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How Attachment Theory Could Save Your Marriage

The problems in your marriage started way before your marriage.

That’s an important concept to get your head around because so many of us of are convinced that we’ve married the wrong person, or we’re incompatible with our spouse.

But it’s really not about that.

The challenge in your marriage isn’t that you’re incompatible or that your partner is a bad person. The real issue is that you’re being triggered by something in your marriage and reacting strongly. And your partner probably is doing the same thing.

That’s why many marriages get in trouble and people quit. They never really get to the root of the problem.

The real problem is how we’re imprinted.

Meeting Your Needs Early in Life

Our imprinting started the moment we were born. We learned to get our needs met thousands of times in the first few years of life by crying and getting a response that met our needs to a greater or lesser extent. Along the way, we learned what worked and what didn’t.

This cycle of learning continued right up until we became adults, and it became our model for how we get our needs met. It became our imprint.

The problems in our marriage started long before we met our spouse, when our parents sometimes didn’t meet our needs appropriately. Or they didn’t meet them fast enough. Or they didn’t meet them at all.

Nobody’s perfect, and our parents were busy, or missed a signal, or maybe they were imprinted from their own childhood and didn’t react properly.

Whatever the reason, we also learned what it looks like when our needs go unmet—and what to do about it. From this we created a template for what we need from our spouse to feel complete, and how we should react if our needs go unmet.

When Your Imprint Hurts Your Marriage

The biggest hurdle that keeps us all from getting what we want in our marriage is our reactivity to our partner–how we react when we feel hurt or disappointed or angry. Our reactivity is what keeps us stuck.

When we see our needs not getting met, we get triggered. We might react loudly, or we might go quiet and withdraw. We might start a fight, or we might close up and stop sharing. We’re trying to meet our needs the way we learned when we were young, and this takes different forms depending on what we learned.

Our spouse does the same thing. They also react based on the imprint they learned when they were young.

It gets really interesting when we combine our imprint with the imprint of our partner. Now we have the dance, that pattern of behavior that keeps repeating and making us feel confused and frustrated over why things aren’t improving.

The dance is our pattern of reactivity. One person feels disappointed, anxious or angry and sets off a series of reactive behavior that our partner unwittingly engages in as well.

The only way out is learning how to handle our own reactivity. We can’t really deal with what’s going on with our partner, all we can do is learn how to manage ourselves.

Many marriages end because we never really figure out that part. We just quit. We keep waiting for our partner to change, but they’re not going to change. They’re dealing with their own imprint, their own reactivity.

So if we want to repair our marriage, we start with ourselves.

Dancing with Your Partner’s Imprint

Learning your partner’s imprint also is important.

I don’t think you can truly know your partner until you understand their childhood. It is the source of every beginning of needing and wanting, and whether it was met or not, and how it was met or not.

You need this knowledge because your marriage is a dance between your imprint and the imprint of your partner.

You may be a combination of the Avoider, the Victim and the Pleaser imprints, for instance. Your spouse might be a mix of Controller, Vacillator and Avoider.

You have to learn those dance moves to figure out what is causing this pattern of reactivity within you—what is setting you off. You also have to figure out what is setting off your partner, and how you and your partner can show up differently so you’re not triggering each other.

Where to Start Those Dance Lessons

This concept is called attachment theory, and there’s a great book on the topic I’m recommending to everyone right now. It’s called How We Love, by Milan and Kay Yerkovich.

I think so highly of this book! It talks about the core patterns in all of us, and it makes a great start for figuring out what’s really causing trouble in your marriage. I highly recommend the book.

We’re also putting the ideas in the book into practice with our clients, and they’re responding very well. I’m seeing amazing things.

When we help clients uncover their childhood imprint and see the dance they’re doing with their partner, they’re often stunned.

“Wow, that really IS me,” they tell me. “Oh my goodness, that’s what we do!”

The results have been so good, I want to go back and work again with some of our toughest clients from years ago who weren’t making progress. I want to invite them back and use attachment theory this time. That’s how effective this approach has been.

The Yerkovich book makes a great starting point, and you can really get a lot from it that will help your marriage.

But changing decades of patterning and habits is tough. The people who wrote the book say that truly getting a successful turnaround takes two years of weekly therapy.

So you also should consider getting support in addition to reading the book, because discovering you and your partner’s imprints is only half the work. You also need to learn to dance together based on those imprints, and that can be tough.

Give us a call or schedule an appointment online if you would like help with imprints. I really believe strongly in this approach, and I’d love to help your marriage by helping you and your partner understand why you are triggered and how to better meet each other’s needs.

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Don’t Let Your Therapist Talk You Into Divorce

It’s unbelievable to me, but it happens. I know it happens because I hear a version of this story all too frequently when a new client finds me and it gets me angry every time.It happened again today.

A man who has been married for more than 20 years started to feel unhappy in his marriage. He is analytical, so he spent a lot of time trying to decide if he should leave his wife because he just didn’t feel “in love” with her anymore.

He wondered if he was being selfish.

He wondered if he could change anything.

He wondered if he should stop trying.

For four years he struggled with these thoughts, and eventually, he spoke with a therapist because he wanted someone to help him get some clarity.  He wanted to make sure he wasn’t acting rashly so he worked with this therapist for months, and his wife never knew about it. She knew he was unhappy, but she didn’t know the extent of his unhappiness.

After a few weeks, the therapist tells this man, “Sounds like you are done. What are
you waiting for? You don’t need my permission. Go ahead and file for divorce!”

Don’t let your therapist talk you into divorce.

WHAT just happened?  When the wife did find out, she was furious.  She asked me how a therapist could say this when he had never met her and was only getting one person’s perspective on a two person marriage!  She felt the therapist was negligent and I couldn’t disagree with her.  But this is often what happens in “individual” therapy.

I’m sure the therapist felt like he did really good work. The client took his advice and the therapist got to feel good at the end of the day because he “connected” with his client; the client got temporary relief from the troubles that had been bothering him. But now his family is in tatters.

Was this client “done”? Well…yes. In that moment in time, he was. He was feeling hopeless and wanted to end the pain. But what about the wife? What about the kids he was also going to leave?  What about the marriage that was based on promises and commitments that were now torn apart?

This is a family! You can’t treat the individual like the family does not exist.

That’s why you need a pro-marriage therapist.

There are plenty of “feel good” therapists out there who want their clients to find themselves or focus on personal happiness at the expense of everyone else in their lives, their commitments, and their responsibilities. But this is hogwash!

This man absolutely had an excellent shot at saving his marriage. A great first step would have been actually telling his wife that he was thinking of divorce back when he still had deep feelings for her. That would have gotten her attention and then they could have rolled up their sleeves together and gotten to work on saving the marriage.  But that isn’t what happened.  By the time the wife found out just how unhappy the husband really was, he was emotionally distant and detached.  Now the work has become a whole lot harder.

A pro-marriage therapist is important because you want someone who places the same value as you on this precious relationship.

You want someone who knows that the marriage is not disposable…that things might feel hopeless but until both people have the opportunity to work together to change the relationship, you cannot know it truly is hopeless.

And then it happened to me!

Six months ago I was going through something in my own life, and I hadn’t done individual work on myself in awhile so I made an appointment with a well-known therapist in town who had lots of years of experience. I was pretty excited to have another professional to bounce things off of.

But after the third session, I had to fire her.

That morning I had fought with my husband, and when I came in for my appointment with the therapist I was upset and mad. Yes, even marriage therapists fight with their spouses.  This wasn’t one of those fights that sometimes surprise you. This was one of those battles that we have fought countless times before.  I found myself in that place of wondering “Why do we always get stuck here?”  I was feeling defeated and tired.  My new individual therapist was happy to help me explore my feelings of hopelessness that anything would change.  She was so compassionate and understanding.  She joined my bandwagon and wholeheartedly agreed that my husband was unreasonable and difficult.  She looked appropriately shocked when I complained that this was an ongoing battle.  Then asked me the question.  “How long do you want to put up with this from your husband before you have had enough?

Excuse me?  I thought I must have misunderstood her.

Oh my goodness, I thought to myself. This is how it happens!

The therapist did a masterful job in supporting me but what about supporting my marriage?

“Why do you feel like you deserve so little?”

That’s a good question, but she didn’t also investigate why my husband deserves so little from me at that particular moment.  She didn’t probe enough into how I contribute to this endless loop we sometimes find ourselves in.  She didn’t hold me accountable in any way.  Protecting the marriage meant considering both of us, not just my needs alone. A marriage is not about just one person.

Find a therapist who values marriage.

I get why my therapist didn’t push back on my whining and complaining and force me to look at myself more closely.  That could have damaged the client/therapist relationship.  I could have gotten angry and left, found another therapist.  All therapists are trained to “join” with our clients; to show unconditional support without judgment.  But I believe holding a client accountable to act responsibly is part of my job.  My therapist joined with me but she wasn’t acting in my best interest because she was siding with me when I needed her to challenge me.

The only time I tell a client that they need to get out of their relationship is when there’s abuse going on. And usually severe abuse.

He’s hitting her. She’s raging at him. He’s raging at the kids.

In these extreme situations, there might be the need for a safe space before doing anything else. But if there isn’t abuse, a therapist who works with only one-half of the couple shouldn’t be advocating divorce. It is irresponsible. It doesn’t value the marriage or consider the other people in that person’s life.

Choose a therapist who shares your values and believes in marriage.

If you don’t find the right therapist at first, try again. Try three times. Try four.

Don’t work with the wrong therapist. Don’t give up.

Most marriages can and should be saved.

There’s this young couple I’m almost finished working with that was on the verge of divorce when they came in.

The husband had an affair, and he came into my office last year and told me he didn’t love his wife.

“I don’t even like her,” he said. “There is nothing you can say or do that is going to make me want to stay in this marriage.”

He had seen another therapist who also told him to leave the marriage. But we sat down and investigated why he was so unhappy. It came down to him not feeling in love anymore.

I told him he had these four kids at home who loved and adored him, and I asked if he really wanted to leave them. He didn’t. So did he want to try and see if we could bring back the feelings and save the marriage?

He didn’t think it was possible.

But his marriage was worth a leap of faith. It was worth a try.

And you know what? We did bring back the love. They did save their marriage. Now he wants to be a testimonial so he can show other couples there is hope. He went from almost hating his wife to loving her again. But that never would have happened if he had followed the advice of the other therapist.

I’m not saying every marriage can be saved. But most can.

If your marriage is struggling and you don’t have a pro-marriage therapist who is supporting you, call me or go online to schedule an appointment with us.  We work with clients all over the world so don’t worry if you don’t live in Dallas.

Your marriage is worth saving. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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