Marriage: What No One Tells You

By Thea and Duane Harvey

Your partner is a pain in the ass. You probably already know this, but what you may not know is that this is the way it is supposed to be. Sorry, it’s unavoidable. Everyone is difficult close up, even you. “But this is so unfair!” you might think. “My friends are easy.” Marry them and they won’t be. This is usually the first thing relationship experts Harville Hendrix and Stan Tatkin point out.

Commitment creates a unique environment with its own law of physics. What goes on in the rest of world doesn’t apply. Primary partners get close, very close, and this is the problem.

Of course, you didn’t realize this when you first met, and neither did they. You didn’t notice because you both were high on drugs. Your pituitary glands secreted love hormones and you fed off each other with high excitement and obsession. You have so much in common. You are so much alike. Everything is wonderful. But it doesn’t last. The hormones fade and what you are left with is a partner who knows exactly how to try your last nerve. 

There are three reasons why your partner gets under your skin.

Close Proximity

The first has to do with shared space. You are more likely to bump into one another, more likely to step on each others toes, to get elbowed in the eye in the middle of night. But this isn’t just physical space, it’s psychological space. The fact that you’re actually very different people comes as a shock. We each have preferences, moods, rhythms, idiosyncrasies, to say nothing of bad habits. The very fact that you are different and locked in the same room provides plenty of opportunities to clash. You are on a space station together, you speak different languages and there is no gravity.


The second reason has to do with a special kind of memory called implicit memory, the kind we don’t recall in the usual sense. The brain likes to pare down and simplify the past so it converts stories into automatic reactions. Another name for this is procedural memory. The vast majority of our brain architecture was formed before we had the verbal capacity to label and recall events, therefore a great deal of our experience cannot be accessed directly. Instead of recalling early events we act them out, or sink into the feelings they inspired.

The most important characteristic of these early years is that we were utterly dependent on someone. Problems always arise with one-sided dependency, even in the best of situations. These same problems resurface as implicit memory when we enter into a committed adult relationship. Like it or not, commitment is dependency and dependency is scary. And to complicate matters, we are taught from a very early age that dependency is bad. We live in a counter-dependent culture. Dependency is natural and necessary, yet we are shamed by it.

Growing Up

The third reason your partner is frustrating is because they perform the job we enlisted them to do — to help us finish growing up. Were your parents annoying? Same thing. We have to be told what to do or we won’t do it.

Your partner has the blueprint for your personal growth, but the very idea that someone knows us better than we know ourselves is inherently offensive. But it’s true. Partnering is two-way parenting. It is in a relationship that we learn and mature.

Here are three things you can do to turn things around:


The part of the brain responsible for processing vision is called the occipital lobe.
The strange thing is that the occipital lobe defers to the hippocampus, the seat of memory, to decipher what we see. This means that for the most part what we see is the past. The brain has an evolutionary bias toward the negative, so what we think we see isn’t good. We must compensate for this by consciously visualizing our partner in a positive light. Research has demonstrated that happy couples delude themselves about their partners qualities. Get delusional.


The next step is to take that positive visualization and express it. When your partner does something you like, tell them. Remember, this is in your best interest. If you don’t tell them they are likely to stop doing it. Tell them what you appreciate — often. The most radical way to implement this is to combine three fresh appreciations a day together with a commitment of zero negativity. No criticism. That means if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.


Commit to radically reducing your partner’s displeasure by eliminating one by one the things you do that frustrate them. Be curious as to what it’s actually like living with you. Exploring how your partner experiences you can be a real eye-opener. If you can swallow the idea that your partner holds the blueprint for your personal growth you will soon discover capacities and talents you didn’t know you had.

Practicing these three points is guaranteed to turn a pain in the ass partner back into the love of your life. And when they do annoy you, you won’t mind so much.

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Couples Repair Playbook

It was an idyllic afternoon in the small town of Idyllwild, California. The sunlight glistened from the pine needles and the birds were sweetly chirping as Tahquitz Peak stood proudly in the distance. My husband, our six year old daughter, and I were visiting his mother, whose health was in decline.

We were enjoying a family shopping trip to the local stores when it happened. We were all trying on hats when Duane asked how his looked. I was distracted and annoyed as my daughter was hanging on me and I flippantly responded. My callous, “It looks fine!” did not land well. Duane took issue and said he did not like my tone. My tone? His comment set me fuming. Our exchange became heated until his mother approached and told him how much she loved the hat. We silently stewed as we continued shopping, the irritation mounting inside each of us. His parents drove back to the house while we walked. This gave us the opportunity to let the other one have it and release all the fury that was bottling up. Impervious to the presence of our daughter we were each determined to prove the other wrong.

Relentlessly, we argued back and forth like we were trying to win a point in a tennis match. We returned to his parent’s house with no apparent winner and barely hid our anger behind pleasantries as we ate dinner with the grandparents. But under the polite remarks we were both plotting our next round.

This second round never materialized. Instead after dinner we retreated into a passive aggressive silence and we both went to bed disgruntled. The next morning was soured by the day before as we remained distant and aloof.

What happened? What went wrong? What could we have done differently to avoid this caustic collision?

The following are a few playbook tips to mend your breakdown fast.
1. Benefit of the doubt 
Always give your partner the benefit of the doubt. After all, commitment is about putting your life in their hands, so you might as well believe their intentions are good. We all have off moments. Daily stresses and aches and pains can cause us to be insensitive or unable to be our most loving selves. This is why we need to give our partners a pass whenever possible. Studies have shown that idealizing your partner is beneficial to committed relationships. Most conflicts are the result of misunderstandings, or mis-read cues. We think we know what our partner is thinking but we don’t. Be curious instead of reactive. Get the facts before you attack. Resist your automatic impulses, wait, step back, take a breath and respond compassionately. Chances are if your partner is acting badly toward you they are probably in pain. In retrospect I could see that Duane had not yet come to terms with his mother’s rapid decline in health.

Whatever the argument might seem to be about, it’s aways a breakdown in the quality of the connection. Duane did not really care whether or not I liked the hat, what he did care about was that I dismissed him, and what I cared about was that he accused me. The argument was about the sudden loss of a positive connection, and we were both vulnerable to this because of the surrounding circumstances.

2. Repair quickly 
What distinguishes successful couples from those that break-up is the ability to repair swiftly. Hurt, injury, conflict are all normal, inevitable and necessary for growth within a relationship. The longer the connection is broken the harder it is to repair. The mind is a negative magnet and during the disconnect your partner is collecting every complaint that they have ever had of you, and re-constructing your identity. You don’t want to be mistaken for the person your partner creates in your absence. Projection can be a nasty thing and the best way to prevent it is to show up in a positive way.

3. Do the opposite 
A good rule of thumb is to identify what you typically do when conflict arises, and then do the opposite. If you usually withdraw, approach and stay present. If you tend to pursue your partner around the house or text them relentlessly, let it rest, step back and wait. Another example of doing the opposite is relaxing the facial muscles. This immediately sends your partner a non-verbal cue that they are safe. Doing the opposite will be difficult and perhaps feel impossible, but you will discover it is relationship game-changer.

4. Do not set the record straight 
It is important whenever conflict occurs NOT to set the record straight about what really happened. Neuroscientists have discovered that memory is unreliable. It is impossible to get an accurate account of what happened. Therefore because of the way the mind works, what happened is less important than what needs happen. No matter what your partner says or how they respond, do not defend or justify yourself. Do not expect your partner to take responsibility for their part. They will only see how they contributed to the problem after you have fully owned your own contribution.

5. Take Charge 
In our private practice we have noticed a common confusion around the idea of taking responsibility. Seeing your part in creating or maintaining the disconnection is equated with giving in and taking blame. We all have a fundamental aversion to being wrong. The fear of being wrong is second only to the fear of being bad, because when we were growing up accusations of either exposed us to the danger of disapproval, and therefore threatened our sense of safety. But as adults when we refuse to take responsibility in our relationships we actually diminish our personal power and constrict our range of freedom.

6. Shake off the mood 
The heavy sensation that lingers after we make-up is chemical. It results from the activation of the dorsal motor vagal complex. When our body is physically or emotionally injured the dorsal motor vagas floods the body with opiods and lowers our blood pressure causing us to feel deflated and withdrawn. It is an autonomic bodily protection response. However, to repair our relationship we need to shake off this stupor with laughter, silliness or sex. Even if it feels inauthentic, it is important to remember that it is nothing more than a chemical residue. Our true authenticity lies in our intention to reconnect, not in our moods.

What distinguishes successful couples is the ability to repair. How we handle the breakdown makes all the difference in the world. Don’t be discouraged by conflict. Whether disconnections are frequent or few and far between, they can deepen trust if you step into the repair mode promptly.

Please share with us your experience. We would love to hear from you!

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