This article is an excerpt from Jim Osterhaus's Questions Couples Ask Behind Closed Doors.

“We were at a concert,” Scott recalled. “Terese was there with a couple of girlfriends, and I was there with a date. My date and I went through one turnstile and Terese went through the next one. Our eyes met for just a second, and zap! It was electric, you know?”

“Electric, absolutely!” Terese added. “It was a fairy-tale moment. Our eyes met and it was like bam! Instant attraction!”

“Yeah,” Scott said. “But in the next moment, Terese and her friends melted into the crowd, and I didn’t think I’d ever see her again. Yet all through the first half of the concert, while I was sitting with my date, all I could think of was this beautiful girl I had only seen for a few seconds. At intermission, my date went to the ladies room and I went out to get some Cokes—and there was Terese again.”

“I was at the snack bar,” Terese interjected. “Scott came up and talked to me. He seemed really nervous and awkward—”

“I was not!”

“You were, too! But he was also sweet, and we both knew there was something happening between us. It was so exciting. I don’t remember what we talked about—just chit-chat about the concert and stuff. The really dumb thing was that neither of us thought to exchange phone numbers or anything.”

But I knew where she worked,” Scott added. “The next day, I showed up at her office at eleven-fifty and I found her at her desk, and—”

“And he brought me flowers,” Terese said. “We began dating, and the relationship just moved really fast from there. We were together almost every day, and we were married six months after we met.”

Stories like that of Scott and Terese—spontaneous romantic combustion—are the exception rather than the rule. Much more common is the experience of Kent and Melina, a couple who met at UC Santa Barbara. Kent was a sophomore, and Melina was a freshman.

“It wasn’t love at first sight, exactly,” Melina recalled. “Kent was a friend. We both had lots of friends, and we were serious about our studies. We weren’t interested in romantic attachments. Kent and I were good friends all through college. We studied together sometimes, we socialized on weekends, and we went to the beach or to the movies, usually in a group with other people. We never thought of it as dating—just hanging out.”

“In fact,” adds Kent, “I was dating someone else during my senior year. I really expected to marry my girlfriend, Julie—but then she was killed in a car accident. I was devastated. And it was during that time, when Melina really stood by me as a friend, that we just got really . . . close.”

“You hear about it all the time,” Melina puts in, “that lovers often start as friends. And that’s the way it was with Kent and me, in the early part of our relationship. As Kent and I talked and cried together after his loss, our friendship just flowered into romance. We both felt it growing, and at some point we just felt it was right that we should marry.”

Romance—this mysterious spiritual, emotional, intellectual, sexual attraction between a man and a woman—sometimes takes place with the explosive suddenness of a lightning strike. Other times, it emerges slowly, almost imperceptibly out of a friendship. Whether your romance was like a bolt out of the blue or the budding of a flower, there are certain psychological and emotional forces that are critical to the healthy functioning of a relationship. These forces are mostly hidden and unconscious in nature. Once you understand how and why you were originally attracted to your partner, you’ll be better equipped to communicate clearly, resolve conflicts, and authentically love this person with whom you share your life.


An Amazing Piece of Equipment

I hear exasperated questions all the time in my counseling practice, such as “We’re so different! What did I ever see in him, anyway?” or, “We have absolutely nothing in common! How could I have ever been in love with her?” In fact, there are a number of ingredients that go into this mysterious mix we call “romantic attraction.”

There are, of course, the obvious features that attract the sexes: physical beauty, youthfulness, and other physical attributes that subliminally suggest to us, “This woman would make an excellent lover and mother for my children” or, “This man would make an excellent soul mate and provider.” We also tend to select partners who are similar to us in economic/social class, intellect, values, and attractiveness.

Click to tweet:Find out what motivates, excites, and saddens your partner. Work together to replace images and symbols with truth and understanding.


But there is an even more fundamental answer to the question, “How did I select this person as my partner?” Most people don’t like to hear the answer, but it applies to some degree in almost every marriage relationship: “You selected this person by searching for what you didn’t get as a child—and by turning to the wrong source to attain it.” Many problems that arise in marriage are due, at least in part, to an unconscious drive on the part of one marriage partner to be “re-parented” by the other. It turns out there’s a lot more truth than anyone realized in the old song, “I Want a Girl (Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad).”

When I suggest this idea to couples in counseling, it often meets with resistance in comments such as, “No way! I don’t want anyone to ‘momma’ me or ‘daddy’ me! I’m an adult! I entered into marriage because of adult reasons, because I’m mature enough to take on the adult responsibilities of marriage.” On one level, the conscious level, this is probably true. But within each of us, there is a hidden, unconscious component of the mind that exerts a powerful influence over our feelings, our thinking, our decision making, and our behavior.

The human brain is an amazing piece of equipment that is designed for a wide variety of functions—from such higher, human functions as thinking, imagining, and creating to the more basic functions such as surviving and procreating. Your brain is not merely a single organ, but a complex assemblage of structures, each performing a specific, specialized function. It’s an oversimplification, but I find it useful to think of the brain as consisting of three main divisions:


1. The Survival Brain (made up of the brain stem and the limbic system, centered beneath the cerebral cortex)

2. The Storehouse Brain (the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex)

3. The Logical Brain (the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex)

Each of these divisions of the brain plays a unique and crucial role in the way we understand reality, respond to other people, and make decisions. If we understand how these different segments of the brain affect the way we interact with our romantic partners, we will be able to clear away much of the misunderstanding, miscommunication, and distrust that damages our relationships. We will also be able to better understand how and why we selected the person we did, and how those factors continue to affect the marriage relationship today.


The Survival Brain

First, let’s examine the survival brain. Its function is basic—even primitive. The survival brain, located underneath the reasoning areas of the brain, does not think, does not reason, and does not analyze. Instead, it scans; it’s wary. Its primary function is to protect you from danger. It continually examines the environment to answer one question: “Is it safe?”

The survival brain receives the bulk of its input from your eyes. Vision dominates the other senses when it comes to safety. As you look into another person’s eyes, you may feel as though you have direct contact with that other person. Someone has rightly called the eyes “the window to your soul.”

Did you ever notice how you feel anxious or uncomfortable around people who make no eye contact, or who stare too long at you, or whose eyes dart back and forth? Your survival brain is sending you a message (which may or may not be accurate) that you should be wary of this person. People’s eyes communicate fear, sadness, arrogance, irritability, and a host of other feelings—and the survival brain has an uncanny (though imperfect) knack for reading emotions.

The survival brain also checks posture, movement, appearance, facial expression, and many other factors to determine if the people around you are safe or threatening. It relies heavily on sounds when determining whether a situation is safe or not. Your survival brain is finely tuned to the voices of other people and can pick up subtle mood changes from the inflection of a single word. (Did you ever notice how much you can pick up about people’s mood just by hearing their “hello” when they answer the phone?)


The Logical Brain and the Storehouse Brain

After the survival brain finishes assessing the safety of a situation, the higher levels of the brain take over. The right and left hemispheres of the cerebral cortex are mounted over the survival brain like two halves of a walnut. Each hemisphere of the cerebral cortex has its own function. The left side is the logical brain—the analytical and verbal side. It is the side that takes in language and processes it to make sense of what people say. The logical brain weighs the information it receives and uses it to make rational conclusions and decisions.

The right side of the brain is the storehouse brain. It is more of a synthesizer than an analyzer. It does not use logic and words, but images and symbols. The storehouse brain is primarily imaginative and intuitive. Whereas the left side is objective, the right side is subjective. I call this part of the brain “the storehouse brain” because this is where images and symbols are stored throughout life to be used as a guide to reality and relationships.

Our relationships are largely made up of messages (both verbal and nonverbal) that we send to each other: “I love you,” “I need something from you,” or “When you do such-and-such, I feel angry.” While the left or logical brain looks at the content of a message, the storehouse brain looks at the context of the message. The storehouse or right brain synthesizes all the messages coming from the senses by way of the survival brain. The storehouse brain takes into account the circumstances of the encounter with the person and makes a determination of the relationship that exists between you and the other person.

Now let’s put all three parts of the brain together and see how they function together. Let’s say you are an unmarried young man attending college, and a friend introduces you to a young lady at the campus coffee shop. You sit down across from each other at a table and begin to talk. Here’s what takes place from your brain’s point of view:

Survival brain: The wary, unreasoning portion of your brain receives sight and sound impressions of this young woman. She smiles. Her eyes sparkle. She is physically attractive. Her voice is soft and pleasing. Your survival brain sees no threat. In fact, since many of the brain’s sexual functions are centered there, your survival brain becomes sexually stimulated in a mild, harmless, but pleasant way. Your survival brain signals your higher brain centers that it is safe—indeed, it is desirable—to remain in this person’s presence.


Storehouse brain: Over the years, the right side of your cerebral cortex has stored up thousands of symbols and images, most of them related to your primary caregivers in your early life. Your brain seeks the comfort of familiarity, so it compares input of opposite-sex acquaintances with the master template of the opposite sex that is recorded in the storehouse brain—the image of Mom. Those opposite-sex parent images formed by years of time spent with Mom are powerful symbols of what feminine companionship is all about. Here, in the storehouse of the right brain, are all the symbols of what a wife and mother are supposed to be—symbols of nurturing, caring, competence, joy, love, affection, and every other womanly quality.


Logical brain: The left hemisphere or logical brain analyzes the content of what this pleasant young woman says. Being verbal and logical, it interprets her words into meaning. The logical brain is the part of our brain with which we think we think. No, that’s not a typo. We think we think with our logical brains, but we actually think with our whole brains. Our storehouse brain also affects our thinking, modifying the meaning of the young lady’s words with an overlay of symbols and impressions. And our survival brain affects our thinking—continuously scanning the young lady for safety and sexual desirability.


In the process of attraction and mate selection, all three parts of the brain function together. The logical brain is attracted to her wit, intelligence, and friendly manner. The storehouse brain is attracted by the fact that she is familiar and comforting to be around—something about her voice, her mannerisms, and her eyes remind us of our idealized image of The Perfect Mate. The survival brain finds her sexually attractive and safe. If these favorable impressions continue to accumulate over several months of courtship, there is a good likelihood that a point will come where you, as an eligible young man, would say, “This is the woman for me. I want to spend a lifetime with her.

The process of attraction is virtually the same for a marriageable young woman. All three parts of her brain are engaged, building up impressions and memories that point to a certain young man as “the man for me.” Her image of dear old Dad, stored as symbols in her storehouse brain, will form a large part of the template of manhood that she uses in making her selection.

It is important to understand, however, that it is not only the positive traits of our parents that shape our attraction to a given man or woman in the mate selection process. We are also attracted by the negative traits of our parents. Why? Two reasons:


1.    These traits are familiar. As illogical as it seems, people tend to prefer familiar situations, even if painful, to new and unknown situations. So if one of your parents was an alcoholic and an abuser, you might tend to select an alcoholic, abusive person to marry, because living with an alcoholic is a familiar situation. This is one reason why some people keep getting into one abusive relationship after another. It’s not because they enjoy being abused; it’s because abusers are familiar. Victims of childhood abuse don’t know any other kind of relationship but an abusive one.

Does it make rational sense for a person to go from one bad relationship to another? Does it make rational sense for people to keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Of course not—but don’t ask the symbolic brain to be rational. Reason and logic are functions of the left brain, not the right. As a result, people are repeatedly drawn into painfully illogical situations by their storehouse brains.


2.    These traits represent unresolved struggles of the past. We may be attracted by the negative traits of our parents because our symbolic right brain—our storehouse brain—continually tries to heal the wounds of childhood, to resolve childhood conflicts, and to compensate for the emotional deficits of childhood. The symbolic storehouse brain confuses the romantic partner of today with the old, stored image of the parent. The storehouse brain says, in effect, “Here is someone like Mom (or Dad). This person is anger-prone, violence-prone, and abusive, just like my parent. If I marry this person, I can carry on the struggle I began in childhood—a struggle for love and acceptance—and this time I will win.”

So the children of alcoholic parents marry alcoholic spouses with numbing regularity. Children of abusive parents find themselves paired with abusive spouses with amazing frequency. Children of unloving, unfeeling parents marry emotionless, uncaring mates again and again. The symbols stored in the storehouse brain compel us in the direction of a potential spouse who unconsciously reminds us of our parents.

Consciously, we tell ourselves that this prospective partner is kind, thoughtful, compassionate, considerate, and the answer to all our prayers. But on an unconscious level, the storehouse brain is thinking, “Here is my parent all over again. Here is a symbolic approximation of the person I struggled with throughout my formative years. If I can just re-create my upbringing, then perhaps I can attain the security, affirmation, and love I was denied in childhood. Finally, I have a chance to get what I never got as a child.”


At this point, you may be thinking, “This stuff doesn’t apply to me! My parents weren’t abusive. They weren’t alcoholics. I never felt deprived of love or security. I was never psychologically damaged as a child.” The fact is that all of us—even those of us who were raised by the best of parents—experience emotional deficits, psychological scars, shame, pain, and unmet needs.

Even though we consciously look for positive traits in a prospective mate, on an unconscious level we are attracted by both positive and negative traits. Our storehouse brain transfers the feelings and symbols we had for our parents (both positive and negative) onto the spouse, heightening those traits that match the parental traits while ignoring those traits that do not match. Once the storehouse brain is satisfied that the original situation has been restored, it is ready to carry on the old struggles of childhood.

“I Did Not Marry My Father!”

Carrie and Tom have been married fourteen years. Though they both profess to love each other, their relationship is frequently punctuated by arguments and periods of mutual withdrawal that seem unsolvable. In the last few years, however, the level of conflict has increased dramatically—and the increased pain of their relationship has finally driven Tom and Carrie into counseling.

In their first counseling session, Carrie explained what initially attracted her to Tom. “I was having a lot of struggles with my father,” she recalled. “He was so opinionated, stubborn, and controlling—and he really disapproved of Tom. I’m not saying I married Tom just to get back at my dad—I truly did love Tom—but I saw Tom as a real contrast to my father. My going with Tom just sent my father up the wall! So, in my nineteen-year-old rebellious mind, that made Tom all the more attractive.”

Over several additional counseling sessions, however, a different picture of Tom and Carrie’s relationship began to emerge. Although Carrie had pictured Tom as a night-and-day contrast to her father, many striking similarities between Tom and Carrie’s father began to emerge, similarities such as the fact that both had very strong and similar views on a number of subjects. For example, both men strongly distrusted doctors, lawyers, and other professionals; both were fascinated by guns and were involved in gun owners’ organizations; both were fascinated by conspiracy theories and were strongly suspicious of the government.

In addition, both Carrie’s father and her husband had limited educational backgrounds (Carrie’s father left school after the eighth grade; Tom did not complete his senior year of high school). Both considered women to be intellectually inferior to men.

At first, Carrie was reluctant to acknowledge any similarities between her husband and her father, even though most of the similarities had emerged from statements she herself had made in counseling. When it was suggested to Carrie that she had unconsciously selected a mate in order to continue and resolve her childhood conflicts with her father, she went ballistic!

“I did not marry my own father!” she shouted, her eyes flashing. Such an angry response, of course, is often characteristic of denial, where a person consciously rejects a concept that he or she unconsciously recognizes as a painful truth. It was deeply embarrassing to Carrie to confront the possibility that she had married Tom for an array of hidden and totally mistaken reasons.

“I didn’t say you married your father,” I replied. “Of course you didn’t. You married a man who is very much a distinct individual, and you were attracted to him for a variety of reasons. You were aware of some of those reasons and unaware of others. The more you become aware of the hidden factors that attracted you to Tom, the more clearly you will be able to see him and relate to him.

After a number of counseling sessions, Carrie did in fact begin to see that many of the things about Tom she found so exasperating were also the most unpleasant aspects of her father: rigidity, a judgmental attitude, and a controlling behavior. She realized that she could become unreasonably enraged with Tom whenever he made a disparaging comment about doctors, or when she would find him in his den, oiling and cleaning his guns—and then she flashed on the fact that such incidents reminded her of her father saying and doing those very same things.

Carrie and Tom were able to begin resolving their conflicts when she began to recognize those moments when her unconscious, unreasoning mind confused her image of her Tom with her image of her father. This or that mannerism of Tom’s might remind her of her father, but she learned not to judge Tom’s intentions or behavior on that basis. She needed to see Tom as he actually was—not as a symbol of her past struggle with her father.

Tom also started resolving his and Carrie’s conflicts when he began to work on those aspects of himself that genuinely hurt Carrie. He learned that he needed to respect her as an equal and that his controlling behavior had to end. Tom, not so incidentally, had similar issues in his view of Carrie; to a lesser but still significant degree, he was continuing many of his own childhood struggles in his relationship with his wife.

These struggles can take many forms. Most often, there is an unconscious fusion and confusion of the opposite-sex parent image with the image of one’s partner. But there are also situations where it is the image of the same-sex parent or even the image of both parents that is superimposed on the image of one’s partner. It should also be noted that the storehouse brain will place any “primary caregivers”—stepparents, foster parents, grandparents, maiden aunts, or whomever—in the place of the symbolic parent.

Why Opposites Attract

Shanna was an only child who grew up not merely sheltered but truly smothered by her mother’s love. Her mother coddled her, excused her mistakes, and never let her try at anything—much less fail or get hurt. Shanna was not permitted to change, grow, or form attachments outside of her family. She was homeschooled and wasn’t allowed to play with neighborhood children or to go away to camp. In fact, she was rarely out of her mother’s sight.

Part of Shanna grew up fearing the perils of the outside world, as her mother continually portrayed them. But another part of Shanna rebelled at the way she was kept a prisoner in her own family. Even as she feared change and the unknown world that her mother shielded her from, she also feared being swallowed up by her mother’s possessive love.

Jack’s upbringing was the opposite of Shanna’s. His parents maintained an emotional and physical distance from each other, from Jack’s two sisters, and from Jack himself. They had firmly walled off their own thoughts, feelings, and concerns from Jack and his sisters. The rules of his family were unspoken, yet very strict: “You don’t bother me and I won’t bother you. Stay out of my space. Mind your own business.” So Jack grew up sensing an enormous emotional gulf in his life—a deep hunger for human connection and for someone who would share his need to love and be loved.

When Shanna and Jack grew up, they found each other and got married. This might seem paradoxical—a union of two people from such different backgrounds—but it happens all the time. Shanna grew up emotionally smothered and afraid of being emotionally engulfed by her mother. She was characterized by an excessive resentment of control, intrusion, or involvement by other people in her life. Emotionally cold and distant, she was often antagonistic in conversations with other people. Shanna enjoyed being thought of as “different,” and was quick to take offense toward people who tried to get too close to her or make emotional demands on her.

Jack, by contrast, exhibited what psychologists call “a dependent personality,” characterized by an excessive and childlike desire to have others provide for him, meet his emotional needs, and interact with him. Because his parents were so emotionally distant and unloving, Jack had low self-esteem and tended to cling emotionally to others. Being alone made him anxious and uneasy, so he had an intense drive to emotionally “fuse” with another person. He tended to behave submissively, and his feelings were easily hurt by Shanna’s criticism or emotional distance, which he interpreted as abandonment—much as he had felt emotionally abandoned by his parents. In classic victim style, he put up with Shanna’s angry outbursts and her contentious and argumentative conversational style—but he didn’t like it. In fact, it was extremely painful for him.

Do you see what brought these two people together? Consciously, Shanna wanted to escape the emotional clutches of her smothering mother —yet unconsciously, she found Jack, who was needy and dependent with a smothering love just like her mother’s. Consciously, Jack wanted a wife who would devote herself to him, meet his emotional needs, and always be close to him—yet unconsciously, he found someone as distant and independent as his parents had been.

Both had found the substitute parents their storehouse brains were looking for—and now both were re-enacting the emotional struggles of the past. Both were fighting to achieve what had been denied them in childhood, and they didn’t even realize it. The very traits that had brought them together in courtship were now pushing and pulling them in opposite directions in marriage. Jack and Shanna were left wondering how they could have been so wrong about each other when they decided to get married.

But there’s another dynamic in Shanna and Jack’s relationship that has brought them together and that now brings pain and conflict into their relationship. We all have a tendency to project onto our romantic partners those parts of ourselves that we have disowned and cannot accept. For example, the serious, button-down, uptight businessman learns early in life to repress his carefree, spontaneous, fun-loving side. So when a carefree, spontaneous, fun-loving woman comes into his life, she seems to supply everything he no longer has, everything he has repressed within himself.

In Shanna’s case, she recognized in Jack something that she had shut away within herself—a longing for emotional connection, for affection, for dependency. Though she might consciously resent Jack’s “clinginess,” his “whining,” and his “mooning” after her, there’s an unconscious part of her that would like to return to childhood, to be smothered by love, to have someone attend to her emotional needs, and to have someone make a fuss over her. She long ago denied and repressed that part of herself in her rebellion against an emotionally overbearing mother. But a part of her feels incomplete without that smothering love in her life. So, though she is often antagonized by Jack’s dependent behavior, she unconsciously recognizes in him a part of herself that is missing and that he completes.

So we have an image of our romantic partner that is made up of the image of our parents or primary caregivers from childhood and the parts of ourselves that we have denied and stored away. This image of our romantic partner is kept in the storehouse of our right brain. This is not to say that the image of our romantic partner is totally distorted by the symbols in our storehouse brain. There is usually at least a kernel of objective reality there. But all too often there is far more image than reality in our perception and that image distorts our communication, our behavior, our expectations, and our understanding of the other person.

Then, with our storehouse brains filtering and distorting reality, we jump into marriage. Only after we are married does reality truly sink in. Suddenly, the very traits we found appealing and exciting in this person become irritating and a source of conflict. We find that the denied parts of ourselves are being mirrored back to us by our partner, and we don’t like what we see. We also find ourselves caught in the old struggles we thought we had escaped when we emerged from childhood—only these are now adult struggles and they are much more intense.

We look at our partner and think, “I married you so that you could heal these wounds and meet my emotional needs. But instead of healing my wounds and meeting my needs, you are turning out to be just like the absent father who was never available to me,” or “You are just like the smothering mother who threatened to overwhelm me,” or “You have become that critical stepparent who always belittled me.” With each conflict, our focus narrows. We become less and less able to see the complex, varied personality of the other person. Instead, he or she becomes a caricature. We see only a few selected traits. These traits soon feel as if someone were raking a cheese grater across the nerve endings of our souls.


What Now?

“Okay,” you may be thinking, “so now I know how my partner and I came together. I know that my storehouse brain has been manipulating my feelings and my behavior without my conscious awareness. I know that much of the conflict I have with my partner arises because my storehouse brain superimposes the symbolic parental image onto my partner. But what now? What am I supposed to do about it? I guess my relationship is doomed!”

Not at all. There’s plenty you can do about it now that you understand the source of the problem. There are many practical pointers for resolving today’s problems today, logically and lovingly. One pointer is to recognize the fact that knowledge is power. When you understand the workings of your unconscious, symbolic mind, you have a powerful edge in solving the problem. You don’t have to be controlled by your brain’s unreasoning force. You have the power to harness your emotional energy for healthy, healing purposes. Whenever you become angry, exasperated, annoyed, or impatient with your spouse, or whenever you become fearful of being abandoned or emotionally smothered by your spouse, ask yourself, “Are these feelings proportionate to my spouse’s behavior or are they out of proportion? Are my feelings fact-based and reasonable or am I responding with anger and fear because this is a long-standing ‘sore spot’ in my soul?”

Another pointer is to take an emotional “reality check.” Before responding to your spouse, pause a moment to listen to your feelings and understand what has triggered those emotions. Ask yourself, “Does this situation remind me of the dynamics of my childhood? Do I feel ‘small’ and powerless right now, as if I were a child again? Do I feel that my partner is treating me like a child or making me feel like a child?” Understanding why we feel the way we do is the first step toward resolving those feelings.

Another pointer is to take an emotional “reality check.” Before responding to your spouse, pause a moment to listen to your feelings and understand what has triggered those emotions. Ask yourself, “Does this situation remind me of the dynamics of my childhood? Do I feel ‘small’ and powerless right now, as if I were a child again? Do I feel that my partner is treating me like a child or making me feel like a child?” Understanding why we feel the way we do is the first step toward resolving those feelings.

Recognize that your partner has a survival brain and a storehouse brain, too. If he or she is responding to you in a way that seems disproportionate and unreasonable, understand that there may be childhood pain, fear, anger, and resentment underneath it all. That surface issue (“You spent too much on that dress,” “Why did you stay so late at the office?”) may not be the real issue. It may just be a symptom of a much deeper emotional deficit (“I’m afraid of reliving the stress of my childhood, when my father went bankrupt,” or “I’m afraid of being abandoned and alone”).

You can also accept the fact that you both have unresolved issues from childhood. They may be huge and traumatic (such as abandonment or incest), or they may be comparatively minor—but they are there. Unresolved childhood issues create distortions in current relationships. Deal with them and discuss them openly with your partner. If necessary, get professional help. Once those issues are resolved, they lose their power to hurt you and your relationship.

Another thing to do is to make a commitment to growth in understanding. Commit yourself to discovering who your partner truly is. Replace that mental, symbolic caricature of your partner with his or her authentic reality. Find out what motivates, excites, and saddens your partner. Find out where those “landmines” of childhood pain lie. Find out what makes him or her feel afraid, angry, insecure, or anxious. Work together to replace images and symbols with truth and understanding.

Making a commitment to growth and maturity is another pointer for resolving today’s problems today. Instead of making childlike demands on your spouse to meet all your needs, accept the fact that you are an adult. You have some needs that you may legitimately express to your partner, but you also have needs that you should seek to meet out of your own resources or out of your relationship with God. “When I was a child,” the Bible tells us, “I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11). It’s time to put away childish ways. It’s time to put away the past and become conscious, aware, and proactive in the present. In the next chapter, we will explore ways to keep your relationship firmly anchored in the present.


Take Action

Questions of a Marriage

If you and your partner are answering these questions together, first write your answers down separately, then compare your answers—but remember to use covenant-love (see page 31) to deal with any disagreements! Use the information you gather from each other to better understand how each of you look at, and feel about, your love relationship.

1. What is your greatest fear in your marriage relationship?

• abandonment

• engulfment

• invasion

• Other______________________________________


How does that fear affect the way you interact with your partner?


2. What do you think is your partner’s greatest fear in the marriage relationship?

• abandonment

• engulfment

• invasion

• other_____________________________________


How does that fear affect the way your partner interacts with you?


3. On a scale of 1 to 10 (below), how would you rate yourself as a person who is honest and keeps promises?

1 . . 2 . . 3 . . 4 . . 5 . . 6 . . 7 . . 8 . . 9 . . 10

Never keep promises / Sometimes / Always reliable


4. What is a specific situation in your life where someone broke a promise to you? How did that incident affect your ability to trust the other person? Explain.


5. Describe a specific situation in your life where you broke a promise to someone you cared about. How did that broken promise affect the relationship? Explain.


6. Describe a specific situation in your life where you experienced a greater sense of freedom as a result of binding yourself to a promise. What do you think was the source of that sense of freedom?

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The "What is 'healthy'?" question is just one of many questions couples have asked me over and over again in my counseling practice. The typical couples I've counseled have again and again asked,...
Questions Couples Ask Behind Closed Doors

Jim Osterhaus

Jim Osterhaus is a senior partner with TAG. He is a clinical psychologist and a dynamic executive coach and public speaker with extensive experience in helping individuals, couples, families, and organizations move through change, conflict, and reorg... Read More