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One of the biggest issues faced by couples involves conflict. This includes disagreement over money, relationship priorities, emotional disconnection, sexual incompatibility, how to spend time together, raise their kids, responsibilities in the relationship, how much sex to have, feeling ignored, or unloved, and the list goes on. Feeling depleted and disillusioned, they may arrive at feeling more hopeless than hopeful about the outcome of their bond.
Those in a relationship find ways to quickly move on and for the married, divorce rates continue to be high. According to the American Psychological Associaton, about 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce. That’s pretty high when you consider that of the remainder 50% that stays married, there are also those who are “invisibly divorced”. That is when couples prioritize their work, family, kids, and careers over their relationship, or seek intimacy and emotional connection outside the relationship, explains Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. (considered the guru of marital intimacy) in his best selling book “Getting The Love You Want”
When couples live parallel lives in the relationship, its less about “we” and more about “me”. This may include working too many hours in the office, frequently engaging in solo activities such as reading, traveling alone, internet surfing, shopping, watching TV, refusing to talk, spending more time with friends etc. The emotional separation can gradually increase over time making it possible to be married to someone for all practical purposes and still be divorced from them emotionally. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics and US Census Bureau, the divorce rate for those 65 and older, tripled from 1990 to 2015. It appears that some of us can spend years if not decades in disconnected relationships.
So here we are. No couple wants to fight, argue or bicker or be a part of the statistics. Yet each year couples take the plunge into a relationship or long-term partnership without fully recognizing and understanding the unconscious dynamics that drive the relationship. Despite the careful analysis, we may put into the choice of our mate, we are headed towards many many disputes and quarrels. Because being in a relationship will draw out the wounds of our past and repeatedly place them at the forefront of our relationship as a reminder of unfinished work. If you’re a parent, you also know that this is actually true not only of marriage or partnership but also of parenthood.
Attachment theory and psychoanalysis work from the paradigm of understanding traumas (including ruptures and disappointments and experiences of invalidation) that occurred in childhood as informing a person’s current day struggles. Jungian psychology, inspired by Hindu philosophy extends this understanding to the hurt that may have been gathered transcending several lifetimes, thus becoming a part of our “collective unconsciousness”. For a quick understanding of the conscious and unconscious, review Freud‘s tripartite model which offers a brief explanation of the division of the mind and its nature.
What this means for any couple embroiled in disputes or conflict in their relationship (whether they acknowledge them or not), is to first understand that conflicts are a given in a relationship (I’ll explain shortly why), and that the aim of the couple is to understand the source of the disputes and the importance of partnership in the resolution of these conflicts.
Most couples think that they already know the answer to the source of the conflict. “He drinks too much” or “She wants to cuddle all the time, and I’m not the cuddling type”. But this is a narrative of our conscious minds. What we are unaware of is the source of the conflict in our unconscious minds.
The knowledge that we actually operate 10 % from our conscious mind of awareness is a sobering thought. This means that we may not be as much in the driver’s seat as we think and that in turn most of our choices, decisions, perceptions, biases, and ways of operating and functioning in the world are determined by our unconscious and sub-conscious minds. If we can accept this reasoning, then we may be more open to the idea that our unconscious mind plays a pretty huge role in our choice of partner or spouse.
Let that sink in for a moment. We choose our partners consciously by our conscious mind (based on attractiveness, humor, etc), but the majority of the choice lies in the domain of the unconscious mind. Put, another way–we choose our partners for reasons that even we may not completely understand. Hence trying to ascertain the source of conflict (especially the uncovering of unconscious sources) is significant. The very nature of being unconscious implies that they lie outside the realm of conscious awareness and we don’t know what we don’t know.
Hinduism views relationships within the realm of “karma” of each being and the work that needs to be completed between two beings for the resolution of “karma”. The idea translates into two beings choosing each other in a relationship dyad (parent-child, partners, brother-sister, friends) in order to pay off the debts of a lifetime. This can occur over a single or multiple lifetimes.
What this means for you in this lifetime is to see your partner or spouse as an opportunity for growth and change and to acknowledge that the issues you both encounter in your relationship cannot be simplified into problems related to “opinions” or “values” or “goals“. They are a manifestation of the unconscious wounds of your past that arise as triggers based on the unconscious choice you made in choosing your partner. Your take away, for now, is that there is meaning in your choice of partner. You chose each other for a reason.
To make this less abstract, let’s take the example of Julie and Sam who fell in love the minute they laid eyes upon each other (or so they thought). Julie, a self-professed lover of the arts, impulsive, social, creative and dynamic by nature. Sam, a bit more cautious, reserved, introspective and analytical. He was attracted to her quick wit, charm, ability to be instantly vulnerable and affectionate and caring demeanor. She was infatuated by his strong, reflective nature, knowledge of a vast range of topics. He was well-traveled and everything about him seemed to spell stability.
All that was two years ago. Now, just as they are about to take the next step, Julie has serious doubts about Sam. She wonders if she will be okay living with someone a bit “stiff” and “non-spontaneous”. Although she still admires his thoughtfulness and loyalty, she longs for him to be a bit more fun and energetic about their relationship, perhaps try new hobbies and be more willing to spice up their sex life. “Am I falling out of love? Is he the guy for me?”, she ponders.
The back-story to Julie and Sam is that they both come from very different families and styles of parenting. Julie’s family was a safe, carefree, creative place where the world seemed to be her oyster and life was always about trying something new and different. Sam, on the other hand, came from a family that has inherited strong values surrounding work, and leadership. Both his parents were lawyers, perfectionists by nature and demanded a great deal from all their kids. As a result, Sam tried hard to fit in with their expectations and abandoned his natural curiosity and playfulness about things.
In choosing each other as partners, Sam and Julie had unconsciously also chosen disavowed parts of themselves in each other. But in living their day to day lives, Sam was frequently annoyed by Julie’s changing plans at the last minute, inviting people over to their place without checking with him first, having no set schedule for the day, and prioritizing her feelings in making important choices.
Sam and Julie, could very well call it quits and decide that they are very different in personality to be compatible. Or Sam and Julie could each do their work (with help if needed) to determine and understand themselves a bit more, and also what is triggered in them by the other and where this may be emerging from. This would be Step 1 which can occur when the relationship is safe (free from abuse) and when both partners want to work for the betterment of the relationship. One person choosing to be in a relationship is not a relationship.
Step 2 would be seeing the relationship as the area of overlap between you and your partner. Ones that you both are equally responsible in co-creating. Therefore, there is no room here in finding fault, assigning blame and being self-righteous. We all have to eat humble pie in acknowledging both our conscious and unconscious contributions to the relationship and resolve to jointly work on it. This may include calling upon the conscious brain to communicate needs and expectations clearly and kindly, so we can learn to love the other and be loved in turn.
Those of you who have been previously divorced and re-married or started a relationship may also see a pattern emerge in terms of familiar conflict coming up or different conflict coming up. The bottom line is that in any relationship (including romantic ones) the universe will keep finding a way to bring your conflict to you as an opportunity for resolution.
In summary, seeing your relationship as a partnership, and your responsibility towards the birth and evolution of this partnership is your work jointly in the marriage/relationship. If you choose to stay together and make it work (which I hope you are inspired to do), it won’t be easy. But have hope, it is possible.