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From Impasse to Intimacy:How Understanding Unconscious Needs Can Transform Relationships


Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind
Therefore is winged Cupid painted blind


Every day in my practice as a marriage and family therapist I see people who want more love and intimacy in their lives. Here are some examples:

Wendy and Lee, a young, professional couple with two children, who have had the same fight for the last three years. Wendy claims that Lee just doesn’t understand what it takes to manage a career and a household at the same time, while Lee feels that Wendy just “isn’t on my side” when “it’s crunch time” at his demanding job. Instead of supporting each other, their communication centers on putting each other down.

Julie, a newly married nursing student, who, after only a year of marriage, complains that she is desperate for more contact with her husband, Matt, and says that she “can’t stand his silent treatment anymore,” while Matt, a carpenter, seems genuinely puzzled about why the nice woman he married has become so “negative, angry and critical.”

Bill and Evelyn, an attractive couple in their mid-fifties, who arrived at a time in their lives to which they had long looked forward to, when their kids were grown and they were finally free to “live for ourselves,” only to find that they were like “two trains moving on parallel tracks,” with less and less to talk about to each other.

Judith and Daniel, a young couple who thought they’d arrived at the perfect solution for raising a family: Daniel would put his career on hold for the first three years and raise their son, Adam, while Judith got established in her medical practice. Despite their best laid plans this arrangement only led to bitter resentments between them, with Daniel angry at Judith for ignoring him and Adam, and Judith withdrawing even more after Daniel’s angry outbursts.

All of these people sincerely want more love and intimacy in their lives. They have tried hard to improve their relationships. They have tried to change their behavior and they have tried to change their partners’ behavior. They may have read one of the many books on relationships that urge them to fight more fairly, or communicate their feelings more clearly. But nothing has worked for them.

A crucial piece is missing from their understanding of their relationships. They do not completely know what their fight is about, or why they are having such strong feelings. They have been looking at the “visible” aspects of their relationships--the things they say and do. But all of these problems--from always picking the wrong partner to finding yourself stuck in a pattern of chronic fighting or chronic avoidance--stem not from the visible, objective parts of the relationship, but from the subjective world of your unconscious mind. Trying to make sense of them by looking at your outer, rational behavior is like trying to look at an elephant through a microscope: you’re simply using the wrong lens.

In addition to the parts of ourselves that are immediately available to our awareness, such as the things we actually do and say, each of us contains vast areas of subjectivity, where our thoughts and feelings move more in symbols than in words. This is the realm of our unconscious minds. It is the realm of dreams, it is the realm of automatic emotional responses such as anger or fear, and it is the realm where our childhood memories of the pleasure and pain of our earliest relationships are stored.

A modern psychologist might rephrase Shakespeare’s acute observation, which I used as an epigraph to this chapter, to read, "Love looks not with the eyes but with the unconscious mind." In "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" the fairy princess Titania swallows a potion that causes her to fall in love with a common worker, Bottom, who has been transformed into an ass. The “potion” is comprised of the hopes and romantic yearnings of her unconscious mind, which has distorted what her eyes are seeing into what it wants to see. This can work in just the opposite way also. Most of us have had the experience of feeling that our partner, who had once seemed so desirable, now seems like a complete ass. Here our unconscious fears are negatively distorting or exaggerating reality.

In Shakespeare’s comedy, all is made right by daybreak. But the unconscious dynamics of relationships can have painful, even tragic effects. Without an understanding of the unconscious dynamics of relationships, blame and guilt flourish. You see the hurtful things your partner does and think that he or she is being willfully and inexplicably cruel. You watch yourself lash out in anger and feel that you must be a defective person to act that way. And you see the areas of struggle and pain in the relationship as evidence that you have made the wrong choice in a partner.

On the other hand, when you begin to be aware of the deeper reasons for your own and your partner’s behavior, something very powerful happens. Blame and guilt are replaced by understanding and compassion. Issues that seemed insurmountable now lend themselves to compromise. Two enemies battling over scarce emotional resources can become two allies advocating for each other’s growth and fulfillment. Problems in the relationship become challenges for personal growth.


You are probably familiar with the Rorschach test, in which the subjects are asked to make up a story about an ink blot. The test works to reveal the content of our unconscious minds because we have a tendency to project our unconscious fears and fantasies into the picture.

Relationships work in a very similar fashion. Let me illustrate with Matt and Julie, one of the couples I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. Matt is a self-described introvert, who spends his days thinking about the construction problems that come up in his work as a carpenter. In his words, he needs “a few moments to himself to chill out” when he gets home. When they first started seeing each other, Julie saw Matt’s quiet nature as a sign of his inner strength. But lately Matt’s silences, especially his lack of warmth when he comes home from work, have become intolerable to her. The trait that once meant “here’s a man I can trust” now means “I am going to be painfully abandoned forever.”

Julie’s father, a rancher, died when she was twelve years old. She describes herself as “Daddy’s girl.” Both her positive and negative reactions to Matt were unconscious projections of that event onto her present day situation. When she met Matt, her unconscious mind told her that she had finally found a replacement for her father. But when she began to feel abandoned by him, her unconscious mind told her that the worst trauma of her life was about to be repeated.

Julie’s story illustrates two important points about the way the unconscious mind affects relationships. The first is that it projects childhood experiences onto the present. The unconscious mind will always mistake your partner for your parents. And the second is that unconscious mind contains both our deepest yearnings and our deepest fears about relationships.

Julie’s life was altered forever by her father’s death. She stopped being “Daddy’s girl” and immediately became a "little adult," taking care of her mother and her younger sister. So complete was this transformation that in adulthood she was completely unaware of her yearning to feel like the special child again. This yearning was directly connected to her deepest fear: if she let herself feel "special" to someone, that person might suddenly disappear, just as her father had done. For Julie, as for most of us, her deepest yearnings and her deepest fears were knitted together into a tight ball of emotions. And the source of her emotions was largely invisible to her.

In a relationship, each partner’s unconscious fears and yearnings encounter the other’s. Despite our conscious intentions, these unconscious fears and yearnings control our experience of the relationship. They are like the stage hands in a theater production. They set up the props and backdrops that form the background to your relationship, they play the background music that heightens your emotions, and at key times they hit a particular speech or action with a powerful spotlight that sets it apart from the rest of the action. While what you see is what happens “onstage” between you and your partner, your unconscious fears and yearnings are busy controlling the meaning you attach to those actions. I use the term invisible marriage to describe the unconscious factors that control how you feel and act in relationships.