I've been doing couples therapy for 25 years. I've been married for over 30 years. My experience personally and professionally is that 99 percent of couples have power struggles.
If this is the case, why don't we consider struggles to be the norm, rather than a problem to be cured? I think there are a lot of reasons for this, and I'll get to them in a later posting. But for now, I want to focus on why I think couples are supposed to struggle, and that when they do, it's an indication that something is right with the relationship, not wrong with the relationship.
I acknowledge these thoughts aren't original to me but are things I've learned from others, particularly my teachers in Imago Relationship Therapy. The basic premise is that the goal of marriage and committed relationships is not happiness, but wholeness. I realize that's not a pleasant thing to consider, but bear with me for a minute.
If the goal of marriage is happiness, then it becomes a bartering arrangement: you meet my needs today, I'll meet yours tomorrow, we'll compromise and argue and both feel like we're getting short-changed.
If the goal of marriage is wholeness, then the person I choose, with pin-point precision, is the person who can best help me grow into a fuller version of myself. And when we become more whole, we are happy. But the happiness is a by-product of our wholeness, not the goal of our marriage.
I tell people there are three things that make me believe in God: the taste of freshly squeezed orange juice, Yosemite Valley, and the perfection with which partners choose each other, even when they're completely unconscious of the whole story.
We choose someone who embodies the positive and the negative aspects of our primary caretakers. We're usually aware of the positive aspects when we meet and fall in love. We become conscious of the negative aspects after we're committed to each other and the person who once charmed us starts to drive us crazy.
There's a lot to this theory and I will explain it further in future posts. For now, the point I want to make is that the committed relationship is the single best laboratory for us to learn how to overcome the limitations of our past and the way these limitations and wounds cause us to be smaller versions of ourselves. Some of it is easy: these are usually the defenses we're able to drop because we feel loved by another. Some of it is hard: these are the ways we have to grow and change in order to learn how to live with another.
You know you're in the right marriage when you're challenged and stretched and triggered. The missing piece for most people is they don't understand the source of their trigger and they tend to blame their partner for "making them feel bad." We like to say, in Imago therapy, that there is a 90/10 formula: 10 percent of the reason a couple fights has to do with the content of the issue at hand. The other 90 percent of the energy they bring to the fight comes from a wound in the past that the current content is waking up.
When a couple becomes more conscious of how they are triggered by their partner and how they in turn trigger their partner, their marriage becomes more of a partnership toward growth and less of a power struggle. It's not necessarily easier, but it has more meaning. If you understand why you're struggling, the meaning behind it, your struggle will have a qualitatively different feel.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at email@example.com.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.