Mark was a pleaser. He tripped all over himself trying to present himself as a nice guy. His life was dedicated to smiling, being positive, and trying to keep his wife Fay happy. Fay was a pistol. She had a fiery temper and she didn’t believe in repressing her emotions, particularly her anger. On more than one occasion she had let Mark (and others) know that “I don’t believe in stuffing my feelings”. The rest of the sentence, often unspoken, was “like my mother did”.

Fay’s mother died of ovarian cancer before she was fifty and Fay was convinced that her illness was caused by silently suffering at the hands of her husband who relentlessly abused her physically and emotionally. Fay’s mother was passive and outwardly tolerated her husband’s abuse and disrespect, but she shared her inner feelings of pain and anger with Fay who promised herself, even as a small child, that no man was ever going to mistreat her.

Fay sensed from the beginning of their relationship that Mark was distinctly different from her father and she knew that he would not treat her disrespectfully. And she was right. Yet despite Mark’s efforts to accommodate Fay, she managed to find things about him that displeased her, things which she never failed to remind him of. Repeatedly.

“I don’t know what the problem is”, Mark told me. “No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, it seems that my efforts are never good enough. Fay always finds something about what I’m doing or saying that isn’t okay or acceptable to her. My best efforts never seem to be good enough. I generally just try to accept her criticism because when I argue with her, she gets inflamed with rage and I’m afraid that I’m no match for her. I don’t seem to have the stamina or the will to stand toe to toe with her. It seems like it’s either that or withdrawing. When I’ve tried to stand up to her, she just grinds me down. So it seems to make more sense just to withdraw from the battle, but this just seems to enrage her even more. I’m at a loss over what to do”.

Not surprisingly, Mark’s withdrawal didn’t go well with Fay and she didn’t hesitate to let him know it, in no uncertain terms. These two were in a vicious cycle that was seriously jeopardizing their chances of making it as a couple. Although Mark wasn’t outwardly expressive of his feelings, repressed emotions have a way of leaking out and exposing themselves in the form of broken promises, sarcasm, “forgotten” agreements, unsolicited criticism, and other forms of passive-aggressive behavior.

Unacknowledged resentments and fears (of which Mark had accumulated many) are likely to be expressed regardless of the person’s unwillingness to speak them. If they don’t come out directly they will come out indirectly as they did with Mark and Fay. The result of these “leaks” was that Fay’s feelings of frustration and anger were amplified which drove Mark further into his corner and fueled his indirect reactivity…. ad infinitum.

Neither Mark nor Fay comprehended the enormous toll that this pattern was taking on their relationship and their peace of mind. It wasn’t until things got so painful that they both became concerned that their marriage was in danger of dissolving that they got some help from a counselor who helped them both to see the systemic nature of their vicious cycle, and recognized that neither of them were wholly at fault, but they were both responsible. They saw that they had co-created a system that demonized the other, and in so doing, had absolved themselves of any responsibility for their part in the problem.

It’s easy to underestimate the degree to which most of us resist accepting responsibility (which we mistakenly confuse with blame which we associate with punishment), as well as our willingness to go to great lengths to avoid being faulted for relationship problems, sometimes, even if our efforts to prove our partner wrong ultimately bring about the demise of the relationship.

As Fay and Mark each became more able to accept the fear that drove their defensive and reactive behavior, their impulse towards aggression (passive or active) gradually diminished, and they became more vulnerable with each other. This diminished their need for defensiveness, which broke the vicious cycle they were caught in and enabled them to bring the trust, openness, and receptivity into their marriage that it was desperately in need of.

In our practice, we see many versions of angry women and frightened men. It seems to be a sign of our times that large numbers of couples are struggling with the issues of power in unskillful ways. The old scripts have been tossed out, and the gender roles are in transition. The male privilege is no longer as strong as it had been with previous generations. And many men don’t know how to be powerful without the extra clout that they used to receive from the culture. When men attempt to placate or pacify women, their efforts are often met with anger and disappointment because their partner may feel patronized or frustrated since they sense unwillingness on their partner’s part to fully and honestly engage in the dialogue. As a consequence they may lose respect for their partner since he or she is not bringing their full presence into the relationship.

When women emulate culturally accepted forms of masculine power, they activate the fear of being controlled that many men (and women) have and reinforce the tendency to activate the fight or flight pattern in the relationship.

As both partners become more willing to replace their defensive patterns with honesty, vulnerability, understanding and trust, the perception of the need for protection diminishes and authentic connection begins to replace manipulative strategies for control. This does not occur overnight but with practice, right intention, and effective support, even the most damaged of partnerships can be transformed into a loving, trusting, and mutually respecting relationship. Yes, it does take work, and yes, it does take time, and yes, it is do-able, and so worth the effort!