I think my boyfriend and I argue more than most couples I know. When we look back at the fight we both realize we were fighting about mostly nothing. When we are not fighting we have a fantastic time together and love each other deeply. Neither of us can figure out how to avoid these fights. It's true that both of us had pretty rocky childhoods, but we haven't talked much about it. Could that be a factor?
Signed, Fighting in Fairfield
Dear Fighting in Fairfield,
Sometimes love gets very crowded.
For most couples, there are more than two people in the relationship. There's you and your boyfriend, but there are also your parents and his parents. And perhaps even a few grandparents. Even if your parents are deceased or living 1,000 miles away, they are in the house with you. It's creepy.
For example, here's what it looks like for Peter and Mateo, a couple I worked with (I've changed their names): Peter's mother always told him he was ugly and stupid even though he was super cute and smart. Mateo's mother was explosive and yelled about the smallest things that had nothing to do with Mateo. So today, 35 years later, Peter is sensitive when he smells even a tiny hint of criticism from Mateo. And Mateo shuts down and broods in his garage workshop when Peter gets a just a little angry about the broken internet connection.
But in healthy relationships, it is important to understand that sometimes that cranky behavior you experience from your partner is not about you. It's about Mom. Or Dad. Loving adult relationships bring that out in us -- for all of us.
So How Does This Information Help You in the Real World?
You are not a saint. No one expects you to be happy when your partner is moody or distant. Typically we get angry about it because we think we are being blamed for doing something wrong. And no one likes criticism in relationships. No one.
However, with great communication or great couples counseling, we can start to learn more about our own and our partner's parental triggers. With practice, we can even name it while it's happening.
We can start to say things like "My mother, Karen, is in the room right now." That can be code for "I'm acting irrationally at this moment because this feels just like the worst days of growing up with mom's screaming and tirades."
If your boyfriend said that, you would be relieved. You'd realize that he's taking responsibility for his annoying behavior rather than blaming you. You still wouldn't like the behavior, but you'd feel less defensive. You would be less likely to strike back and get a fight going, and you might even feel a little compassion for that little gay boy inside your partner who had to put up with so much drama in his family.
We've all got hurts from our childhood. Little ones and big ones. Hiding them from ourselves or our partners only makes relationships more irritating and stressful. Life gets better when we starting coming out of the closet about our old hurts. A good place to come out is with our partner. These conversations, once you learn to have them, can be oddly romantic, intimate, and rewarding.
ADAM D. BLUM, MFT,is a licensed psychotherapist and the founder of the Gay Therapy Center, which specializes in relationship and self-esteem issues for LGBTQ people. The center offers services in its San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles offices, or by Skype and phone worldwide. Visit its website to subscribe to its e-newsletter and free e-class on building a better relationship with yourself. Follow the center on Facebook and read its blog. Email Adam your questions for possible publication. (Questions may be edited.)