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Newsletters by Wendy Allen


June 2012

What makes relationships so hard sometimes? What blocks intimacy? We say we want it, we can't live without it and yet all of us, in the blink of an eye, slip into behaviors that ensure we will not get the very thing we want. We shoot ourselves in the foot without noticing. Gangrene sets in.

This can be fixed!

Terry Real calls it “the crunch.” David Schnarch calls it “the quagmire.” These describe the dynamics between mates that happen despite our very best intentions—to connect deeply—in which some part of us acts as a relational saboteur. Terry Real says there are five wrong ways to go in the name of more intimacy, or as he calls it, 5 Losing Strategies.

Needing to be right
• Controlling your partner
• Unbridled self-expression
• Retaliation
• Withdrawal.

Each of these strategies comes from our “First Consciousness,” which can be traced back to the primitive coping mechanisms of our young self that are in place to address fear of the unknown, feeling alone, feeling small, and feeling powerless. Even without a dysfunctional family, this is part of the natural set of issues children have.

Whenever you realize you are acting out one of these childhood stances as an Adult, (which we all do every so often), it isn't attractive or a pretty sight. And, any one of these strategies practically guarantee we will not get what we want.

All humans want to be right. Each partner want to be right. However, this primitive urge can turn into a present and daily battle full of lengthy explanations, rationalizations, justifications, statistics, etc. Needing to be right and also,win scratches a deep, survivalist itch.

The common “fix it” statements include,
1. Choose your battles
2. Battle for the relationship, not for who is right
3. What hill do you want to die on? (Another way to say, #1)
4. Do you want to be married or always be right?
5. Who's right? Who's wrong? Who cares?

This is why I start the initial session with couples asking each partner for their unique perspective about what is going on. Neither partner gets to interrupt when I am taking notes about each, detailed take on reality.


At an extreme, being right moves into the arena of self-righteousness, which becomes indignant. Self-righteous indignation is toxic to each of us individuality as well as to the marriage itself. It's as if we become rigid, frantic, and strong-armed to win. You are not seeking a solution, you are pushing away the very thing you say you want; the survivalist state of being right at the exclusion of mutual respect, honor, and cherishing.

Being right as a losing strategy can look like abuse if it requires the dismissive, diminished, and supplicant stance of your partner.. If you become the scolding, judgmental, and humiliating parent or the derisive, disdainful adolescent, then you are practicing a form of psychological violence. Where can you and your partner go from here? Only spiraling downwards.

People get stuck in this strategy to unconsciously to protect their wounds and anxieties. The Other that they have brought (if I knew how this was done I would win the Nobel Peace Prize) into this unfinished business will behave and react as they have been imprinted over the years The Other will respond in the opposite way. S/he will submit, be non-confrontational, and let the offender have their way (Mother to Son, Father to Daughter). Inside they will resent and secretly begin to hate their partner. This collusion helps the Other avoid the scary possibility of what shift will happen if they are empowered enough to develop a good boundary around how they are t treated and spoken to.


The partner who needs to be right must be able to become aware of what they are feeling underneath and that they have been self- triggered into this toxic stance. .As they become good at this self awareness, they will recognize that states of desperation, depression, anxiety, and discomfort that underlay this behavior.

My work with them initially focuses on what they have to lose if they don't change.

Learning to gather these pieces together and get a centered grip on themselves is the next step. These first two steps are hard to do, require repeated practice, and are always attainable.

Sometimes the only clues are becoming aware that,, 1. they have feelings of aggression and superiority or 2. that the Other partner looks weak and stupid. This is not authentic power.

A person who wants to fix their marriage will concede that this filter is not reality but a result of their desperate projections.


Your first inkling that you have moved into this state may be your partner's healthier response: having the boundary and courage to tell you that you cannot speak to her/him that way and that you must take a breath and apologize. Suddenly this shift in behavior will bring with it an insight and clarity that you have moved into a more moderate place, one that doesn't feel like losing but just feels better. Don't over think it. You have taken a step towards becoming truly empowered.


Wendy Allen, Ph.D, MFT is an expert in couples and marriage therapy. She has been practicing in Santa Barbara for almost 30 years. She is the only Marriage therapist in the tri-counties using the Real Relational Living model, from which all of these ideas are based upon.