Jason and Jennifer were in my office because they wondered “what could they do to get it right?” As they sat in the twin wicker chairs for the first time, I asked them to tell me what brought them. Jennifer turned to Jason, looked down at the floor and then up at him and said, “You’re always criticizing me. Last week when I was getting ready to go to the dinner party you sneered at me. Why did you look at me that way? I looked in the mirror and I could see you standing behind me with your lip curled.”
Jason hesitated, cleared his throat as he averted his eyes from Jennifer and looked over at me and said, “I was thinking oh no, Jennifer, you’re not going to wear that purple shirt with the green skirt. And the skirt hardly fits over your belly.”
“Now just a minute, you sound alarmed. Jennifer stared at him and her voice rose hysterically. Why should that alarm you?”
At a loss for words, Jason stared back. Finally, he muttered, “Not alarmed, just grossed out.”
Jennifer and Jason’s “honeymoon” phase had lasted five blissful years. Now the closeness and intimacy were slipping away and they’d drifted apart. They’d lapsed into a fight cycle. Just like in the “starter marriages” each had before. The issues were different but it sure felt the same and both were running scared.
They’d exchanged vows on the white sands of Hawaii. They hoped their passion would last forever. Their romance had started like a testimonial for eharmony. Candlelight dinners with wine, walks along the beach, gazing into each other’s eyes over a cappuccino. Jason had even nicknamed Jennifer “Cub.” He said, “We were like playful bears.”
The negative fight cycle had seemed to loom out of nowhere.
There are several different types of fight cycles. Perhaps one partner controls and the other rebels. Or one partner criticizes and the other blames. Once a cycle like this begins, it usually escalates and takes on a life of its own. But underneath, partners feel frightened or wounded. They often feel a lack of entitlement.
In one of this couple’s fight cycles, Jennifer insisted they spend more time together. That was her way of trying to overcome her fears of losing Jason and recapture the closeness. But Jason resisted and rebelled. He found ways to stay away, worked late or hung out at the gym.
Jennifer spent hours on the internet reading about relationships. She wrote down quotes from articles and read them to Jason when he got home from the gym. “Positive close relationships ‘inoculate’ partners against the stresses of life.”
He snapped back, “Stop lecturing me!”
“I’m not lecturing. We need to fix our relationship. You don’t seem to care.”
Jason started to wonder if he really loved Jennifer. If so, why could he hardly wait to get away from her?
The struggle for control had begun and the conflict monster had reared its ugly head. They began to bicker about little things too, like who would take the garbage out.
Jennifer suggested counseling and Jason reluctantly agreed.
Sitting opposite each other now in my office, they hoped to untangle their fight cycle, explore their underlying feelings and express those feelings to each other.
Jennifer fought back tears after Jason told her he’d been grossed out by her outfit and said, “So you think I’m ugly?”
She turned back to me with pleading eyes. I said, “That affected you deeply, Jennifer.”
“Yeah, for the rest of the evening and for days after. Even now.”
I asked her if she wanted to be admired and cherished by Jason. She nodded and looked over at him longingly.
Jason didn’t seem to see her or hear what she wanted. Instead, he said, “You bugged me all evening. You interrupted every conversation I had with a woman.”
When she heard that and looked into his cold eyes, Jennifer burst into tears and sobbed. “I’m afraid Jason’s not attracted to me anymore.”
I looked at her and said, “You got this feeling when he looked at you that way and when he paid more attention to other women? Jennifer, would you turn to Jason and tell him how you felt.”
Jennifer turned to him and spoke softly, expressing her sad and hurt feelings. Fortunately, Jason was now able to “hear” her and respond. Something had shifted. He reached over and took her hand. He put his arms around her and she smiled up at him. I could hear the clock ticking before I interrupted.
I asked Jason to revisit and explore his memories and the feelings that prompted his criticism of Jennifer before the dinner party. He thought for awhile before he revealed to me that he’d grown up in poverty and had to work his way through college, pay back student loans and fight for every dime he’d earned since.
He was a successful financial analyst now but he remembered the times in his childhood when his rich cousins had made fun of him and the tattered clothes he wore, the shoes he’d grown out of. As he remembered, he became aware of images from his past and a recurrent dream. “In the dream, I’m standing in baggy hand-me-downs, shrugging, hands outstretched looking down at my toes wiggling out of my shoes.”
He realized now that he’d linked those same feelings to Jennifer. They were so close that he felt what she did reflect on him. When she dressed in a way that he considered unattractive, it reminded him of the times he felt shamed by his cousins and that old feeling of “not being good enough” reared its head. He worried that others would see him as he saw Jennifer and as his cousins had seen him. That was why, ever since he’d became successful, he dressed in designer suits and leather jackets.
Jennifer had always thought of Jason as super-confident and invincible. Now she began to see the chinks in his self-esteem. She was able to understand some of his pain. And the insecurity under his criticizing.
Jason also expressed his need for more independence in the relationship. For him, it was a mixed bag. He wanted to see himself as separate and independent but at the same time he needed Jennifer’s reassurance that it was okay. As you may have guessed, he was afraid of losing her, as he had seen his father lose his mother. Once Jennifer understood more of this, she was happy to support him and help him be more independent. After all, she, too, wanted time on her own.
Jennifer and Jason’s story is real and not unusual. Couples typically experience a honeymoon phase in their relationship. This can last anywhere from two months to two years or even more. Toward the end of the honeymoon phase, a period of disillusionment usually takes place.
Partners begin to see their spouses differently. Some of the surreal attributes they’d projected onto each other seem to have disappeared. Each partner realizes their partner was not the superhuman they’d thought and will not be able to meet all of their needs.
The desired outcome is for each person to learn that he or she must be able to “give themselves” some of what they need, emotionally and psychologically.
At the same time, conflict and a struggle for control can develop. This especially happens when partners feel their needs for closeness and intimacy are not being met.
Although conflicts can be productive, they can also be destructive. They’re productive when they help partners air problems, feel understood and carve out workable solutions. They’re destructive when they lead to emotional pain, loss of trust or physical injury. The more entrenched the conflict, the harder it is to recapture intimacy.
This couple’s story has a happy ending. As the sessions continued, each began to remember the good times and how much they’d loved each other.
Jason understood how his childhood experiences of poverty had eroded his self-esteem and how he’d projected his fears of being criticized onto Jennifer. He came to terms with his mother’s abandonment and his fear of losing Jennifer
After that, Jason reassured Jennifer of his love by showing her in small ways. He paid more attention to her, did thoughtful things around the house and brought her small gifts. When they celebrated their anniversary, he presented her with a pendant made from labradorite, her favorite stone.
For her part, Jennifer reassured Jason of her love and stopped lecturing Jason about relationships. She understood and honored his need for independence and encouraged him to pursue his hobbies and friendships. He felt less trapped and more comfortable with their time together. And because she’d learned about the way Jason’s childhood woes had shaped his need to appear perfect and respectable, she began to be more careful about her appearance and dress in ways that would be more appealing to him.
Jennifer also resolved some of her own childhood fears of loss that had led to her pursuing Jason for more closeness and demanding more of his time.
Jennifer and Jason are still together. They still have sad times and occasional fights. But they’re better able to understand each other and reach workable solutions. They’ve recaptured the intimacy and loving feelings.
Most Sunday mornings you can find them at Starbucks, sipping cappuccino and gazing into each other’s eyes.