In my most recent post about why it can sometimes be frustrating to be around our in-laws, I discussed the “comfort zone” that people subconsciously seek in finding relationships. To sum up, our attraction to a person is the result of finding qualities that reflect the environment of our lives growing up. These qualities are both positive and negative qualities, and mostly come from our primary caretakers (parents). This comfort zone provides us a current situation that our subconscious is comfortable being in from years of experience living it. When we find this comfort from someone else, we feel what we know as “attraction” to them.
While the psychology behind attraction is incredibly interesting, it’s important to understand that these “comfort zones” are not always healthy. Our subconscious seeks familiarity, not necessarily a positive situation. This explains why people who are abused as children (or who witness abuse between parents) often may end up in abusive relationships of their own. It’s not because it’s healthy, but it’s because the subconscious found a situation that is comfortable based on the environment it was used to.
Here is an example of how this could work: A girl, named J, was raised with a mother who was constantly in emotional crisis. She would get anxious very quickly and become easily stressed. The girl felt very loved by her mother, but was always walking on egg shells because she didn’t want to get her mother upset. It scared J to see her mother anxious and yelling at people, including yelling at J.
J’s father was a workoholic who was emotionally and physically unavailable for the most part. He would work until late at night and often on weekends. When J spent time with her father, which was rare, he would often tease her playfully, which kept the emotional closeness at arm’s distance. J always found the teasing to be funny and fairly representative of her relationship with her father, but regrets that they were never closer to each other.
When J grew up, she found that she internalized some of these traits herself. She became a highly anxious woman capable of showing love, in the mold of her mom, who was driven by work success, in the mold on her father. She dated many “nice” men, but wasn’t happy with any of them. The man she ended up marrying was someone who “let me know I was home.” — On their first date, J’s future husband teased her playfully much of the evening about things she said or did. She describes her husband as someone who yells when things don’t go his way, and J often has to walk on egg shells at home to make sure that she doesn’t “set him off”. She also says that while she enjoys the teasing that she feels he is emotionally distant — similar to how her father was.
While it’s often much more complex than this (many more factors and traits are usually involved than the few qualities listed above), J basically has set herself up in a situation that is subconsciously familiar to that of her own childhood. And notice that the traits come from both the mother and the father — people don’t necessarily seek one gender of traits (the man doesn’t always search for his mother, or vice versa). We internalize a combination of traits in who we become, and often subconsciously find a combination of our parents’ traits in our partners.
So if this “comfort zone” is so comfortable, then why do couples argue and fight? At the beginning of a relationship, and during courtship, the positive attractors receive our primary attention (the “honeymoon stage”). We see all the positive elements from childhood that make us feel comfortable (for J, this could be the teasing; or for someone else it could be affection, spontaneity, care, etc.), while also seeing positive traits of the person as his/her own entity (for J, while her husband teased, he was very affectionate at first and gave her a warmth she never had with her father, and a care that reminded her of her mother). All of these positives together make us feel that all of our issues from childhood will be resolved through this person.
It isn’t until later that the negatives traits start to emerge — those traits that still need to be resolved from childhood. For J, this could be the anxiety of walking on egg shells due to her husband’s temper (an uresolved issue with her mother from childhood). For others this could be feeling ignored, abused, emotionally neglected, overprotected, etc. — any parts of our own upbringing that we wanted to have resolved.
In a very realistic sense, some of the same things that attract us to our partners end up becoming the same things that become issues later. For J, at first the teasing felt like home and was a positive trait. However, after a while the teasing frustrated J because she wanted more emotional closeness — leading to several arguments. J’s husband also became more emotionally unavailable as they became more comfortable in the relationship. When at first it seemed like this man was going to resolve that issue with his care and warmth up front, J was left once again in a situation with emotional disconnection.
When these qualities start to appear, it often creates an anxiety that internally says, “Oh no, not this again. This reminds me of how I felt with my father/mother.” And when these traits and resulting anxiety emerge, people are more likely to argue and fight. We fear that we’re going to have to deal with the same negatives that we had to deal with growing up, our defenses go up, and we struggle for power in the relationship. The most amazing (or annoying?) part of this is that our subconscious need to resolve our childhood issues is what actually sets this up this environment!
Working through this takes a process. There are several angles to approach, both within the current relationship as well as childhood issues to look at. A good start is just to become more aware of where you see parallels between childhood issues and issues that are present in your current relationship. This awareness allows us to understand when conflicts are with our partners, or if we’re using our partners as a portal to resolution with our parents.
I hope this post has provided some insight to the dynamic between couples. It’s quite a bit more complex than the above (which may have already been pretty complicated to follow), but this is a basic introduction to get you started. If you weren’t able to follow it, don’t worry, it’s not necessary to understand all of these details in order to resolve them. Individual and/or couples therapy is a great way to work on resolving these complex patterns. If you have any questions always feel free to email me.