Ian Lithgow, MA, LMFT


Men and women enter into monogamous relationships in the hopes that these relationships will enrich their lives. It would seem natural to want to team up with someone with whom you can share your hopes and fears, someone with whom you can dream, discover yourself, discover the world, have fantastic sex, travel, make plans, have children together, raise children together, grow old together. Looks pretty good on paper. Yet problems inevitably arise. And all too often these problems seem insurmountable. A look at today’s divorce rate in the U.S. is sobering. About 50% of first marriages and over 60% of second marriages eventually end in divorce. And among the remaining “successful” marriages, how many of them are actually all that successful? Many couples remain together not because they are fulfilled, but because they wish to preserve their marriage for the sake of the kids, or because they are afraid of being alone, or because they fear change (or losing their health insurance!).

So what we are left with is at best a small percentage of monogamous relationships, or at least marriages, that actually work out the way we would hope. Why then would we not immediately abandon this pursuit? Why the investments of time, energy, and resources searching for a soul mate, life partner, or what have you? Clearly we have an evolutionary impulse to mate and procreate, but is there any discernible evolutionary benefit to living life “unhappily ever after”?

This is a question which has been pondered for countless generations. But let us first consider that only in recent history have we come to expect that we will marry someone that we love. Modern marriages are not arranged, they are chosen. In most cases we now get to choose our beloved. So we are newcomers, as it were, to this game of love and choice.

What happens when you discover something about your beloved that is difficult for you to accept? Could it be that you made the wrong choice? This the conclusion reached by many unhappily betrothed. They wonder how they could have been so blind to their partners’ flaws. But these perceived flaws may actually be opportunities for personal growth. Perhaps your partner is, right now, your perfect choice.

For example, perhaps you are bothered by the way your partner expresses anger. You may ask yourself, why am I impacted by these angry outbursts? (I am not referring to angry outbursts that are violent in nature. If you are in a violent relationship, the best general course of action is to remove yourself from the situation, but this is a whole other topic.)

Your ideas about how emotions are expressed were formed when you were young and powerless. Let us say that you had parents or caregivers who were frequently angry. Since these were the folks whom you depended on for survival, you learned that in order to survive, you needed to be in a relationship with someone who is frequently angry.

As you mature into adulthood, three things can happen in your quest for the perfect mate. One possibility is that you attract, or are attracted to, people who are angry. Another is that you choose a partner who is not an angry person; but because your unconscious believes that you need to be with someone who is angry, you misinterpret your partner’s behavior as being angry. A third possibility is that you choose a partner who is not especially angry; but again, because your unconscious still believes that you need to be with someone who is angry, you behave in such a way that ultimately provokes your partner to anger. In all three instances, your unconscious gets to have what it thinks it needs for survival!

So however your partner manages to stir negative emotions in you, it is in a sense exactly what is needed to bring your unconscious programming to light. When you feel yourself triggered by your partner’s behavior, rather than automatically insisting that the behavior is the problem, focus on the feeling itself. What is this feeling telling you about yourself, your history? What unmet needs is it revealing to you?

These are questions that may not have immediate answers. Couples counseling is an opportunity for couples to explore these questions together. We have the capacity as partners in love to help each other gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. This is the task at hand. No need to burden oneself with the idea of having made the right or wrong choice. The relationship you are in right now is a precious opportunity for growth.