Critical sources of conflict in love
Successful romantic relationships require you to resolve: 1) trauma, and 2) conflicting idealized sexual ambitions.
Somewhere in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of human motivations, we find the need for trusting, intimate relationship with other people. As much as we mythologize independence, as human beings, we are hard-wired with a need for human connection.
At different stages of our lives, a tremendous amount of our creative energy will be invested in mate selection and maintenance — and despite that, most of us fail to realize our relationship ideals, which is about the time we decide we’re better off starting all over with someone new.
In Relationship Chemistry, Explained I wrote about why we are attracted to a particular type of person who reminds us of the people who have hurt us in the past. According to Imago Theory (Hendrix Getting the Love You Want, 2019), we are programmed by our evolutionary biology with a compulsion to recreate the circumstances of our trauma from a position of control, in an attempt to resolve the trauma. This fact is both thrilling and precarious, because the people whom we are most attracted to are also those who are best equipped to hurt us.
Because each partner in the relationship is trying to gain control for the purpose of resolving their trauma, the most exciting relationships are often the most fraught with power struggle. The resulting conflict can be devasting to the couple’s relationship, and their productivity.
Nevertheless, conflict can be construtive… where there is trust.
And no one will invest all the energy required of a massive power struggle without love.
So when you find yourself in the throes of a relationship power struggle, the first thing to do is this:
Trust that they do love you.
While love is a multidimensional, complex emotion, and there can be other emotions and motives too, there will be no constructive resolution of conflict without trusting that there is love.
So take love as your point of departure.
Then recognize that couples can be in conflict about all kinds of stuff: money, kids, extended families, friends, and who gets to pick the movies.
None of those are what the fight is really about, because there are really only two important sources of conflict in intersexual relationships, and all others spring from these:
The arguments are not really about her hair, or with whom you’re going to spend the holidays, or what to watch on TV. They are all about establishing control in the relationship.
And there are very good neurological reasons for it.
Realizing that we are hard-wired to seek out partners that will facilitate the replay of our trauma provides the answer to questions like, “Why do I always pick the wrong guy?” or “How did my third wife turn out to be exactly like my first two?
Our need to replay trauma in our romantic relationships is so strong that we will even project the qualities that traumatized us onto our partners.
It was only through extensive self-reflection that I realized many of the characteristics in my wife that drove me crazy for nearly twenty years were either invented in my imagination and or trained into her by my own behavior.
Not all of them, mind you! But I had to admit responsibility for my parts, or I never would have been willing to do the difficult work on myself necessary to make my next relationship (and the one after that) better.
Once we recognize that we both seek out partners that will replicate the very qualities that traumatized us as children, and that we will elicit in these partners those behaviors that traumatized us in the first place, the only thing left to do to resolve our trauma is to gain control and recreate the trauma to effect a new resolution.
Lawrence Cohen (Playful Parenting, Ballantine Books, 2002) gives a wonderful example that illustrates how our brains are wired to seek this resolution from a very young age. He tells the story of a Little Girl who visits the doctor’s office for her vaccinations.
The nurse who administers the shots say, “You’ll feel a little pinch, but it will only hurt a little bit,” but of course the Little Girl is scared, pained, and traumatized by the experience.
When the Little Girl gets home, what does she want to do?
Play with her Dolly, of course.
And what does she want to play?
But the Little Girl doesn’t replay the role of the patient. She always replays the trauma in the role of the nurse. The Little Girl will mimic the nurse’s movements and speech and repeat what she remembers the nurse said. And Dolly will scream and cry and protest in the same way that the Little Girl either did, or wishes that she could have.
Only after the Little Girl has replayed the trauma from a position of control will she be able to detach the memory of the experience from the negative emotion of it. Only then will the trauma be resolved.
It turns out animals and adult humans do this, too. And it is so automatic in our behavior that we are likely unconscious of the fact that we’re doing it the entire time.
So, in many relationships you have two people who have unconsciously selected one another for the opportunity to replay their trauma from a position of control, and because they are unconscious of it and desperate to resolve their own trauma… well, they have difficulty taking turns.
In fact, they descend into interminable, irreconcilable power struggles in an attempt to gain the control of one another necessary to resolve their respective trauma.
Because it is the rare partner who can say, “I’m trying to manipulate you because my Father was emotionally distant and I felt abandoned as a child. Until I find a man who will never commit to me and gain control of his of commitment, I will never resolve my trauma.”
Instead, it’s much more common to hear something like, “You are always watching hockey with your friends! You never pay any attention to me because you don’t really love me!”
The need to gain control to resolve our childhood traumas is an enormous source of conflict in committed relationships.
Men and women are different, and because of their different biology and the differences in the investment that each makes in sexual reproduction, men and women have different idealized sexual strategies. (If you object to this premise, try reading Tim Birkhead’s Promiscuity, Harvard University Press, 2002 and see if the scientific evidence from humans and animals will change your mind).
Men evolved to seek unlimited access to unlimited sexuality. Compared to women, men invest so little in sexual reproduction, that they bear few risks or costs associated with the sex act itself. That’s not to say that men aren’t also evolved to care for their own young. Men may certainly make an emotional investment. I’m only characterizing their physical investment, and in this regard, sex costs men little.
Women, on the other hand, risk death. Compared with men, the physical costs of gestation, childbirth, and breastfeeding are enormous compared to male investments. Moreover, a woman who becomes pregnant not only incurs the risks associated with gestation, birth, and nurturing, but also incurs the opportunity cost of being unable to conceive another child (e.g., with a better man) during all that time required to nurture the current one. Consequently, women have evolved to be choosy about the men with whom they risk reproduction. It’s important for women to be selective, because should they choose poorly, the enormous physical investment may impair their capacity to produce viable offspring and continue their genetic legacy.
None of this should really be controversial, or contradict your own experience, but there’s an additional wrinkle for women. It’s not only being selective about genetic endowment bestowed by the man with whom they have sex, it’s also the follow-on problem of securing the commitment of a man who will defend the child against infanticide and provide the resources (e.g., protein, shelter) necessary to bring the child to an age of independence. That is, pregnancy and breastfeeding are not only costly, they are also debilitating. During the last two trimesters of pregnancy, the need for protein in her diet peaks — at the very time when she will find it most difficult to gather this protein herself.
It’s no wonder that women are attracted to tall, lean men with big muscles, as the ideal male physique signals ability to hunt (provide resources) and fight (provide protection), although physique says nothing about the man’s generosity or commitment.
In short, the ideal sexual strategy for women is to optimize along two criteria: 1) fitness for provisioning and protection (e.g., good genetics), and 2) generosity and commitment. The challenge for women is to maximize these two criteria in a single man. The problem is known as “dual sexual selection strategy”, or “dual mating strategy”.
Because men who embody ideal genetic fitness are rare, and these men are in demand by many women, they are also the men least likely to commit. Thus, finding a man with a superior ability to provide resources and protection, who is also generous with those resources and willing to commit them to his offspring is an incredibly difficult mate selection problem for women. The “solution” for many women in the modern age is polyamory.
In ancient times, male physique was a good indication of a man’s capacity to provide and protect. Strong, fast, able men appeared so to women. However, in modernity, the provisioning aspect of male attractiveness has been decoupled from physique, because protein, shelter, and protection can all be purchased with money. Thus, the new provisioning signal is not bulging biceps so much as an advanced degree in engineering.
Therefore, for many modern women the polyamorous ideal is to obtain superior genetic material from the tall, lean, muscular man with whom she conceives, while finding a different man with a steady income who is willing to commit the resources necessary to raise the child in safety and security.
You can see how the idealized male and female sexual selection strategies are in conflict. For one to realize their sexual ideal, the other must compromise or abandon their own.
As Birkhead says, sexual reproduction did not evolve to be as collaborative between the sexes as we might otherwise think.
The evidence from zoology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology is that sexual reproduction evolved to be a competition between the sexes, not a collaboration.
The conflict in idealized sexual strategies is one of the major sources of conflict in committed romantic relationships. The woman will need constant reassurance that her man is worthy of investing her precious and dwindling ovaries, while the man may resent the fact that he is both limiting his sexual opportunities and expected to prove his worthiness to receive the sexual access to which he has limited himself.
None of this is an argument against monogamy, or to suggest that monogamy is unnatural or less than ideal. I’m a big fan of monogamy. I practiced it while my own marriage was intact, and it seems to me that it’s still the best way to raise children. That means that the challenge is to achieve a compromise between the two ideals.
Nonetheless, the differences between male and female sexual idealizations is a common source of martial conflict.
Which bring us back to the point of departure, which is to trust that the person who has invested all this energy in arguing with you does love you. They’re not out to get you. Their brain is trying to solve a very difficult problem, just like yours is, and they probably aren’t even aware of the problem they’re trying to solve.
The key to your relationship is to realize that conflict can be constructive, when there is trust.
Without trust, conflict is destructive. But with trust, conflict can lead to creative solutions that never would have emerged otherwise.
Once you reframe the conflict behavior, not as a problem, but as a solution to some other problem, you open up a creative problem-solving space that you probably never knew existed before.
Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity (Harper, 2006) encourages exactly this kind of reframing in the case of sexual infidelity. While she acknowledges the pain, grief, guilt, shame, and regret that couples often feel in cases of infidelity, she encourages the couples to discover what problem existed in the relationship, so that one (or both?) of the partners sought out an affair as if it were a solution. Once the problem is identified, real and more creative solutions might be brought to bear that resolve the problem without the extreme negative emotions and the sense of betrayal.
That sort of refraining can’t happen until the couple is willing to trust that they chose one another for good reasons, that they have a mutual opportunity to do some incredible, miraculous healing… and in many cases, they may have nothing left to lose.