What if the problem in your marriage is you?

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

Obviously, thinking you might be the problem in your marriage is counterintuitive! Most of the couples I have treated over many years, are convinced that the problem in their relationship is obviously their partner! At the same time, marital therapists recognize that the key to change and increased intimacy is self-focus, which is the ability to focus on what we might be doing to create damage and then self-correcting. Most couple problems are co-created, and not being able to recognize one’s contribution to the problem blocks change.

This is of course easier said than done! What gets in the way of self-focus and change? Consider several factors:

  1. Inability to be alone: Ironically, solitude is an essential ingredient of healthy marriage. When we are quiet and practice some type of solitude, we can understand ourselves more accurately. The ancient philosopher Socrates put it like this, “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us”. When we avoid this introspective journey, we most likely will look to others, usually our partner, to fill us, make us happy, or complete us. This puts significant pressure on one’s partner and, of course, can lead to more hurt and frustration.
  2. Inability to understand our faults: One of the benefits of solitude is that it can allow us to see ourselves more clearly. Too much of our life is underground. Freud suggested that the relationship between conscious mind and unconscious is that of the small rider on a large stallion. The rider thinks he is in control, but the stallion has a mind of its own. When we fail to take the introspective journey, we tend to project our frustrations onto our partner and blame them for our own emptiness. The late contemplative, Fr. Keating, in his book on centering prayer, advises that if we start a contemplative practice, we might also want to get a therapist to process what emerges.
  3. Focus on Partner: The inability to practice solitude and understand our own faults and blind spots leads us to focus too much on our partner, and see them as the source of all of our pain, and then attempt to change them. Anyone who has been married for a long time understands the futility of attempting to change your partner! In reality, personality changes very little. What can change is the ways we interact with each other. Unfortunately, instead of exploring ourselves and the ways we interact, we put energy into changing our partner which, ironically, blocks intimacy. Systems theory is fond of pointing out that the “solutions we use eventually become the problem”. This means that the person who pursues their partner in the hopes of more intimacy ironically creates distance, just as the person who nags their partner to change creates more resistance to change.
  4. Inability to understand ourselves means we do not know what we really need: Obviously, when we do not understand our own needs or issues, then we are not aware enough of what we need from our partner. We understand intellectually that we received both gifts and wounds from the families we grew up in, which have had a significant impact on how we form marital partnerships. When we can understand the wounds we experienced growing up, we can more consciously communicate our needs to our partner. Failure to better understand early wounds and needs too often leads to reactivity, miscommunication and pain.
  5. Finally, What does self focus look like? At the risk of oversimplification, self focus is:
  1. The ability to practice solitude and introspection
  2. The ability to look at our role in difficult interactions and change ourselves while remaining non-reactive
  3. The ability to know more of what we need and communicate it non-reactively
  4. The ability to understand our partner and their needs
  5. In the end, it’s the ability to form a “conscious marriage” as opposed to one driven by unresolved unconscious needs

Obviously, building self focus is the work of a lifetime. Having a good therapist, spiritual director, and spiritual practice is a great start.