Marriage Conflict: Vulnerability is Disarming

I am unhappy with my spouse. At best I am disappointed and at worst I am fully ticked off. The tender support of a loving partner that I imagined in the beginning isn’t happening. Our relationship “isn’t working out,” to say the least. I still can’t believe that anybody, let alone the person who claims to love me, could be so cold and even callous in ignoring my needs. On top of that, some the behaviors I see repeatedly, some of things that are said, are just not right, not for a sensible adult, and at times they are simply mean. If I say anything it gets thrown back in my face – all my fault.

In the struggle of life, I find myself in the cruelly ironic position that my own spouse is against me, not for me. Is what I’m feeling closer to love or hate?

if only mother could see me now

If Only Mother Could See Me Now – Norman Rockwell, 1918

One day my spouse “wants to talk.” I expect the usual litany of my faults and shortcomings. Already my blood pressure is rising. But within seconds I realize that it’s a very different kind of talk. I’m not offended; in fact it’s not even about me. Not an apology, but a kind of confession. I hear about fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and shame – things that go back a long time, even before we met. There is some acknowledgement that my needs are real along with an admission that the strength and skill to respond is just not there. What I think should be automatic is actually very hard without any training, any early example to follow.

This talk feels very honest and very sad. And I suddenly find myself seeing my spouse with new eyes. I just can’t be angry with this miserable person right now. All my standard defenses and counter-arguments seem pointless and inappropriate. I’m disarmed. Instead I actually feel a tinge of sorrow for the raw vulnerability that I’m hearing – a first moment of compassion.

Marriage Intimacy: Exposing Your Wounds

Marriage intimacy (into-me-see) is of two parts: acknowledging your own wounds (shadow self, character flaws) and daring to expose them to your partner. Until you have seen the other’s shadow, you do not know him/her, and it is unwise to marry someone unknown. In fact, this is the best answer to the perennial question of how long is long enough to be in relationship before committing to marriage: until you’ve seen it all. The shadow self is always the last to emerge, despite best efforts to hide or deny it forever.


Girl Reading Palm – Norman Rockwell – 1921

First things first, however. There is nothing to own and share that you do not first see in yourself. One sacred text calls it “the plank in your eye.” Marriage aside, any progress in personal or spiritual growth starts here. Think of Socrates’ axiom on the unexamined life. Yet rigorous honesty with oneself is very difficult. Your ego has to be strong enough to survive the come-down without crumbling and humble enough not to veto the entire project. Ordinarily, we would defend against such critiques, especially when they come from outside. The key is to stop playing the worthiness game. Your worthiness cannot be a character judgment (by anybody); it has to come from something larger and/or more intrinsic. Some call it grace.

The second step is also not automatic. Disclosing the nature of your woundedness is a risk, a dare. The central question is – will your partner be a safe guest inside your tender truth? Vulnerability refers not to the wounds revealed but to the possibility of new ones. The trouble for many couples is that one or both partners are not safe. Safety in this context means listening without judgment, without righteousness and without exploitation. To grow in intimacy is to slowly reveal yourselves to each other, building trust along the way. One threatening response can set you back a long way.

The opposite of intimacy is estrangement. All of your problems are external, “over there,” in your partner, who is simultaneously thinking the same way. Marriage becomes a scapegoat system rather than a support system. We get married to have a very close-in support system, for which intimacy is not just an asset, but a pre-condition.

Marriage Is a Union of Two Wounded People

We are all wounded people. The hurts, frustrations and their compensatory character traits were already baked in as early as age 4, when ego identity began to emerge. They were the inevitable product of an imperfect human genome, wounded human parents and wounded human culture. If there was any trauma involved, stressful or catastrophic, multiply by 10 (95% of families, according to one expert). This is the real, messed-up person who you “gave” and “took” in marriage. There are no other kind.


The Party Favor – Norman Rockwell – 1919

Most couples live in denial of this foundational picture. Their working theory is that their partners were great when the relationship began but then began behaving badly later. Part of the problem is that we tend to see our strengths (areas where we are healthy) as normative for all. “This is not a problem for me. How could it be a problem for you?” Then we are blind to our own weaknesses because our egos are too fragile to look at them. Our partners can look at them just fine.

Until we can examine ourselves with radical honesty and humility, we have no chance to grow in love. Loving your own ego ideal projected onto another person is neither human nor divine love. Simply, it is not love, but enchantment (making beautiful music together), or idolatry, neither of which is not going to sustain a marriage past the honeymoon. You have to go much further; you have to be able to acknowledge the wounds and embrace the whole person.

To expose one’s wounds is to be vulnerable (Latin vulnus is “wound”). Nobody with a pulse is going to be vulnerable if they are going to be attacked or rejected. Thus, the first question in a marriage is a personal one: Can you acknowledge your own wounds and still hold yourself together in dignity as a person worthy of love? Loving yourself, a significant other, others and the Other is all one project. Take the simple case first.

Marriage Quarrels: The Issue Is Never The Issue

The biggest communication problem between couples is not a matter of technique or style. It is the subject matter. Attachment partners will argue about the most trivial of conflicts and criticize each other on the most innocuous of behaviors. They will do so aggressively in a range from blazing anger to eye rolls, or passively through disregard and non-cooperation. They attack and defend or counter-attack. Across a history of surface issues, patterns are found – “You never …” – more persuasive arguments.

the debate - 1920

Man and Woman Seated Back to Back, Norman Rockwell, 1920

Where is justice to be found? Who is right and who has been wronged? It does not matter. No, not one bit. The apparent issue is not The Real Issue. The much argued subject is merely the stage for crying over old bruises and creating new ones. You can spend hours and lots of money with a marriage counselor adjudicating each bruise.

Trivial conflicts and innocuous behaviors cannot create the kind of energy that is required for years of these superficial dramas. Pain energy of this magnitude comes from The Real Issue, which is not getting your attachment needs met (and not being able to meet the same needs of your partner). To simplify, consider affirmation, encouragement and consolation as three primary attachment needs. You only demand them from your attachment figure. The first such figure was your primary caregiver. Part of the excitement and limerance of marriage comes from the promise of securing a new and permanent attachment figure.

When the adult attachment figure does not deliver the goods you are disappointed and disillusioned at best,  crushed and desperate at worst. You hold that pain and it festers. Some momentary relief comes through anger (or numbing, denial, affairs, etc., etc.) and any little irritant can get the emotional pain energy flowing. A new quarrel begins.

How Can We Get Out of This Cycle?

If you could quarrel about The Real Issue, that would be a lot of progress. At least your energy would not be complete wasted. Better would be not to quarrel at all and see the tragedy of your deeper wounds and those of your partner through the eyes of your heart. It sucks not to have your attachment needs met. Too often they were not met in childhood either and that is an even bigger tragedy. How was this flawed person before you trained to affirm, encourage and console? Is that his/her fault?

Marriage Bottom Line: “I Need Your Support”

A marriage is an attachment relationship for adults. As in childhood with one’s primary caregiver, attachment is a relationship bond to a thoroughly supportive other. In human evolution, that person was the advantage that helped you to survive and raise children. Psychologically, this parent or partner helps regulate your emotions and connect you to your strengths.


Woman Pinning Boutonniere on Man – Norman Rockwell, 1922

Marriage, or any committed romantic relationship, hinges on a simple question. When I need your support, are you there for me? The question is not of money or housework, but of emotional support and three types are essential:

  • Affirmation – Will you, can you, reassure me that I am a good and worthy person? We are hardwired to doubt our original dignity. Thus we need a person to mirror our strengths and goodness back to us.
  • Encouragement – Will you remind me of my strengths, resources and potential when I feel weak?
  • Consolation – Will you hold me when I feel defeated or lost? Will you stand by me when it feels like others have abandoned me?

Couples who sense that their relationship is in serious trouble have come to believe that their partners will no longer support them in these basic ways. At that point you start pulling away because you have to shore up your independence. Your friendships become more valuable than your marriage. Your partner cannot lessen your pain and cannot deepen your joy.

Why This is Harder Than it Sounds

Why do so many relationships deteriorate in this manner? Three factors pose steep challenges:

  • Insecure adult attachment style – If you did not experience security in your first attachment relationship (with your primary caregiver) then you will have over-sized or under-sized needs in adulthood that most people cannot satisfy or cannot reciprocate.
  • Insecure self-identity – You are so wounded yourself that you cannot muster the presence or the empathy to support your partner, or you quickly suspect that your partner’s needs are a critique of you and you get defensive.
  • Projection, displacement or scapegoating – Your partner decides that you are the problem, lashes out at you and again you get defensive. This situation is most difficult even for the very mature person.

How Do We Get Back to Supporting Each Other?

A great number of books have been written on this subject.† Here is a emotional recipe to get started. All ingredients are for both partners.

  1. Dare to be vulnerable – In a “make-up” phase or with a marriage therapist, be rigorously honest and thoroughly subjective about your pain, your needs, your weaknesses and self-doubts.
  2. Find your compassion – See your bleeding, broken partner with your heart, without judgment. Listen and feel as if you are meeting this person for the first time.
  3. Be charitable – Make allowances for your partner’s shortcomings, slightly easing your ethical and moral demands, even trimming your own needs. This is real self-giving love. Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est.

(†) A few recommended books:
Johnson, Sue. Hold me tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown, 2008.
Borys, Henry James. The Sacred Fire: Love as a Spiritual Path. Harper, 1994.
Yerkovich, Milan & Kay. How We Love. WaterBrook Press, 2006.

The Single Life – An Alternative Path

I have said that consummate love in a monogamous, lifelong partnership is my life’s greatest goal. Marriage is the school of love. By working at union with this one person, I am practicing and growing towards union with One and All.

What about the single life? How and where does the un-paired person seek union, both temporal and eternal? There are strong anthropological and spiritual drivers for mating. Yet any philosophy that is not inclusive of every person’s bio-psycho-social circumstance is flawed and falls apart, just like any scientific theory that ignores some portion of natural phenomena is rather pointless.

For the single person, more of the unitive path runs through community and solitude. Without the demands of a primary commitment, you can nurture many more relationships. Instead of focusing on meeting the needs of one person, you can be of service to countless others in group settings. In the midst of several long-term, deep friendships, a true family emerges. You rightly call each other sister and brother, just as the vowed religious do.

The Fishing Trip - Norman Rockwell, 1919

The Fishing Trip – Norman Rockwell, 1919

Community is the blindside for couples. They tend to “put all their eggs in one basket.” When suddenly faced with divorce or death of a spouse, they can suddenly be very alone with no practice of developing friendships. Without the possibility of neglecting community, single adults are better prepared for a single elderhood.

Solitude is another healthy part of living that couples often either fail to schedule or regard with much suspicion. Periods of silence and solo retreat, preferably in nature, are practice for union with the more-than-human world and with the Spirit of your understanding.

It is this unity in Spirit that we all seek, married or unmarried, coupled or single. Maybe marriage is the “El Camino Real” to unitive consciousness, but community-based persons also get there and experience more of the world along the way, figuratively and often literally.