If you're married, you've probably had a spirited discussion or two with your spouse. Chances are, it's been 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,” says 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.”
“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 asserts. “They either avoid the topic at all costs or jump in with both feet and later wished they hadn’t.”
Toxic subjects often bring relationships to the breaking point. The reaction to one of these issues usually falls into one of four categories:
Take heart, though. Rodgers believes that you can learn how to keep these toxins from poisoning your 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 shares. “We ask couples to answer some basic questions."
What does my mate do that triggers my anger?
When my mate does _____, I feel ________.
What is the root of my anger? Guilt, Inferiority/Inadequacy, Fear or Trauma/Pain?
When have I ever felt this before?
When I feel this feeling, what do I do? How do I behave?
What do I really need?
“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 continues. “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.”
Take this couple for instance. A husband expects his wife to have the house clean and dinner on the table when he gets home. Despite her best efforts, it is next to impossible to get everything done with two young children underfoot. Every evening he walks through the door and gives her a look of disappointment. She feels guilty and inadequate. On the other hand, he 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. He interpreted that as a subtle message that he was incompetent or incapable of doing things for himself. This resulted in unrealistic and unfair expectations of his wife.
His wife, on the other hand, is the oldest of four. She kept up with her younger siblings, and her parents criticized her whenever she didn’t do things quite right. This made her feel inferior and hurt (trauma). Her husband’s disdainful look echoes the disappointment she felt from her parents as a child. In response, she distances herself from him and pulls away, which is exactly what this relationship does not need. She really needs to know that her husband loves her unconditionally.
“Rather than getting locked into a power struggle over cooking supper or cleaning the house, the couple will fare better if they understand the deeper meaning of what is really going on,” Rodgers says. “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.
"In our example, the wife thought her husband was a control freak. 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.”