When love hurts, the cause of your issues with a companion may not be what you think. Couples therapist Rick Brown says there are much deeper psychological forces involved in a couple’s transition from feeling connected to feeling discontentment. So deep, in fact, that you may need some help digging yourself out of the hole your relationship fell into.
To hear Rick Brown tell it, falling in love is the prelude to an inevitable power struggle in a couple’s relationship. Feelings of compatibility and contentment often fade as a couple comes out of the “anesthesia” of romantic love. Suddenly and inexplicably, the love of your life is not giving you what you want, and, more importantly, what you need to feel loved. As a therapist who counsels couples and conducts relationship workshops across the country, Brown has seen this tug-of-war play out countless times in his 35-year career.
Brown recalls similar struggles in the early years of his marriage to Celeste, who’s also a couple’s therapist. They share an office in Winter Park. Some years ago, Celeste suggested they travel to New York to attend a marriage workshop conducted by Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy and author of the best-selling self-help book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. That session not only strengthened their relationship, it brought Brown and Hendrix together as colleagues. Brown went on to write a book directed toward helping marriage counselors practice Imago Relationship Therapy, a discipline based on the theory that we are drawn—consciously as well as unconsciously—to a partner who bears positive and negative similarities to our parents.
In 1993, Brown appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, counseling three couples whose marriages were in serious discord. After the show, Brown says Winfrey paid for the three couples to travel to Orlando to attend his two-day marriage workshop.
As you might expect of someone in his field, Brown, 58, is low-key and soft spoken. He greets me in his office with a gentle smile and a firm handshake. Sit anywhere you like, he offers, pointing to my options. There’s “the couch” where couples sit as Brown, seated in a chair a few feet away, listens to their troubles. I have sat on a couch similar to his many times in couples therapy, sometimes with a cushion of space representing the schism between me and my then-companion—a spouse and, five years after divorce, a girlfriend with whom a power struggle erupted almost the day we moved in together. My latest relationship having recently ended abruptly and me still in a deep funk over the breakup, I can’t bear to sit on “the couch.” Let’s sit over here, I suggest, walking over to two upholstered, high-back arm chairs facing each other. The setting is more business-like and formal. I can stay focused over here, I tell myself.
Wearing a golf shirt bearing the logo of Interlachen Country Club in Winter Park, casual slacks and loafers but no socks, the trim and handsome Brown, with a mane styled back to his shirt collar, looks like he belongs on a practice tee teaching mid-handicappers how to improve their short game. When I offer that description of him, he smiles approvingly and says he tries to get out on the course every week. Nice life if you can get it, I tell myself.
For the next two hours, Brown discusses how love often begets tension and strife, as well as various emotional and behavioral complexities that mess up our love lives. That’s not news to me, but what is are the origins of the inevitable power struggle and how, according to Brown, couples can best deal with the issues that separate them like the middle cushion on his couch.
Yes, love hurts. But to hear Rick Brown tell it, love can heal the wounds inflicted on us in our pasts. We just have to know how to apply the ointment—and that’s where therapy can come in.
Orlando magazine: You’re a disciple of Harville Hendrix, who wrote the best-seller Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. What’s the upshot of that book?
Rick Brown: It really helps couples understand why they are drawn to the kind of partners they are drawn to and why, despite their best hopes, wishes and dreams, they inevitably find themselves struggling with those partners. Just as importantly, it also addresses how couples can fix their relationship, make it better, so they actually get the kind of relationship, the kind of love they wanted.
OM: Is that book based on the “imago” philosophy?
OM: Can you explain Imago Relationship Therapy?
RB: Imago is a Latin word that means image. The imago relationship refers to how we very early on in our childhoods begin to take in the positive and negative experiences and traits of our parents. And very early on we begin to form this image, or imago, and that becomes a guiding factor in the partner we will eventually select.
OM: So, when we select that partner, we’re going to look for the great things we remember about our parents in our past, but we end up with the negatives we associated with them, too?
RB: We will consciously set out to find a partner who possesses certain positive traits. Most likely these are traits we admired in our parents or someone who was significant to us when we were children. For example, you may set out to find someone who is hard-working, a good provider and ambitious—traits you admired in one or both parents. However, you will unconsciously be drawn to someone who not only embraces these positive traits, but also some of the negative traits of being distant, emotionally unavailable or preoccupied—traits that frustrated you in one or both of your parents.
OM: But wouldn’t we want to avoid such a person?
RB: It would seem so. Consciously you would avoid such a person. But remember, falling in love is an unconscious process. Your logical brain says: Well, if I grew up with somebody who was emotionally unavailable and distant, go find somebody who’s emotionally available and present. The problem is there will be no attraction. There will be no chemistry. Those people do exist; you just won’t feel any chemistry. The chemistry will come when you find somebody who looks like he is hard-working and looks and acts available but he really isn’t. You go out and have a glass of wine. He listens, and he’s attentive to you. And here is where romantic love comes into play: Romantic love will temporarily blind you. It is like anesthesia. It will numb you to your partner’s negative traits while you enjoy all their positive traits. If you stay in the relationship long enough, the anesthesia will wear off and you will find yourself frustrated by the negative traits in ways that feel similar to the frustrations and disappointments you felt as a child. That emotionally available partner was really unavailable all along, but only your unconscious mind knew that, hence the attraction. You will feel like you have fallen out of love and question your choice of a partner.
OM: At this point, the fight or flee mechanism kicks in, right?
RB: Yes. Many people do leave the relationship at this point, believing they have made a poor choice. Or, they may find themselves settling into a relationship that is less than satisfying or fulfilling. But I believe it is precisely at the point when couples fall out of love that they have the greatest capacity to fall in love. What they have fallen out of love with is an illusion. Nobody marries a real person. We all marry illusions. We marry who we think this person is or who we hope this person will be, and then we become disillusioned. Typically, at this point many people tend to just get busy with careers, home, children or hobbies, hoping if they stay busy long enough, they won’t miss the feeling of being in love.
OM: Is this when an affair is likely to happen?
RB: It can and often does. Affairs grow out of couples feeling disconnected. Some people will pour their energy into their work, children, friends or a hobby, and some may pour their energy into another relationship. There is a universal yearning to feel connected. People want to feel connected to something or somebody. Unfortunately, they will often find that this is only a pseudo sense of connection or at best a temporary feeling of being connected. But it lifts them out of the pain of feeling disconnected with their partner. And there is the illusion that they have found someone with whom they are more compatible. If they stay in that relationship long enough, they will often re-experience the frustration of incompatibility.
OM: So what do we do when we begin to feel incompatible?
RB: First, we need to recognize that all the incompatibility and frustration is growth trying to happen. At an unconscious level, we are trying to heal and complete ourselves. And it appears that the unconscious will not rest until it gets what it needs to get, and that is a need that went unmet in the past.
OM: But is that possible? Can we really expect our partners, even ourselves, to change? Don’t we all just want to be accepted as we are?
RB: Not only is it possible to change, it is necessary. It is a myth that you will find someone who accepts you as you are. You may find someone who looks like they accept you as you are, but if you stay in the relationship long enough you will find that they want you to change. And I would argue that you need to change. Change is necessary. For example, as one learns how to become emotionally available, one not only provides the healing that his partner needs, but he will find that they are growing and becoming all they were meant to be. This is the exciting possibility of marriage for me. It is the one relationship unlike any other in that it will urge you to become all you were meant to be. It appears the unconscious will not rest until that occurs.
OM: There’s a vicious cycle that occurs when the frustrations set in, isn’t there?
RB: When we get hurt, we react to it in a way that usually wounds our partner in their most vulnerable places. So my wife may be critical of me, saying, “You know, you just don’t ever give me what I need. You’re inadequate.’’ Well, she is hitting my tender place. I grew up in a family of four boys, very competitive, and if I brought home a report card of three A’s and two A-minuses, my father asked, “What happened?’’ The message in that is I’m not good enough. So when my wife would hit that spot, it would hurt deeply. So I get even more defensive, and I refuse to listen, which is going to intensify her hurt.
OM: Is this the point where you’re in a power struggle?
RB: Yes. Most of us, when we get married, don’t want to change. Even people who come in to see me in therapy really don’t want to change. What they really want is their way to work for them. The problem is they are with a partner who also wants their way to work for them. And therein lies the struggle.
OM: Let’s talk about that. The imago philosophy says you really aren’t in a relationship for compatibility reasons. You’re in it to grow and heal.
RB: That’s right. The unconscious is not interested in compatible people. What is the unconscious interested in? Healing. Getting what I need to get. Growing, becoming all I was meant to be. The unconscious is always going to take you to someone with whom you first think you’re compatible because it’s going to numb you up. But if you stay in the relationship long enough, you’ll feel the friction of your incompatibility. All that friction, all that conflict, all that tension—all of that really is growth trying to happen.
OM: It’s how you deal with it, how you handle it, that matters, right?
RB: The problem is no one really helped us learn how to handle that. Most of us do the best we know how to do.
OM: In general, what are some things that you have seen that hurt men and women in relationships?
RB: I don’t like to get into stereotypes, but in my experience women are a little more tender about feeling invisible, feeling a lack of attention. Men are a little more tender to things that feel like shame, criticism, inadequacy. So if the wife doesn’t feel like her husband pays attention to her, she will often be critical: You’re never there, you don’t listen. He’ll react to that by pulling away.
OM: Marriage seems to be losing favor as the foundation of relationships. What’s your take on that?
RB: Regardless of all its flaws, it’s still the best structure for the raising and nurturing of children. . . . But people are putting it off for various reasons. Some of it is because they have seen so much destruction in marriage, so many divorces, and they don’t want to repeat that. They don’t want to do what their parents did. . . . Whether people move away from the institution of marriage, they’re always going to be in a relationship. And the same dynamic will occur: The romance will wear off and you’ll feel the friction. This is true in gay relationships, older-younger couples, interracial couples. The same dynamics occur. The unconscious does not see race, gender, age, economics. The unconscious is really about trying to get what you didn’t get, but you really needed to get.
Rick Brown conducts couples workshops across the country. He says the workshops help couples “better understand the dynamics of their inevitable power struggles and frustrations, and, more importantly, how they can fix the problems.”
“Getting the Love You Want: Workshop for Couples” is scheduled for Feb. 11-12 in Orlando. Later dates are available too. The cost is $695 per couple. Go to rickbrown.org to register.