Daryl and Peg struggle to maintain their love for each other. They do well working together to raise their kids or going out to socialize with friends. But then one of them will say something that hurts the other’s feelings. The offended partner thinks it’s a sign their spouse doesn’t love them.
They have a hard time letting go of the negativity. Ruminating on the exchange only entrenches their belief that they’re being disrespected. That makes it nearly impossible for Daryl and Peg to see the good in each other. Focused on everything that’s wrong with their spouse, they withdraw, which only serves as further proof that they’re not loved.
Daryl and Peg patch up their relationship up out of necessity. As parents, they must coordinate the kids’ schedules every day. They try to hide their unhappiness from family and friends. Underneath, however, there’s profound dissatisfaction with their relationship. This isn’t the way they’d always imagined their marriage would turn out.
While there were high hopes in the beginning, their childhood experiences with their parents were like an iceberg looming under the surface. Peg grew up in a family that told her she wasn’t very smart, so she should just find someone to take care of her. Daryl’s parents were critical of him when he struggled in school. To this day he literally breaks out into a sweat if he thinks others are judging him. He tries to control people’s behavior in order to get the results he wants, but that tactic only engenders resentment.
As a result of their upbringing, both Daryl and Peg are plagued with the underlying fear that they’re not good enough. When they make mistakes and get the message that their partner is displeased with them, their programming from childhood automatically kicks into gear to explain what’s happening in the relationship. They jump to the conclusion their spouse doesn’t believe that they’re good enough. Their deepest, darkest fears of being inadequate and unworthy of love are triggered.
This way of thinking is subconscious, of course, because it was programmed into their heads long before they were mature enough to understand what was really going on with their parents. The reality was that their parents were just too judgmental, and their constant focus on weaknesses left them feeling they weren’t good enough.
Daryl and Peg have never examined the filters they use to explain what’s happening to them in their relationship now. They just assume that their loved one’s displeasure with them is another attack designed to point out their shortcomings. And they react the way they always have — defending themselves, counterattacking and ultimately detaching.
They deny the accusation and try to point out that they’re really a good person. When defensiveness doesn’t work, they go on offense to prove that what their partner did was even worse than what they did. Tensions rapidly escalate and harsh words are exchanged before both sides retreat into stonewalling one another.
That’s when the rumination phase kicks in with both parties focusing on what the other is doing wrong to hurt them. They keep coming back to the same conclusion: my partner doesn’t love me.
This is the same pattern they’ve been repeating since childhood; it’s what they learned about how loving relationships work.
When Daryl and Peg started couples counseling, they discovered how these past patterns of loving have shaped their marital relationship. Marriage counseling is enabling them to learn how to think about relationships in a new way. A complaint or dissatisfaction doesn’t automatically equate to an attack on their adequacy as a person. They’re simply in a situation that’s failing to meet their partner’s needs at the moment.
By learning to explain problems in an optimistic manner they make them temporary issues that are specific to the particular situation.
Pointing out problems does not constitute a personal attack, they’re realizing, but merely presents a challenge in need of a mutually satisfying solution.
Change is coming as they get coaching from their counselor about how to control their defensiveness in order to respond to one another with compassion. Daryl and Peg are changing their old ways of thinking about not being good enough in the eyes of their loved one. They’re shifting their focus to appreciating one another. By significantly increasing the amount of positive exchanges, their negative encounters are easier to manage.
When problems do occur, they think: We can find a solution that will satisfy both of us. And then we’ll return to generating loving feelings.