It is universally agreed that the three magic words that cement a relationship are “I love you.” In my experience, the three tragic words that lead to a relationship’s coming unglued are “I didn’t know...”
Most couples who come to me for divorce mediation are deadlocked. They are unable to break the links in the ponderous chain of the circular arguments that anchor them to repeat the same accusations and countercharges, keeping them mired in a murky past that they neither understand nor acknowledge. Their action/reaction patterns of communication fail to resolve any challenges, and lead only to frustration, anger and resentment.
The issues that underlie these arguments go unspoken and unaddressed because both of the parties “didn’t know” something important about the other party’s feelings, needs, experiences, and concerns because they were too focused on their anger, getting revenge, and having the final word.
Actions and Reactions
Very seldom does the initiating spouse identify, let alone understand, the underlying issues (from his/her past) that are prompting his/her own behavior. At the same time, the initiating spouse is equally unaware how his/her behavior prompts negative reactions from the other spouse, based on the reacting spouse’s own personal history.
Similarly, the reacting spouse is likewise unaware that what appears to be a criticism by the initiating spouse is often a statement of the initiator’s fears, shame, or inability to communicate directly. At the same time, the reacting party is equally unaware how his/her reaction to the initiating spouse is rooted in the reacting party’s own negative past experiences.
Neither party really knows what the confrontation was really about; they may have been arguing about sharing household chores, when the real issue might have been about control, respect, or other underlying subjective issue. Therefore, neither of them knows how to make this a constructive rather than a destructive conversation. They both assume that the other person is unfairly critical, demanding, defensive or sensitive.
Consequently, both parties think that they are right, and have been wronged by the other party, while the real issues remain unaddressed. Eventually, the couple begins to drift apart while anchored to their own past.
Irrelevant or Insignificant Content
In fact, one of the biggest communication challenges couples face is that they rehash the same general argument again and again because they are ostensibly arguing about a relatively insignificant or inappropriate issue that obscures the real emotions that prompted the initial comments. By subconsciously trying to repeat or reject a pattern from childhood or a past relationship, we focus on seemingly irrelevant or insignificant content that is obtusely symbolic of the underlying process. Thus a spouse may use jealousy to express love or dependence, just as a parent may have done (repeat), or a spouse whose parent abandoned the family may use jealousy to hold on tightly to their marital relationship (reject).
Similarly, a spouse whose parents were very materialistic and judged others by their material wealth and not their inherent worth may be a spendthrift (repeat), or a spouse may be a spendthrift in an effort to overcome the memories of a childhood of poverty and deprivation (reject). But whatever the situation, the true meaning of the party’s behavior is further obscured by the negative reaction such behavior triggers in their spouse.
Thus, the jealous wife, unable to express her suppressed fears of rejection or her discomfort in expressing vulnerability, conveys a message that is perceived by her husband as controlling, critical, and ultimately destructive of trust and love. Similarly, the spendthrift husband, ashamed of his humble upbringing or afraid to admit his own fears of failure and inadequacy, conveys a message that is perceived by his wife as both irresponsible and selfish. Yet tragically, neither spouse truly knows what is happening, what their arguments are really about.
What makes these circular arguments so intractable is that the spouses usually lack knowledge on three levels:
- First, they “don’t know” about the issues that underlie their spouse’s critical, irrational or otherwise destructive behavior.
- Secondly, they “don’t know” that their reactions may be equally critical, irrational or otherwise destructive because of their own issues mired in the muck of the past.
- Thirdly, they “don’t know” that their selection of a spouse was likely influenced by their experiences as children, and that these selection criteria are often venomous to the long-term health of the marriage.
As for myself, I did not understand the underlying issues that sometimes resulted in my being jealous, which certainly played a role in the demise of my first marriage. Until I was adopted at age six, I lived in orphanages and foster homes. Although the family that adopted me provided material abundance and security, they made it clear that I “owed them” because they took me in when no one else wanted me. It wasn’t until after I got divorced that, through therapy, I was able to make the connection between the insecurity and abandonment issues from my childhood, and the triggers that activated my jealousy.
Breaking the Chains of Circular Arguments
Before we can break the chains of the circular arguments that keep us anchored to the past, we need to:
- Know who we are and what experiences influence our way of thinking and being.
- We also need to know who our spouse is and what experiences influence our spouse’s way of thinking and being.
Through candid conversation, which may be facilitated through therapy, individuals and couples can identify and appropriately deal with underlying issues before they obscure the substantive issues that need to be discussed and resolved.
It is never too late to improve your communication skills--both sending and receiving. Even if it is too late to save your marriage, you can still learn valuable lessons from your failed relationship--lessons that you can apply to make your future relationships healthier and happier.
By understanding your own “triggers,” as well as learning about and accepting your partner’s vulnerabilities, you will be more compassionate, patient and understanding with your partners, family, and friends, and also be able to improve your communication skills, resolve issues, and avoid major arguments.
As my mother used to tell me: “Keep an open mind, because we all have unique experiences and personalities, so you can learn something from everyone,” including both yourself and your former partner. “I didn’t know...” will destroy a marriage, and the couple will be sitting in my office lamenting: “If I had only known...”