The Four Big Problems in Every Marriage

Think it's just about the two of you? Guess again.

The news shook the world: Brad and Angelina were splitting up! Turns out they were human just like the rest of us. Who knows what truly drove a wedge between them? When it comes to common problems in marriages, most couples and therapists are likely to point to money and sexual issues.

However, is it possible that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie succumbed to what one couples therapist said are the four biggest problems in every marriage? Can you guess what those might be?

Related: Can Brad and Angie Pivot to the Kids?

You know them well — very well. They are your respective set of parents.

That doesn’t mean your current adult relationship with your parents, although that can be an additional obstacle. It means the behavior of your parents in their own marriage when you were children, and how they related to each of you, respectively, when you were little.

Even if your parents were loving and kind and brought you up in the best possible way, the psychological, emotional, and physical interactions they had with each of you as children may end up working against the marriage. It is likely each set of parents brought up each one of you in very different ways … and those patterns of loving and parenting are deeply ingrained within us.

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Have you ever said something that seemed innocuous, or commented about something that seems rather small, only to have your spouse snap at you in anger? It’s what this marital counselor called “an old tape.” You may have inadvertently repeated the same line, phrasing, or tone that your spouse’s parent delivered to them when they were a child, which hurt them.

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They carry the memory of that hurtful moment with them in their unconscious. You have unintentionally touched that wound, and it triggers a strong response — one which seems out of proportion to the issue at hand.

We each carry many of these landmines, and the worst part is they are unconscious — hidden in the dirt, just like mines are. Those were planted by our parents, and sometimes planted innocently. For example, some “helicopter parents” so tremendously overprotect their child that they are prevented from wholly individuating. They are treated as children even into adulthood. Thus, if you do something that is intended as kind and helpful — such as offering to carry a heavy object — your spouse may snap back and say, “I can do it myself!”

Was the parent present for milestones? For that baseball game? For the first fitting of ballet shoes?

Another example is rooted in what is called Attachment Theory, developed in the 1960s by psychologist John Bowlby and later by Mary Ainsworth; it reaches as far back as to when we were infants. Those who had a strong and healthy attachment to parents grow up with feelings of security and a strong foundation. Those without such an attachment — such as in the case of abusive or narcissistic parents — can become fearful of closeness and emotional vulnerability, since they were not provided it in their developmental years. For example, if one parent is an alcoholic and the other turns a blind eye to it, the child will be left devoid of strong attachments.

Put two of the children of these kinds of parenting history into a relationship, or even just one, and problems may dog the relationship. One spouse may constantly desire and seek this closeness and in doing so may trigger a response in the other to pull away.

Most marital therapists believe every person has one of two primary relationship fears: fear of abandonment or fear of envelopment (smothering). Parents don’t have to literally abandon a family for the fear of abandonment to develop. It’s about the parent being there at the times the child needed them the most. Was the parent present for milestones? For that baseball game? For the first fitting of ballet shoes? At a time of a traumatic event?

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If the child feels, in the gestalt, that one or both parents (usually the one of the opposite gender) wasn’t there, then one spouse may experience anxiety when the other spouse exhibits similar behavior. That person may be the best spouse in the world, but if he or she isn’t there for even one critical moment, the other spouse may experience a deep wound depending on how troubling the abandonment issues are.

Conversely, the fear of envelopment can occur when one’s spouse penetrates certain boundaries too much or too often. Again, it may not even be unreasonable attention the spouse is giving, or even “clingy” behavior. A spouse who is an “avoidant” personality in terms of attachment theory — who did not have that strong parent attachment as a child — will be more likely to feel smothered by his spouse.

Related: Moms Who Have Gone Bad

Relationships can be challenging enough when it’s just two people in a room. Add in four invisible partners and it can become a real problem. The key is to learn self-awareness. Think about the qualities of your partner that reflect one or both of your parents — both in the things you like, and the things you don’t. You can’t always see these landmines or old tapes. So when they strike, and you calm down, reflect on what triggered your emotions. Chances are it rests with your parents.

Then, try to forgive them. That’s ultimately where you want to end up.

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