A Common Marital Pattern

They say that opposites attract, but understanding how we differ can be enlightening.

Through the years, I have done a lot of marital counseling. Couples usually seek help because of frequent conflicts, emotional distance or to recover from one member’s affair. They may disagree on finances, parenting decisions, or decision making. Sometimes they schedule an appointment more as a preventative, because they see the potential of a serious difficulty. Sometimes, they have already separated, and are on the verge of divorce.

While the specifics will differ from couple to couple, one pattern seems to be quite consistent. Over-and-over, I have seen this pattern emerge, often in the first counseling session. As we talk about the nature of their communications and their conflicts, I see that one of them is an Internalizer and the other is an Externalizer.

These terms refer to their personality styles, their emotional vulnerabilities and their reactions to conflict. The traits seem to be consistent over time, and the pattern holds true in about 95% of couples.

The personalities have nothing to do with being an introvert and an extrovert. An Internalizer can be an extrovert or an introvert, as can an Externalizer.

The Internalizer:

An internalizer reacts to hurt by withdrawing. He gets quiet or distances when he is hurt. He tends to not talk about his feelings. The more he is hurt, the more distant he becomes. Occasionally, however, he will react with an outburst of anger, and it is often intense.

Internalizers hate conflict. Arguments, relationship or emotional discussions make them nervous. Because of their anxiety, they often have trouble thinking what they want to say. Their minds go blank during a discussion. Their most feared words are “We need to talk.” They may not get anxious about other issues, but relationship issues do trigger anxiety.

Internalizers are most sensitive to being criticized or feeling inadequate. They are vulnerable to feeling that they have messed up, or that they can’t meet the partner’s expectations. They perceive the partner as being hard to please.

The Externalizer:

The Externalizer reacts to hurt by getting angry, irritated or frustrated. Her hurt tends to turn into anger fairly quickly. She may try to talk about her hurt, but it often comes out more as frustration or anger.

While Externalizers don’t like conflict, they really hate non-resolution of problems. They want to address issues. They need to talk about the problem and the feelings it creates. They want to feel heard and understood. They get more upset when their partner avoids talking about the issues.

Externalizers are most sensitive to feeling rejected, unimportant or unloved. They tend to feel that the partner doesn’t care about them or their opinions. They see the partner as distant, detached or uninvolved. They often feel alone in the relationship.

You can probably imagine how these opposite personality traits could cause difficulties. When the Externalizer feels unimportant, she reacts with frustration or anger. The Internalizer perceives her anger as criticism, which he is sensitive to. He reacts by withdrawing. When he withdraws, she feels that he doesn’t care about her or love her, which makes her angrier. The vicious cycle continues.

These two personalities can learn to live together in harmony, but they have to understand what is happening. Each person has to understand his own tendencies, as well as his partners. Understanding that your partner is different from you and thinks differently can help. Trying to express hurt, rather than anger or withdrawal, can make a huge difference.

The Power of Relationship Assumptions

Could you be damaging your relationships by holding onto false assumptions?

This article is the second in my series on choosing our assumptions wisely. Last week we looked at the impact of our couple_talking_nicelyassumptions on our life choices. If we assume we can accomplish a goal, we will pursue it. If we assume that we don’t have the ability to be successful, we won’t attempt the goal, and thus, will stay where we are. We will give up on the dream.

Today, we’ll look at our assumptions regarding relationships. We all make relationship assumptions. We assume what another person is feeling or thinking. We assume how that person is going to respond to us. We create a story in our heads about how others see us, how they judge us or whether they like or care about us. We make these assumptions all the time, but we don’t realize that they are assumptions. We treat them as absolute truth. Be believe them without hesitation. We’re often wrong.

Many potentially enriching, supportive relationships have ended because one or both individuals made inaccurate assumptions about the other person and then acted on those assumptions. The assumptions created unnecessary conflicts or distance. The assumptions were false, but the resulting hurt was real.

Consider the following example. Jack and Susan have been married eleven years. In the beginning they were both very happy with the relationship. They loved the other and felt loved in return.

Through the years, they experienced the common stressors of life; financial strains, death of a parent, children with behavior problems. They became consumed with work and child rearing. They had little time for each other. The conflicts began.

Susan began to feel that Jack didn’t care about her. She noticed the hours he worked and his tendency to get lost in TV. Her hurt of rejection turned into anger. She voiced her complaints, trying to get him more involved, but it didn’t work. Jack just became more distant. He avoided talking to her. He shut down even more. Susan assumed that Jack had stopped loving her.

Jack began to feel that Susan blamed him for all their problems. He hated the arguments because each one left him feeling more defective, confused and inadequate. He assumed that Susan saw him as an inadequate husband and father.

The reality was that Susan didn’t see Jack as inadequate, she just missed him. She wanted him to love her and to want to spend time with her. Of course, Jack didn’t see this.

And Jack hadn’t fallen out of love with Susan. In fact, her opinion of him was very important to him. He wanted her to see him as a good man. He didn’t distance because he didn’t care. He distanced because he couldn’t handle the thought that his wife considered him a failure. Of course, Susan didn’t see this.

Before Jack and Susan could see the truth, they had to entertain the possibility that their assumptions about the other one were inaccurate. They had to consider the possibility that they were wrong. Once they did, they were able to talk more calmly. They actually asked the other one what they were feeling and they listened. Jack talked about his desire for Susan to see him as a good man. Susan expressed, in a non-accusing way, that she just wanted more of Jack because she loved him so much. They began the process of healing.

Consider your relationships. Ask yourself if you might be making assumptions about the other person that are false. What if you are? What if you are hurting a relationship because of an untrue assumption? Why don’t you calmly check it out? Ask them about the assumption and really listen to what they say. What do you have to lose?

The Impact of Self-Esteem Wounds on Your Relationships

This is the third article in my series on the impact of self-esteem wounds. Today, we’ll look at the impact of these Self-Esteem and Relationshipswounds on relationships. We’ll examine how your choices, your perceptions and your reactions in relationships can be altered by self-esteem wounds.

A self-esteem wound is a negative belief about self that has been created by previous negative experiences. Such wounds can be classified as person wounds or performance wounds.

A person wound means that the individual believes that he is not likeable or lovable. He may expect or anticipate rejection.  Person wounds are produced when an individual experiences rejection or emotional distance from some family members or friends.

Performance wounds mean that the person believes that she is inadequate or not able to perform as well as others. She will anticipate that others are judging her and being critical. Performance wounds are created when one experiences harsh or frequent criticism or judgment during childhood.

Our Reactions:

First, let’s look at the impact of these wounds on your reactions in relationships. Scar tissue is more sensitive than the surrounding skin. Likewise, a self-esteem wound makes us more sensitive in that particular area.

Person wounds make us much more sensitive to incidents of rejection, disengagement or distance by others. When we are left out, we feel it more deeply. We hurt more intensely. Our reactions to perceived rejection are more intense or pronounced. Our partners may be confused and feel that we are overreacting. Conflicts may develop.

Performance wounds are similar. They make us more sensitive to incidents of criticism or judgment. We experience a deeper hurt when we feel criticized or judged. Our reactions may be anger and defensiveness or shutting down and distancing, but they are intense. Our partners may be not understand why we felt criticized or feel that we are overeating. Again, conflicts may ensue.

Our Perceptions:

Perception is the brain’s attempt to make sense of the world. Our senses send patterns of electrical signals to the brain. The brain then has to put those signals together in a way that makes sense and has meaning. For example, when you look at a flower, your eye sends patterns of electrical signals to your brain. It doesn’t send a picture of a flower. Your brain has to interpret those signals, based on prior experience, and identify those signals as a flower. This works perfectly most of the time, but perception can be distorted at times. We see examples of this when we look at optical illusions.

Perceptions of social or relationship events work in much the same way. We observe a person’s words, facial expressions, body position and behaviors and have to make sense of the information. Our brain puts the data together in a way that makes sense to us. We “read between the lines” and conclude more than we actually know. We assume what the other person is thinking or feeling, based on an interpretation of their tone of voice or facial expression. Like the flower example, our brains interpret the information based on prior experience. If we have experienced rejection in the past, we anticipate rejection and often perceive rejection, when it really isn’t there. Likewise, prior experiences of criticism or judgment cause us to perceive that others are criticizing us even when they aren’t doing so.

We don’t react to other’s actual intensions or feelings, because we can’t know those. We react to our perceptions of their intension or feelings. When we misperceive, problems occur. Conflicts and confusion follow.

Our Choices:

This issue is a bit complicated, but here goes. Our self-esteem wounds often have an impact on our choices of partners. We tend to find ourselves in relationships with people who frequently touch our wounds. Those with performance wounds (who are sensitive to criticism and judgment) tend to feel more attracted to people who seem critical or judgmental; people who seem hard to please. Those with person wounds (who are sensitive to rejection) of more attracted to people who seem distant or uncaring.

The pattern can be even more extreme. We often see the son of the alcoholic parent later marry the woman with alcohol or drug problems. Or we see the daughter of the abusive parent in an abusive marriage. Of course, this is not always true, but it often occurs.

It is important to note here that the partner rarely exhibits those behaviors in the beginning of the relationship. He or she isn’t critical, distant or abusive in the early stages of the relationship. Those behaviors don’t start until the relationship is firmly established.

Also, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are in a relationship with the wrong person. It means that you have to work through how you react to those behaviors. Successful relationships can develop if we react to the other’s criticism or distance with vulnerable assertiveness. Being assertive, while sharing our hurts (not anger), can often bring relationship healing. Of course, we have to protect ourselves from abuse.

As I said, this issue is complicated. You can read more in “Getting the Love You Want” by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.


Question: Have you seen the impact of self-esteem wounds on your relationships? What steps have you found helpful in addressing such issues?

Was Your Marriage Made in Heaven or Hell? You Decide.

It’s been said that there’s nothing better than a good marriage, and nothing worse than a bad one. While a bit couple_not_talkingextreme, there is some truth in the statement. Most marriages, however are a mixture of good and bad moments. When we work through the bad moments correctly, we experience more of the joys that a good marriage can offer.

I do a fair amount of marriage counseling. Most couples come in focusing on the negative behaviors of their spouse and convey the belief that everything would be great if the spouse would change.  Each person is less aware of their own contribution to the conflict. Both are left with the feeling that their needs are not being met.

I often share a story that my pastor used years ago in a sermon. I don’t know the original source, but it’s a story worth sharing.

There was a man who died and went to heaven. Saint Peter met him at the pearly gates and told him that he was a strange. He told the man that he was exactly on the borderline of going to heaven or hell. He said that they had decided to show him both and let him decide where he wanted to spend eternity. The man said that sounded fair and they proceeded to each.

Saint Peter took him to a door and said that this was hell. He opened the door and the man immediately saw a huge banquet room as far as the eyes could see. In this room there were rows of banquet tables as far as the eyes could see, and on these tables was a wonderful banquet, all the great foods you could imagine. The tables had white tablecloths, silver and china. It was a true banquet, but the people sitting on both sides of the tables were skin and bone, and just looking longingly at the food.

The man said the Saint Peter, “They look miserable. Why aren’t they eating? The food is right in front of them.”

Saint Peter said, “Look at their arms.”

The man looked more closely at their arms and saw that one arm had been replaced at the elbow with a three-foot-long spoon, and the other arm had been replaced at the elbow with a three-foot-long fork. The man looked confused for a moment, but then exclaimed, “They can’t get it to their mouth. So, they have to sit here for eternity looking at the food, but unable to eat it.”

Saint Peter said, “That’s right, now I’ll show you heaven.”

He took the man to another door and said, “Now I’ll show you heaven.”

He opened the door and the man immediately saw a huge banquet room just like the first. In the room were long rows of banquet tables just like the first, and on these tables was a true banquet, just like the first. But, the people sitting at the tables were obviously well fed and happy. They were talking, singing and having a good time.

The man said to Saint Peter, “These people look a lot happier. I choose heaven.”

Saint Peter replied, “Okay, but look at their arms.”

The man looked more closely and saw that one arm had been replaced at the elbow with a three-foot-long spoon, and the other with a three-foot-long fork. The man looked confused and said, “I don’t understand.”

Saint Peter said, “Well, you see, in heaven, they feed each other.”

A marriage can feel like a marriage made in heaven or a marriage made in hell, depending on whether the people learn to feed each other, or worry about the fact that they are not getting fed.


Question: Have you seen the benefits of “feeding each other” in your marriage, and how did it feel?


What My Dog Taught Me About Marriage

In my outpatient practice, I often do marital therapy. Couples come in to work on improving, or perhaps saving their Poo_Dogrelationship. By the time they take this step, they have often experienced years of conflict or distance. Sometimes they are close to calling it quits and calling the divorce attorney.

My first task in marital therapy is an assessment of the situation. What are the issues? What are the patterns of communication? What are the trigger points of conflict? What are the personalities and motivations of each participant?

After this initial assessment, I will sometimes surprise the couple by telling them that they remind me a lot of my dog. This statement is met with some very strange looks, but at least I know that I have their attention. I go on to explain.

Several years ago, I was sitting on my front porch and my little white dog was playing in the yard. He never went into the road, but on this day he did. He ran into the road just as a car approached. The car hit him and ran over him. I watched helplessly as he rolled under the body of the car. The car drove on and my dog sat in the middle of the road, twisting and yelping.

I jumped off the porch and ran out to the road, while calling to my wife to get the car so we could take him to the vet. I reached down to pick up my dog to put him into the car, and he bit me on the hand.

It never entered my mind to be angry at my dog. I knew why my dog bit me. He bit me because he was in pain. I doubt that he even knew that he was biting me. He was just snapping at anything close because of his intense pain. His response was a reflex.

Most couples experiencing marital problems have been biting each other for some time. They didn’t bite because they were mean or because they didn’t love. They bit each other because they were in pain. They had been hurt by the other one and responded by biting back.

Unfortunately, each individual was aware of their own pain and their feeling that they had been bitten, but not aware that their responses had inadvertently bitten their partner. Not realizing that they had also bitten, they concluded that the partner bit because she was mean and critical or because he didn’t care.

My first task in doing marital therapy is getting each member of the couple to focus more of their attention on what they have done to hurt the relationship, rather than focusing on what the other partner has done. By realizing that they have also contributed to the problem, they can begin healing.

By the way, my dog recovered completely, and lived many years after the accident. By learning from my dog, many couples have recovered as well!

Question: Please share any experiences where you have recognized that you were not the only one being hurt in a relationship difficulty, and what you did about it.

The single biggest problem in communication…

I couldn’t agree more with this post by Otrazhenie. We assume we know that the other person is thinking or their intentions or their feelings. So often we are completely wrong, but don’t believe we are wrong. We then act on our mistaken assumptions, hurting the relationship and the other person. Don’t assume. Don’t do mind reading. Ask for clarification. Tell them your assumption and ask them if it’s correct. Notice how many times you are wrong. Your relationships will be better for the effort!    Terry Ledford, Ph.D.