Psychological tips for newlyweds coping with emotional baggage Part III

After the “honeymoon period” is over, all couples inevitably begin to discover undesired things, the emotional baggage about each other that was not really “seen” at the beginning.

Engagement (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
What is truly amazing about falling in love and deciding to marry is that the process encompasses both conscious and unconscious signals from each other that we subjectively and intuitively ascertain make the other person seem right, special, attractive and desired. It is a remarkable process, that a human being can discern so much information so quickly. To put this into psychological terms, how much of what we perceive is projected onto this person and how much is an accurate reading of this person? Somewhere over the rainbow, that is, after the “honeymoon period” is over, all couples inevitably begin to discover undesired things, the emotional baggage about each other that was not really “seen” at the beginning.
Everyone, without exception, has their share of emotional baggage.
Lesley and Richard sought my help six months after getting married, feeling unhappy and emotionally frustrated about the way the marriage was going. Lesley had grown up in a family where she never witnessed her parents arguing. They did argue but not in front of their children. Richard came from a family where his mother and father argued often and in front of his siblings. Lesley had no tolerance at all for arguing; she would discuss matters with Richard, but arguing and fighting was unacceptable.
Richard welcomed a calm home environment following his childhood exposure to marital fights and was somewhat attracted to Lesley’s style of dealing with conflicts and issues. But Richard could not accept a no-fighting rule in their relationship. Both Lesley and Richard felt rejected by the other.
The above vignette is a good example of how couples bring their emotional baggage into their relationships.
The field of cognitive marital therapy offers some useful constructs that analyze some of the underlying dynamics that often become the source of marital strife. First of all, people are very selective in what things in their marriage they tend to focus on (selective attention).
This process, as we can see from both Richard and Lesley, is based on their personal histories.
Lesley was never exposed to her parents’ fighting, so she never learned that fighting was okay and safe. Richard, on the other hand, probably unconsciously, sought a partner who did not like to argue too much, but the extent of Lesley’s “no-fighting rule” had crossed the line for Richard. Thus, we better understand Lesley’s focus on fighting because this has personal importance to her from her childhood.
Also, cognitive therapy examines the way people explain why their partner does what they do (attributions). Lesley believed that Richard was trying to upset her because he did not care about her feelings, making her question whether he really loved her. Richard felt that Lesley did not want to listen to his feelings, even if they were somewhat argumentative, because she did not really care about him. So, he felt rejected. These underlying beliefs about why a partner does X or Y are often distorted and usually rooted in some of the emotional baggage that a person brings into the marriage.
Unfortunately, unless these distortions are corrected and the other person’s intentions clearly understood, the result is more misunderstanding and unhappiness.
Another concept from cognitive marital therapy is to examine what the standards (rules about how the marriage should operate) concerning roles and functions in the relationship are. With regard to Richard and Lesley’s conflict, Lesley believes that couples should not fight in a marriage. Richard believes the opposite, that a little bit of fighting, some of the time, is both normal and desirable in the marriage. It’s important for newlywed couples to realize that all couples have both consciously expressed and hidden (unconsciously expressed) standards.
These expectations cut across all areas of a relationship, not only in the area of dealing with anger and conflicts, but also concerning expectations about careers, money, sexual behavior, household chores, having kids, parenting, visiting the in-laws and family members, making and getting together with friends, and much more.
What do we learn from these principles and what is the message for newlyweds? I have often told couples that there is nothing inherently wrong with having differences.
The problem lies in not identifying what these differences are and how they interfere with marital functioning. The challenge for couples is to have open communication and discuss all aspects of their marriage including selective attention, attributions, and standards.
Put them out there, write them down, and start to clear the air by talking to each other and deepening your understanding of who your partner truly is and what needs to change.
But most important, don’t be defensive or rigid. After all, partners do not marry a clone of themselves. They are married to someone they love, but someone who also has many differences in the way they see the world and things they believe are important. Remember, marriages that last do so because people can change and seek positive solutions to the problems and personal differences they face. The bottom line is to try to work things out together, but when this fails, seek professional guidance.
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist, with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana; he also provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy.