherwise she’s simply married to her father, someone who gets to have all the fun while she does all the work. John must develop his own capacity for structure and order and internalize it. Otherwise Carol looms as his jailer, not as his wife.
One further wrinkle to this dynamic is that reclaiming these lost parts of ourselves involves meeting the pain we felt as a child when we originally lost those parts. But we don’t like to do that, and so when a partner triggers those memories, even if unconsciously, we lash out rather than sit in the discomfort of our own childhoods brought back to us.
I know this can sound like a little bit too neat of a schema to fit in the messiness of real life, but I can promise you that I see it in action time after time. When a couple really gets that they’re trapped in this dramatic re-enactment of their childhoods, then they are in position to take responsibility for their own wholeness. They can finally begin a more conscious and mutual relationship with their spouse.