Why Fixing Problems In Your Relationship Won’t Work

by Dana Boyle on April 24, 2012

…unless you both realize why the problems exist and become conscious about creating your relationship going forward.

I’m reading Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want:  A Guide For Couples.  I’m not all the way through it yet, but I have read the foundational theory of his work and had my eyes opened wide about why we all have problems in our relationships.


A lizard close up

By TristantObOss

Every problem we have in our relationships, with rare exception, comes down to the part of our brains that is wired for survival…I call it our reptilian brain – the part of the brain that fights or flees when faced with a threat, the part of the brain that makes your heart beat and keeps you breathing when you fall asleep.

The premise of Hendrix’ work is that we choose our spouse because they match a set of characteristics that our subconscious brain has memorized and stored about our childhood caregivers, AND they possess qualities that we have been socialized by our caregivers to deny in ourselves.  (If your mother taught you that boys don’t cry, you might seek out expressive women who will emote for you.  If your dad taught you that girls should look pretty and be nice, and smarts in women don’t matter, you might marry an intellectual man who can make up for your inability to express your cerebral side.)

During the dating phase, when we first meet and while we’re courting, there is research to support the assertion that we are literally on drugs…our brains are producing four of five chemicals that they don’t usually produce in such high amounts, and we literally see the beauty in things we never noticed before.  While scientists can’t yet explain why this happens when we find that match we’re talking about, they can substantiate the chemicals in our brains when we fall in love.  This is why we only see the good qualities in our spouses when we’re first dating.

As Hendrix’ theory goes, about the time that we commit to our partners, whether that is marriage or moving in together, or having a child together, those chemicals in our brains begin to diminish.  This is because we suddenly flip a switch when we commit.  Before commitment, we are subconsciously trying to get our partner to commit to us, to stick around, to meet our needs and make us whole again, like when we were born.  But as soon as they commit to us, we subconsciously change our motives.  Now that they have committed, their purpose is exactly the same as our childhood caretakers’ purpose – we want them to intuit all of our needs and meet them.  We no longer woo them and do nice things for them, because we are waiting for the “pay off” for all our efforts, which is that they will now complete us, make us whole and take care of our every need.  (Again, this is all subconscious.  If anyone acted like this on purpose, we’d call them a sociopath or at least a narcissist.)

This is why either abruptly or gradually, at the stage where commitment takes place in your relationship, you begin to see the negative qualities of your partner.  Suddenly, they possess all the negative traits of your mom or dad, or step-dad.  Even if they only possess a few of those negative traits, because our subconscious goal is to heal our childhood wounds, we will project any missing qualities onto our mate to produce the desired scenario in an attempt to relive those wounding moments, subconsciously believing that our mate will do it right this time, in a way that our parents could not.  We believe they will love us more than our parents did.

What’s more, is that suddenly they will also possess those shadow parts that we have denied in ourselves, because they always did possess them, but now the dynamic of the relationship – us trying to get our needs met just like a baby does – by “crying” (anger/temper tantrums/pouting) will bring out the traits we hate in ourselves – the ones our parents told us were bad (like showing real anger, being selfish, blaming others, acting like a victim, or whatever it may be).  Again, we chose them because they had all the qualities we feel we are missing, plus the positives and negatives of our parents – which helps them make us whole, we think.  And we do all of this in just a few minutes on dates, by observing things like how fast they talk, how quickly they answer our questions, their tone of voice, dominant facial expressions, posture, etc.  It’s not conscious or calculated, but our reptilian brain is very good at it.

And remember, your mate did the same thing choosing you – so you are now possessing the negative traits of their parents and showing them the ugliest parts of themselves that they were taught are too ugly to come out and meet the world.

When we find ourselves in this power struggle stage of our relationship, a place where 50% bow out (get a divorce, leave), and many of those who stay and can’t get past this stage just live parallel lives, we think we have to solve the problems that cause our fights.

Most couples have the same general fight over and over.  What’s underneath the fight isn’t what we think it is.  It isn’t even what we think is behind it.

What is behind our fights and the scenario that we keep playing over and over in our marriage is two wounded children who want their partners to heal the wounds that were caused in their upbringing and help them be whole again.

And let me be clear…we are all wounded, some worse than others.  No matter how well-intentioned or wonderful your parents were at raising you, they inadvertently caused you wounds. Even if you had a rosy, noodle salad upbringing, you’re wounded in some ways.

Can you see why marital counseling or coaching that aims to simply resolve an issue that you’re having or negotiate a solution for you won’t work?

Nothing is going to work until you can engage your new brain, the evolved part of your brain that is logical and loving, knowing what your reptilian brain is trying to do.

You can’t begin to do that until you understand what’s happening in your reptilian brain and your spouse’s, understand why you chose them at a subconscious level, and realize that it’s not personal either way.  The two of you really can help each other feel less wounded and fill in the gaps by first understanding what’s actually going on.

I’m sure I’ll have much more on this as I continue to learn the techniques in Hendrix’ book.  For now, this is a lot to wrap our heads around.


{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Mindy Crary April 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I don’t mind saying, this little dance you have described scares me to death! I am just getting to dipping my toe in the dating pool after a long period of being out, for some of the very reasons you mention here. I MUST read this book, thank you!


Dana Boyle April 24, 2012 at 2:52 pm


Don’t let it scare you to death, though acknowledging the fear is the first step. :) Know that we all experience this in our intimate relationships, and the great thing about this work is that you can create a mature relationship knowing that this dance is natural, and learning how to do it masterfully.

Be sure to include on your “list” when you’re dating, that you want someone who is open to creating a mature relationship and doing the work with you that it requires. ;)

Thank you for visiting and commenting! Happy reading!


Katie McClain April 24, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Oh, I could see all the traits in my husband and myself as I was reading this Dana! Thank goodness both of us understood some of what was happening in our minds. We met at a transformational seminar! Thanks for helping me to understand it at a deeper level. :)


Dana Boyle April 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for visiting, Katie! :) That’s so cool that you met at a seminar like that. I’m glad you both understood as a couple on some level and that my post helped you to get it on a deeper level. xo


An April 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Oooh, you met at a transformational seminar! That’s so cool!


Blaze April 24, 2012 at 5:38 pm

A dear therapist friend has this great line, I love to quote…”If someone tells you it’s love at first sight…..RUN, because they’re telling the truth.”

I hope you’ll continue to share your unique insights on Harville Hendrix’s work; I love this book too, it holds a place of honor on my bookshelf.


Dana Boyle April 24, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Thank you, Blaze! That’s hysterical. :) My husband and I were love before first sight…but we were also engaged in it with our brains and logic, so we both said, ok, we feel this love at first sight thing, but let’s explore and make sure it’s going to work for us. You have to listen to intuition, and also test waters. Love at first sight is certainly no reason to toss your mind out the window…for sure!


Sally April 25, 2012 at 6:27 pm

This is my all-time favorite book on relationships. It completely changed how I view intimate relationships, and what I find “attractive” and why. The Imago theories are fascinating, and now back in the dating world, they’re something I really try to make a little more conscious.


Dana Boyle April 25, 2012 at 8:12 pm

I think it’s going to be my all time favorite, too, Sally! I am married, but I very consciously dated, and I still made some subconscious choices and had that instant knowing about my husband that comes from the imago match theory.

So interesting, isn’t it? Are you dating now?


Debra Smouse April 26, 2012 at 7:40 am

Oh, Dana! I love the work of Harville Hendrix! This book, along with his workbook for couples, has been instrumental in making my current relationship one that reflects a vision as a couple, instead of what I want VS what he wants.

I HIGHLY recommend investing in “The Couplehood Program” he offers for any couple, no matter what stage they are at in their relationship. It takes the concepts in Getting the Love You Want (and also Keeping the Love You Find) and puts it in step-by-step terms for either Do It Yourself or with a facilitator.


Dana Boyle April 27, 2012 at 8:43 am

That sounds fantastic, Deb! My husband isn’t so into relationship books and seminars, but maybe I can twist his arm at some point. ;) Thanks for your input! Congrats on the beautiful relationship you’ve created!


An April 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Now this is so intriguing. I’m not really into the ‘two people choosing each other to heal each other’s wounds and make each other whole again’ concept, but I’m really fascinated by how we are attracted to what we need most in life (even without being consciously aware of it). For me, for example, playfulness is really something I was/am attracted to in other people. And something that I need(ed) to bring so much more in my life. Fascinating.


Dana Boyle April 27, 2012 at 8:42 am


Yes, it’s not a conscious choice…I get the “icky” factor around this, but we all do it without choosing to do it. It’s automatic. So we can all say how refined we are…and when I chose my husband I had done A LOT of work to choose consciously, but I still chose someone who is my imago mate.

It is truly fascinating. Thanks for visiting!



Lin E April 26, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Great post Dana… and I love Hendrix’ book! ;)


Dana Boyle April 27, 2012 at 8:40 am

Thank you, Lin! I’m really loving it too, as you can see. Can’t wait to finish it up!


Joanna Weston April 27, 2012 at 2:40 pm

I had never heard of Harville Hendrix before today, but he sounds interesting. I’m not sure that I can entirely get behind the the idea that we choose mates based on childhood wounds, but I am certainly willing to take a closer look at it! If so many of you swear by him, then there must be something to it. So thanks for the recommendation!


Dana Boyle April 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm


It’s an interesting phenomenon, and I can’t stress enough that it’s subconscious. We don’t “choose” our mates this way knowing that we do. We choose them this way without realizing it.

While some people have expressed an ick factor around this theory, to me, it’s exciting and opens a world of possibility because if the two people involved in the relationship can understand this concept, love can become a safe and nurturing place for both people.

Thanks for the visit and your insight!



Joanna Weston May 4, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Oh yes! I didn’t mean to imply that I disagreed with the entire idea — I just have a lot of resistance to the idea that it is the “only” explanation for our choices, as I have heard some people (not you!) claim.


Dana Boyle May 4, 2012 at 3:05 pm

As I heard Abraham say today, in a totally different perspective, “Nothing is subconscious…it’s what you’re fearing, focusing on and thinking all the time…it’s how you feel that you are attracting.”

I agree with you that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket, but when you’re trying to sell a book or be a “guru” on something as Dr. Hendrix or any other expert might be, they often do.


Yvette April 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Very insightful post! I’m not familiar with Harville Hendrix’s, actually never heard of him until now. But there were a couple of things that you mentioned that has peeked my curiosity. Something to look further into. Thanks for this post!


Dana Boyle April 28, 2012 at 11:16 am

Thank you for stopping by! I’m glad I’ve piqued your curiosity and interest. Check it out and let me know what you think about his book when you’ve read some of it.


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