We have all had a spirited discussion with our spouse about money, sex, jealousy over time spent outside the marriage, in-laws, child rearing or spirituality/faith.
“Based on research, we have learned that these are six of the most common toxic subjects for couples,” said Beverly Rodgers, marriage and family therapist and co-author of Soul Healing Love. “These topics cause the greatest amount of conflict in a marital relationship. Every couple has at least three, and the average couple has five of these that they argue about or discuss on a regular basis.”
According to Rodgers, there can be other toxic subjects for couples. “Couples know that they are dealing with a toxic subject when it triggers conflict and they can’t find a way to resolve it,” Rodgers said. “They either avoid the topic at all costs or jump in with both feet and later wished they hadn’t.”
These toxic subjects often bring relationships to the breaking point. The reaction to one of these issues usually falls into one of four categories:
Rodgers believes that couples can learn how to keep these toxins from poisoning their marriage by identifying and dealing with the root issue.
“We encourage couples to dig deeper to get to the heart of the matter so they aren’t just coping with the issue, but extinguishing it,” Rodgers said. “We ask couples to answer some basic questions:
“After literally seeing hundreds of couples who were stuck in a marital rut, we recognized that a great deal of what couples are in conflict about goes back to their childhood,” Rodgers said. “We also recognized that guilt, inferiority/inadequacy, fear and trauma/pain are usually emotions underlying the feeling of anger. Identifying these emotions uncovers what is really going on inside when you are angry at your spouse.”
For example, a husband expects his wife to have the house picked up and dinner on the table when he gets home. In spite of her best efforts, with two young children underfoot, it is next to impossible to get everything done. Every evening he walks through the door and gives her a look of disappointment; she feels guilty and inadequate. He on the other hand, feels inferior. Both get defensive and the evening goes downhill from there.
Through the digging deeper exercise, the husband realizes that throughout his childhood his mother did everything for him. The fact that his mother did everything for him was interpreted as a subtle message that he was incompetent or incapable of doing it for himself. This resulted in unrealistic and unfair expectations of his wife. His wife, on the other hand, is the oldest of four. She was expected to keep up with her younger siblings. Whenever she didn’t do things quite right she was criticized, thus creating a feeling in her of inferiority and hurt (trauma). Her husband’s disdainful look echoes that same disappointment that she felt from her parents as a child. Her response is to distance from him and pull away, which is exactly what this relationship does not need. What she really needs is to know that she is loved unconditionally.
“Rather than getting locked into a power struggle over who will cook supper or clean the house, the couple will fare better if they understand the deeper meaning of what is really going on,” Rodgers said. “As couples begin to dig deeper, instead of fighting over often ultimately silly issues, they move away from being locked into a negative perception of each other. The wife, in our example, thought her husband was a control freak and the husband thought she was inefficient and lazy. Through this exercise, they saw each other on a deeper level and realized that there were wounds and needs behind those requests. The deeper understanding gave them motivation to meet each other’s needs rather than locking horns. Now there is empathy and desire, which can grow passion. What once was a lifeless relationship on the brink is now a relationship with new life.”