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.


Marriage Partner’s Bill of Rights

When I was twenty-something I was taught, “Yield your rights; focus on your responsibilities.”

The second half of this saying has merit; there is no virtue in being irresponsible.

But the first half of this saying requires some finesse. Over the years I’ve paid too little attention to the idea of rights. This is odd since our constitution includes a Bill of Rights, I grew up watching TV cops read criminals their rights, and even the Bible scolds kings who, “deprive the oppressed of their rights.”

This deficit in my thinking became painfully obvious years ago while working with enmeshed, codependent, high conflict couples trampling each other’s rights. For years I gently nudged partners to embrace their responsibilities while ignoring the equally important notion of defending one’s rights. To correct this imbalance I invite couples to read and respond to the following.


 A Marriage Partner’s Bill of Rights

1.  My partner has the right to feel good about him/herself in spite of me and my problems. Just because I feel miserable that doesn’t mean my partner should feel that way, too. My partner doesn’t have to be oriented toward fixing things for me.

I have the right to feel good about myself in spite of my partner’s problems. I care about how my partner feels but I’m not expected or obligated to fix his/her problems for him/her, or to feel badly just because he/she feels bad badly.

2.  My partner has the right to express his/her feelings and share his/her pain. I do not have to take his/her expression of feelings personally, feel guilty, at fault, or blamed.

I have a right to express my feelings and share my pain. I will do so respectfully. My partner does not have to take what I say personally, feel guilty, at fault, or accept blame just because I give it.

3.  My partner has a right to his/her dislikes and doesn’t always have to please me or to sell him/herself short. It is all right for my partner to have his/her own tastes, whether they are the same as mine or not.

I have the right to my likes/dislikes and don’t always have to please my partner or to sell myself short. It’s all right for me to have tastes that are different from those of my partner.

4.  My partner has a right to pursue his/her own interests and hobbies. It may be necessary for us to negotiate time and money issues together.

I have a right to my own interests and hobbies and the right to pursue them. It may be necessary for us to negotiate time and money issues together.

5.  My partner has a right to be whoever he/she is and doesn’t have to change to pacify me. This includes the right to do his/her tasks in his/her way without being discounted. I can learn to tolerate and appreciate his/her difference from me, rather than to have to convert him/her to my way of thinking, doing, and living in every way.

I have the right to be whoever I am and don’t have to change to pacify my partner. This includes a right to do my tasks in my own way without being discounted by criticism that I am stupid, inefficient, or the like. My partner can learn to appreciate my differences from him/her, rather than have to convert me to his/her way of thinking.

6.  My partner has a right to say “no” to things that violate his/her values and deep needs and to things he/she feels infringe on his/her rights as a person. If I disagree strongly on these issues I will use fair fighting rules and honest expression of feelings over time to work them out rather than trying to use power, intimidation, and pressure to get my way. I understand that difficult issues need time to work out smoothly.

I have a right to say “no” to things that violate my values and deep needs and to things I feel infringe on my rights as a person. If my partner and I disagree strongly on these issues I have the right to be treated fairly and with respect, and to have the time I need to work through these issues with him/her.

7.  My partner has the right to be human and make mistakes. In fact, his/her mistakes can help me recognize that we are both human, and that I make mistakes, too. I will do my best to leave his/her mistakes in the past.

I have the right to be human and make mistakes. I do not have to be perfect to be loveable.

8.  My partner has the right to be treated with respect. He/she does not deserve to be yelled at, sworn at, called names, put down, discounted, or criticized. If I should feel discounted, I will not respond by doing the same thing back but look carefully at my own behavior first. Only after I am very sure that I am not discounting or disrespecting him/her verbally or non verbally will I respectfully challenge the behaviors I feel he/she uses that are disrespectful to me.

I have the right to be treated with respect. I do not deserve to be yelled at, sworn at, called names, discounted, or criticized. I have the right to not tolerate abuse if my partner fails to treat me respectfully on a regular basis.

9.  My partner has a right to be listened to and taken seriously. I will not dismiss what he/she has to say as “the same old thing,” or to stop listening in the middle of a discussion. I will not interrupt or spend time just thinking about what to say back to my partner. I will take a “time out” if I need one, but not just leave or ignore my partner.

I have the right to be listened to and taken seriously. However, I will not expect my partner to be perfect. If I feel I haven’t been heard I will find an appropriate time to respectfully restate myself without attacking.

10.  My partner has the inherent right to feel worthwhile and valuable. I will not discount who he/she is but spend my time looking positively for his/her strengths so that I can point them out appropriately and appreciatively. I will find times to praise my partner without diluting my praise with criticism.

I have the right to feel worthwhile and valuable. I will not discount who I am, but spend my time looking positively for my strengths, rather than depending on my partner to support my sense of self. I will find times to praise myself without diluting my praise with criticism.

There are times when defending your rights is the right thing to do. Hopefully this Bill of Rights will help.

1989 Patricia S. Potter-Efron, Based on Ed Ramsey’s Bill of Rights for Concerned Persons
Letting Go of Anger Workshop, © Ronald Potter-Efron
First Things First, 2125 Heights Drive, Eau Claire, WI 54701 (715-832-8432)

Reacting or Responding: We Can Choose

Replacing those impulsive, knee jerk, adrenaline-charged urges to flight, flight, or freeze (which we call reactions) with a mindful, thoughtful, curious calm (we call responding) sounds great. But how do we do it? Think of the last time someone:

  • Pushed your button
  • Got your goat
  • Tripped your wire
  • Lit your fuse
  • Triggered your vulnerabilities
  • Grabbed your attention
  • Bothered and upset you

There’s a strong likelihood that you reacted instead of responding. This wouldn’t be a big deal except that reactions often trigger in others their own reactions and off we go into an escalating spiral of conflict. Someone once wisely wrote, “There is no problem so big that it can’t be made bigger with reactivity.”

There are two ways to interrupt this vicious cycle.

  1. Do all in your power not to trigger another’s reaction. This isn’t easy because you can’t always predict what will set someone off.
  2. Do all in your power to respond (not react) when other’s push your buttons.

Here are fourteen strategies to help you respond. Some of these admittedly sound silly, but they work. Remember, a conscious action is better than an unconscious reaction.

  1. Imagine you’re a giant frying pan covered with Teflon and all provocations, irritations, and insults just slide off like eggs.
  2. Imagine you’re a duck and those same provocations roll off like water.
  3. Imagine you’re a wind up clock and a storm is raging outside. A power outage doesn’t affect you one tiny bit.
  4. Imagine you are hard-to-ignite, damp kindling rather than easy-to-ignite dry tinder. Let spark-like comments fall on damp ground that won’t ignite.
  5. Imagine you’re a chunk of wood or a China tea-cup unaffected the pull of a magnet. Stop being that metal nail unable to resist the pull into another’s magnetic field.
  6. Imagine you’re standing in ocean  waves up to your chest. As the waves crash in imagine yourself turning sideways and all the turbulence flows right past you. Imagine provocative statements are like those waves. Simply turn sideways and let them wash by.
  7. A provocateur is like baking soda; a vulnerable person is like vinegar. A chemical reaction is sure to occur! If you can’t stop others from being baking soda, mentally transform yourself into water.
  8. Become curious. Even if you’re on the receiving end of a slanderous attack, absurd accusation, or scurrilous insinuation, ask yourself, “Hmmm. I wonder what possesses that person to behave in such a manner?”
  9. Contribute to others’ serenity by being serene yourself. Breath deeply, talk calmly, and enjoy the powerful calming influence you’ll be.
  10. Active listening. Calmly repeat what you’re hearing without agreeing or disagreeing. “If I hear you correctly you think I’m a bad (partner, spouse, parent, human). It sounds like you wish I was dead. Am I getting this right?” This strategy has the double advantage of showing our disputant respect AND it helps prevent jumping to false conclusions.
  11. Examine yourself to see if there are any targets on your back. That is, what non-verbal clues have you given that indicate you are sensitive to certain comments? If others get your goat, don’t tell them where it’s tied up!
  12. Eliminate those things that make you vulnerable to other’s manipulation. Just as caffeine short-circuits your natural sleep-inducing brain chemistry, brain clutter–ego, fear, defensiveness, pride–short circuits your responses.
  13. Maintain a clear conscious. Hebrew scriptures teach, “an undeserved curse has as much influence on us as a bird flying overhead, which means none!”
  14. Let it go. Don’t let things get to you. Learn to live with less adrenaline. Relax. Focus on the present, not past offenses or future worries. Be centered, balanced, and aware of your surroundings. Do not run off like a chicken without a head. Replace impulsive, compulsive, panicky, anxious and obsessive thoughts with inner calm.

For some, impulse control is very difficult. But like all important skills, the payoff for replacing reactions with responses is worth the effort.

Final words: Slow down, cool down, calm down, settle down!