Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Married and Mutually Dissatisfied: Why and Options

As surprising as it may seem, some who seem to be in stable marriages are partners who are mutually dissatisfied. Whether married four for forty years, these partners stay together clashing, complaining, even connecting sexually—without really knowing each other or building intimacy.couplecrpd

Why Do They Stay Together?

In most cases they actually report that they love each other and don’t want to end the relationship. What they want, however, is for their partner to love and appreciate them in a certain defined way.

It might mean:

  • “ I will feel loved and secure if you welcome my non-stop advice.”
  • “ I will feel loved and secure if you offer to do everything for me.”
  • “ I will feel loved and secure if you affirm that everything I do is right.”
  • “ I will feel loved and secure if I am cared for as the one in need.”
  • “ I will feel loved and secure if I am recognized as the one with all the answers.”

The catch is that each partner has his/her own preconception of what the definition of love and behavior should be without any self-reflection or awareness of what their partner actually feels, needs or how they would authentically show love.

Authors, Mark Borg, Grant Brenner and Daniel Berry would describe such a marriage as an IRRELATIONSHIP .What they describe in their new book by that title is the unconscious need by many partners to feel loved and secure by relying upon old survival patterns from childhood. Essentially these partners unwittingly keep their marriages from being truly authentic and intimate by imposing the old routines that kept their parents “ loving them.”

What Causes This?

  • If such routines were necessary to be safe as children, they emerge as well ingrained patterns that reduce anxiety about love and survival in significant relationships.
  • Hearkening back to the concept of The False Self, which Winnicott introduced into psychoanalysis in 1960, these partners were once children who kept their parent (s) pleased and in love with them by being who and what their parents needed them to be.
  • As children they became used to conditional love. There was no room to have an authentic spontaneous True Self affirmed by a loving parent.
  • Accordingly, there was no experience with reciprocally knowing and loving an intimate partner.

Unfortunately, many partners have difficulty even realizing what they learned too well in their first intimate parent-child relationship.

Using the Acronym GRAFTS, Borg and colleagues describe how these partners were once children who learned that loving was equated to being: Good, Right, Absent, Funny, Tense, or Smart.

The Case of Ralph and Jackie

Ralph was a bright and verbal only child who from an early age was given the role of supporting mother in face of a critical and unfaithful father. Although multi-talented, recognition and love was only given in terms of what he could do for mother at the cost of judgments and put-downs by father. Launching himself as a college student and later as a successful professional meant no longer being able to carry that role and resulted in being judged and disowned by his parents.

Although ties were severed with his family of origin, Ralph carried the dysfunctional patterns of his childhood into his first and second marriages. He needed to be the rescuer to believe he could be valued and loved. After a short unsuccessful first marriage, Ralph met his second wife, Jackie, who both needed and wanted rescuing. As the youngest child in a large competitive family, Jackie learned early that being “needy” was the role that garnered the most attention and love. As a recently divorced young working mother, she welcomed all that Ralph had to offer and idealized his talents and gifts. Ralph was delighted that this attractive and bright woman appreciated him.

Fast forward ten years later and Ralph and Jackie were in a marriage characterized by dissatisfaction and bewilderment. Ralph was still giving and doing but it was hyphenated by anger and resentment that his attempts to love Jackie were never appreciated or reciprocated. Turned off by Ralph’s expectations of being recognized as the one doing all the giving and caring, Jackie withdrew accolades and affection even as she continued to make requests of Ralph.

Reflective of the way in which early patterns become locked in “Irrelationships,” any hint that their marriage was shaky escalated Ralph and Jackie’s anxiety, causing him to give more even as he raged and Jackie to depend more even as she withheld.

Is There a Way Out?

As Borg and authors describe, there are many things that eventually shatter these routines and make re-assessment of self and partner necessary and an authentic relationship possible.

In my clinical experience, I have found that it is often a significant event or change of context that makes the routines impossible. Life events like retirement, children leaving for college, the care of elderly family members, a heart attack etc., threaten and shake-up existing structure – they break or help re-make the relationship.

In the case of Ralph and Jackie, it was Ralph’s loss of his business that sent him into depression and made his role as “giver” impossible. It was a painful event that made authenticity and mutuality necessary if their marriage was going to survive and grow.

Recovery and Repair

Central to the contribution of authors, Borg, Brenner and Berry in Irrelationship, is a guided discussion of the Dream Sequence – Five Steps or Areas that couples need to address to have true authenticity, intimacy and a real relationship.

Drawing upon what theses authors suggest as preliminary steps to loosen ties to old dysfunction routines, consider the following:

  • Turn up your curiosity and stop, step back and consider as objectively as possible what you are doing and what your partner, a separate person, is doing in this marriage. Does it remind you of childhood?
  • Take stock of what you use and need to feel self-esteem and personal security as an individual. How much burden does it put on your partner?
  • Recognize that the tendency to blame each other keeps partners stuck, not really taking responsibility and not growing in new and important ways.
  • Knowing your gifts and your weaknesses is key to a viable relationship with someone else. Intimate marriages are a function of accepting and loving each other as individuals.

Listening and being present to what you never heard or noticed in your partner or yourself is the door to a real relationship.



Take the opportunity to hear and even call in to speak with Drs. Marc Borg, Grant Brenner and Danny Berry this Thursday at 2PM Eastern on Psych Up Live. http://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/88457    ( Call in # 1-866-472-5788)