How Our Family of Origin Influences Marriage Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction


Subconscious needs in marriage can be as confusing as an optical illusion!

These ideas originated from Dr. Gary Brainerd in a Cross Country Education workshop entitled, Counseling for Couples: Understanding and Improving Love Relationships. © 2012 Gary Brainerd.

Rather than just blowing away the smoke of marital conflict, we want to put out the fire, the source of marital conflict. And one of the biggest sources of marital conflict is what we learned or didn’t learn, got or didn’t get, while growing up. Here’s how our early care givers continue to affect us today.

If, during the critical ages of fifteen months to three years, our primary care givers were overly smothering (hovering like helicopters, emotionally enmeshed, clingy and needy) we develop an extra strong need for independence, separation, autonomy, and we become ISOLATORS. If our primary care givers were negligent (absent, distant, or mean) we develop an extra strong need for closeness and we become PURSUERS. We bring those strong tendencies into adulthood and base our mate selection on a subconscious desire to maintain those levels of independence or closeness, to get what we didn’t get growing up, or to replicate the emotional life style (values, rules) we’re used to. Familiar and family come from the same root.

When ISOLATORS marry ISOLATORS they are both comfortable with lots of alone time.

When PURSUERS marry PURSUERS they are both comfortable with lots of together time.

This comfortableness is maintained as long as both ISOLATORS stay ISOLATORS or both PURSUERS stay PURSUERS. But guess what? People change!

Furthermore, when an ISOLATOR marries a PURSUER tensions erupt. The more the ISOLATOR feels smothered the more they need space and freedom. The ISOLATOR distances themselves from the PURSUER. That activates the PURSUER’S wound of feeling neglected so they pursue, cling, and chase even harder. The ISOLATOR feels smothered and the PURSUER feels abandoned. A vicious negative feedback loop is set up. Which of these partners is the evil one? Neither! It’s the result of family of origin patterns established early on.

Stages of Marriage

ROMANCE. When we find Mr. or Ms. Right, the pleasure centers of our brain light up like fire works! Infatuation, bliss, and the goose bumpy feeling of finding the perfect fit is a dream come true! We’re going to live happily ever after! Our endorphin saturated brain is on love drugs and we overlook our partner’s flaws, quirks, and mannerisms. We may even think those mannerisms are cute.

POWER STRUGGLE. Once those brain chemicals wear off we get irritated, impatient, and the differences between us and our spouse becomes a major problem. It turns out our partners have different values, rules, beliefs, and culture than ours. They can’t (or won’t) replicate our family of origin. Our expectations are dashed. Ninety percent of our marital hurt and sensitivity is due to history—these subconscious patterns, expectations, and unmet needs from childhood. We think we’re fighting about money, sex, kids, and hobbies when in fact we’re troubled by things we’re not even aware of. If our partner’s words, actions, and behaviors cause a strong, emotional, knee jerk reactions it’s probably one hundred percent due to history. When this happens it’s appropriate to say, “You touched my wound and caused my hurt but you didn’t cause the wound.” However, few of us say that. Instead, our partner becomes the culprit for touching an already bruised emotion. By the way, our spouse’s endorphins are wearing off, too, thus creating a perfect classroom in which to grow love. Your childhood strategies to deal with hurts trigger your partner’s defensiveness and their childhood strategies trigger yours. Welcome to the power struggle!

COMMITMENT. At this point each partner must decide if they’re willing to do the hard work of relating, meeting our partner’s needs for closeness/separateness, and responding calmly when our needs for closeness/separateness aren’t met. It’s not the power struggle that torpedoes marriages, it’s figuring out whose power will prevail. Most divorces happen when one partner refuses to make this commitment.

TRANSFORMATION. Here’s where the hard work comes in. Instead of trying to change our marriage or our partner we should let the marriage change us from blaming to responsibility, from hurt to healer, from perpetuating self limiting, subconscious habits to engaging in intelligent behaviors. Learning skills and specific processes assist in this transformation. Worksheets include My Unconscious Relationship Agenda, Conscious Dialogue Exercise, Finding Agreement, and Communicating Our Frustrations Without Demanding.

KNOWLEDGE/AWAKENING. In this stage we realize how many of our responses and reactions are automatic and habitual. And we awaken to the fact that our partner isn’t the enemy but a gift to help us grow and become better people. Meeting our partner’s needs requires us to grow, adapt, and learn new things.

REAL LOVE. This kind of love doesn’t depend on brain chemicals but on intelligent choices. Love occurs when our partner’s needs are equal to or even greater than our own needs. Love is a behavior, not a feeling.

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1 Comment

  1. berthamakes

     /  December 8, 2012

    Reblogged this on Art of Bertha.


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