Couple Fit

Learning from Sarah and Abraham

‘Couple fit’ is an intriguing term. It’s used in the couple therapy world to describe two people coming together like two pieces of a jigsaw to make a particular unconscious fit. Psychologically this is related to each individual’s unconscious story that has developed from their family of origin. Like an inverted mirror image, each individual in the couple reflects back something familiar to the other person.

The log and the speck

Each individual is drawn to their spouse because they complete the other part of their unconscious story. It’s their partner who can bring this to story life by acting out the dynamics in the relationship.  Our ‘couple fit’ helps us to work through issues that arise from our family of origin, mourn losses, reclaim disowned feelings and gain a more complete sense of ourself as a result. When we’re talking about ‘couple fit’, we’re also thinking about the world of projection. This is also something that is referred to in the Bible. How can you say, “Friend, let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye?” …’ (Luke 6:26).

Giving your spouse a ‘double dose’

As part of the ‘couple fit’ we may unconsciously ask our partner to hold some of the difficult emotions that we experience. In this way, one partner is given a ‘double dose’ of that emotion. Whether that is anger, sadness, anxiety, or some other emotion that is difficult due to our experiences of growing up in our family of origin. It’s called a ‘double dose’ as one partner has their own normal level of anger, sadness, shame, or hopelessness, but we project our own portion of that feeling onto them as well. So they are given a ‘double dose’. You can see this clearly sometimes in relationships when a couple seems as different as chalk and cheese. One person seemingly has all of the emotion like anger, whilst the other person seemingly has very little or none.

The perfect hook

There’s an example that helps to illustrate the issue of projection in couple relationships. Let’s imagine that both individuals in the relationship are walking around with hot, heavy overcoats. This overcoat is making them feel uncomfortable, so they are wanting to find a hook where they can hang it up and get rid of it. In other words, they’re unconsciously searching for a hook where they can hang up and get rid of their uncomfortable emotions.

Each individual is looking for a partner who has the perfect hook for their difficult feelings. For example, one person in the marriage may find anger a very difficult emotion. Perhaps because it wasn’t expressed or talked about in their family of origin. Conversely, anger may have been a very present, feared emotion, expressed frequently by an alcoholic or abusive parent. As a result, there may be a desire to disown their own anger, so it’s projected onto their partner as a way of dealing with it. Or metaphorically, a way of getting rid of their hot, heavy overcoat.

The ‘double dose’ fall-out

There will be some hook residing within a partner, an emotional hot spot, wound or trigger which means that they’re able to absorb the anger and express it on the other’s behalf. An individual may be able to project feelings of anger into their spouse through a range of passive means. For example, by repeatedly not listening; through a withholding of some form; not following through with requests; or silently changing their mind without communicating this to their partner. When these types of situations repeat, the frustration levels build up and the partner ends up expressing this anger directly by voicing their frustrations. They may even explode in annoyance. The partner’s reaction is so strong because they have been given a ‘double dose’. They are expressing their own anger at being ignored or their wishes being forgotten about as well as expressing their partner’s disowned anger.

Marital strain for Abraham and Sarah

If we turn to the Bible, to Sarah and Abraham’s struggle with infertility may help to demonstrate this dynamic further. In this scenario Abraham seems passive and we don’t get a strong sense of his emotional reactions like we do with Sarah. He withdraws and doesn’t seem very present in the decision making with Sarah when she encourages him to sleep with her maid Hagar in order to conceive a child. He seems to wash his hands of the situation when Hagar becomes pregnant and treats Sarah scornfully. ‘Abram [Abraham] replied, “Look, she is your servant, so deal with her as you see fit.”’ (Genesis 16:6).

Overloaded with emotions

There seems to be no recording of Abraham’s emotional response to these events. But we hear Sarah’s anger leading up to this when she says to Abraham: “This is all your fault!” (Genesis 16:5), in the heat of being subjected to Hagar’s contempt. Then we get a fuller understanding of Sarah’s outpouring of anger when we read: Then Sarai [Sarah] treated Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away.’ (Genesis 16:6). It’s possible that Sarah was holding all the difficult, ugly emotions for them both as a couple.

The ‘Hag and the Hero’

This is reminiscent of the polarised dynamic of ‘The Hag and the Hero’'[1] that we sometimes see in couples. With the distant, absent husband, who seems kind and strong, but only pays lip service to the requests made of him by his wife and doesn’t really follow through or provide anything of real substance. A false hero perhaps. But it’s the wife who is let down, abandoned, who may rage and express the distress. Her emotional disposition, seems ugly, like a hag. Alternatively, the husband may make heroic efforts in the world of work, but he doesn’t put the same amount of effort into his relational world and family life. Perhaps this was the case for Abraham, who may have viewed Sarah’s distress as part of a domestic problem that he didn’t want to get involved with.

Reclaiming disowned feelings

One of the good things about being married is that we live in close emotional quarters with one another. This means that as these types of situations repeat, we have the opportunity to recognise these projections, own our own sense of anger or whatever the emotion is and to make the conscious effort to stop projecting it onto our spouse. We can humble ourselves as we come to realisation there is just a speck in our partner’s eye and we have a whole log’s worth.

Healing and help

When we come through this process there is space for healing to take place. We have the opportunity to process the emotions from our family of origin that have been stirred up through the coming together as a married couple and our unique ‘couple fit’. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what emotions we may be responsible for. Help us God to have an open, humble heart and to understand the emotional world of our marriage better.

[1] Young-Eisendrath, P. (1984). Hags and Heroes: A Feminist Approach to Jungian Psychotherapy with Couples. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Read More

Read the previous article: Draw Me Close to You

Read the next article: Couple Fit & Having Children

Read about about the book: In Bed with Adam and Eve – Your Guide to a Healthy Marriage

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