After the Honeymoon: When Your Partner Becomes Your "Tormentor"

Something happens after the honeymoon.  The person you love, and have agreed to spend the rest of your life with, becomes your emotional tormentor.  How did this super-great person become the enemy?

This is a scenario I see a lot in couples therapy.  Two lovely people come into my office after a few years of marriage (and I use "marriage" to mean two people in a committed relationship, regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation) unsure if they can continue.  They hate their partner.  What happened?

Marriage can be a powerful, archetypal experience that unleashes all of our primitive longings and unmet needs.  The unconscious expectation is that our partner will make us feel whole again; they will heal old wounds created by childhood traumas.  I see this idea displayed in marriage ceremonies, in which there are three candles at the altar:  two candles lit, with the one in the middle left unlit.  At some point during the ceremony, the two side candles get snuffed, while the center one gets lit, representing the union of two separate individuals into one whole person.  I strongly dislike this ritual: it's a set-up for failure.  The question isn't how can my partner make me whole, but how can they support me in my journey towards wholeness. 

One of the many reasons we are attracted to our partners is that on a deeply unconscious level they stir up longings and unmet needs, and then begin to meet them.  This experience is intoxicating in the beginning when the relationship is the focus of both people's lives.  How amazing and exciting to have all of your needs finally met.  Then life happens.  The relationship is still a priority, but other life commitments take up time.  There's a reason why Romeo and Juliet's relationship didn't last long.  It's hard to maintain that level of engagement.  So, for many people, disappointment and loss start to settle in.  Your partner and the relationship are not what you thought they would be.  Early on in the commitment process, there's often a period of adjustment.

So how do you work through this early adjustment?

The first step is to take a deep breath (or several).  The intensity of the disappointment, hurt, and anger is often extreme.  It might help to realize that the feelings are partly about your current relationship, but mostly about very old, unresolved, and often festering emotions from the past. That explains the intensity.  Our partners are inadvertently pushing our buttons.  And even though it's painful, it's an opportunity to heal.  We unconsciously pick relationships that will re-stimulate unmet childhood needs so that we can heal the wounds and grow more whole.  

Step two involves identifying the feelings to yourself or a therapist.  Are you disappointed, frustrated, angry, hurt, sad?  When have you felt that way before in your life?  Do you have an early memory of feeling that way?  Spend some time reflecting on and feeling past hurts. Journaling is often a good way to remember.  This process feels like grieving:  remembering, acknowledging, and feeling the impact of the losses.

Step three is differentiating childhood pain from present pain.  It's not fair to carry childhood expectations into our adult relationships.  Your partner can't re-parent you, and that kind of neediness is a turn off.  Questions to ask yourself include:  What can I reasonably expect from my partner?  What do I have to work on myself or get met through other relationships?

And finally, can you have this conversation with your partner?  Can you tell her/him what your needs/expectations are and discuss whether s/he can meet them?  This is best done explicitly and in behavioral terms.  "I need to feel more connected" may be too vague and unhelpful.  My experience with couples therapy is that partners want to meet each other's needs when they can, and when it doesn't feel like they're sacrificing their own boundaries, but they need to know what they are. The key is to be honest and explicit, knowing that your partner may say "no."

This process is very hard, and it may be why many relationships don't make it.  If you and your partner are struggling, contact a therapist to help you sort it out.