Conflicts in Relationships

“How can you be so heartless and cold?” Sandra asks with anger in her voice, “Why don’t you have any sympathy for my brother? You are so cruel!”

Kyle is looking at his wife and is wondering how they ended up in this escalated conflict, one of many fights about her brother. He is silently reminding himself that she has simply been taken over by not just an angry but also a judgmental protector right now. And underneath those protectors are feelings of fear and responsibility for a younger sibling who has always relied on Sandra. She feels helpless, guilty and frustrated.

She continues defiantly, “I will not turn him away if he needs my help! I am giving him the money, no matter what you think! You always support your ex-wife when she needs extra money, supposedly for the kids…”

Now Kyle can feel how his own protector is coming up. There is a part of him that just wants to reply sharply, “No you will not. I am the main provider in this family and I make our financial decisions.” But thankfully, he still has enough awareness that his controlling protector is gearing up for a fight in response to Sandra’s anger. He remembers to use their code word, ”Fire.”

The protectors are like Firefighters. They don’t care about the damage they cause; they only care about “putting out the fire”. In our inner world, that “fire” equates to our vulnerability and our emotional pain. That code-word “fire” for Kyle and Sandra means, “Stop. Let’s take a break right now to calm ourselves.” When we are triggered by our partner we need a time out of at least 20-30 minutes. During that time, we need to allow our sympathetic nervous system to calm down again. The time out is probably one of the most important agreements to make when couples struggle with escalating conflicts.

When our partner shows up in one of their protectors, rather than connecting from a more loving, calm or even vulnerable place, we often wonder what we are doing with this awful person. We might think, “How could I not see from the start how horrible he/she is?” While we are in this emotionally activated state, we perceive the situation and especially each other as a threat. We are unable to see clearly, problem solve or make rational decisions. Any conversation that we continue in this state can only become more destructive.

Terrence Real mentions in his book “The New Rules of Marriage” that we all have two competing images of our partner. We have one image of them at their best and one of them at their worst. You could perhaps say that when we hold the first image we see them for who they really are at a core level, or for who they are capable of being. That positive image might be identical with what we fell in love with when we first met. When our partner is being taken over by one of their protectors, we can hold that positive image as a beacon to remind us that he or she is more than this angry, controlling, judgmental, negative, complaining, or defensive person across from us.

In some cases, this core positive image can of course be problematic as well. If one person is holding the potential of who their partner can be so insistently that they ignore detrimental aspects of the relationship instead of acknowledging them, the image is creating an issue.

However, in most cases we need and want to cultivate the positive image to get through tough times. We can cultivate this picture by focusing on everything we love and like about our partner. A practice of appreciation of each other allows us to keep this image alive.

According to Terry Real, we also harbour a “core negative image” of our partner. That’s the combination of all the things they do that trigger us into judgements and challenge us in our relationship. It includes all the pain we have experienced with or through this partner. When we are emotionally activated, we are unable to see anything but the negative. We are seeing the other person through the glasses of the fight and flight response. Or Terry Real would say through “fight, flight or fix”. By that he means, we want to fight back, or stone wall/retreat/run away in some way, or quickly fix the tension in the room without addressing the problems and individual needs. Backing away from the issue just to fix the disharmony won’t help us. It breads resentment.

“The difference between real acceptance and just backing away from an issue, or away from the whole relationship, is resentment.”

Terrence Real, “How Can I Get Through to You?”

Why do we want to fight, run or fix? The reason is instinctual. We don’t see the other person accurately when we have been taken over by our protectors. In that moment in time, we also often assume that our partner has the worst intentions instead of being able to consider that they might have good intentions or reasons underneath their behaviour which seems so outrageous to us.

This goes both ways. Just as you might be triggered into seeing your partner from the core negative image when your vulnerabilities are triggered, your partner also experiences you from their perspective of the negative core image. What we really are seeing are our protective parts responding to what the other person activates deep inside of us, or in other words, what that person reflects back to us.


Take a moment to ask yourself what characteristics trigger you in your partner, and write them down. Because the people close to us always mirror to us what we have disowned, you will create a list of traits that will mostly be excellent shadow traits to work with in your next session with your relationship coach.

Now write down what you think your partner gets triggered by in you. What does his or her negative core image of you probably look like?

The work in individual sessions or in couple sessions is to understand our protectors—and those that our partner tends to go into—and to learn to speak “for” them rather than “from” them. It is also our responsibility as an individual to notice and work on the triggers or shadows that the relationship with our partner activates for us.

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Beyond the Labels of Right and Wrong

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

– Rumi

This frequently quoted poem brings up an interesting question: Can we ever truly know the motivations others had when they did something or didn’t do something? Can we ever claim they are wrong and we are right?

We are always so quick to judge others, or to insist that we are the victim in a given situation. And if we aren’t the ones telling the victim story ourselves, you can count on family or friends to do it for us.

When two people split up it seems family and friends feel the need to make one partner wrong and the other partner the victim. Instead of allowing the couple to find a new equilibrium, to build a new relationship of loving co-parenting and being friends, many people feel the need to take sides and to fuel the feelings of resentment and hurt which are natural in the situation.

Why is that? Changes like a marriage or long-term relationship ending brings up everybody’s shadows. It brings up fear in us. We were raised to believe a relationship should stay the same until death do us part.

Life however, is fluid. The only thing to count on is that everything changes all the time. That is not a bad thing at all. Change brings new opportunities for happiness and growth. A marriage can change into a friendship between two parents supporting each other.

Changes are also scary. Even if we are unhappy, we might choose to stay in a situation because it is at least familiar. Or because we do not really believe we deserve to be happy. For some of us, the end of a relationship brings up the thought that deep-down, we wish we had the courage to make changes.

Often times, when we judge someone, we know intuitively that we are just human as well. Remember Grant from my blog on April 26, 2013 “Who do you judge? – The Story of the Immoral Girlfriend”? Last fall, Grant—whose name I changed for the blog—left his wife of 25 years for another woman. He did exactly what he had judged so harshly in somebody else a few years prior. He fell in love with somebody else. Deep-down, he knew all along that this could happen to him as well.

You should never throw stones when you live in a glass house. We ALL live in a glass house. We are all human and every energy that exists in the Universe also exists in us. We can never say we would not do something. We can only live with as much integrity as possible at a given moment in time and trust others to do the same.

We don’t know how much a person has struggled with a decision and how they have acted when we weren’t there. Whenever one person feels hurt, the stories of blame fly. Often, they are nothing but stories. Our left brain likes to fill in the gaps between the facts that we see with an interpretation. Our left brain is a great story-teller, as the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor has pointed out in her book “My Stroke of Insight”. We can interpret what appears in so many different ways. In general, we like to find proof for our story. Sadly, in some cases, it’s the victim story that we are hanging on for dear life to.

The more we insist on our story of right and wrong and the more we are triggered by somebody else, the clearer it is that the person is mirroring something inside of us. What are they mirroring for us that we are afraid to look at ourselves? As the bystander, is our indignation and condemnation coming from the fear that this could also happen to us?

Once we have healed our wounds, we realize that the other person did not use us, or reject us, but that it was simply time for a change. We have the choice to be stuck in unfounded judgment and hatred, or move beyond it to a new beginning. We can either rebuild a relationship for the sake of the children, or we can poison ourselves and the children with anger and resentment.

The first concept to let go of is the victim story and the idea of blame. There are always two people in a relationship. Is it really necessary to blame either one of them? Usually both have contributed to the end of the relationship in some form. We can endlessly get stuck in “you did this to me”. However, how much less suffering would the children go through if we could strive to move beyond the labels of right and wrong as soon as possible?

And as family and friends, the greatest gift we can give that couple is to support them to establish a new relationship of cooperation and communication.

Are you ready to give someone in your life the benefit of the doubt and move beyond right and wrong?



How Children Carry Our Disowned Shadow Parts

Children are wonderful mirrors for us. How do your children annoy you? How do they get you to lose your composure?

One of my daughters could make me raving mad by doing things last-minute. That took all sorts of forms over the years and for the longest time, I claimed to be the exact opposite, always planning way ahead in advance, never running around like a headless chicken last minute. One day, as I was procrastinating preparing a lecture, a new friend made a remark. He said, “Ah, you are one of those last-minute people able to just wing it! I wish I could do that!” My first impulse was to deny this trait vehemently until I realized he was right. What annoyed me most in my daughter was a character trait I had myself but was never allowed to show as a child. The moment I embraced that trait, my daughter was not able to trigger me as much anymore. Interestingly enough she also seemed to be doing these last minute things less. She did not need to mirror it for me any longer.

Chris, one of my clients, was very concerned about his son, who seemed to be unusually shy and inhibited. Chris himself felt he was a shy boy, but forced himself to become an extrovert adult—a go-getter who is outgoing and always the centre of attention. He could not see anything positive about this shyness that his son mirrored for him until I guided him through an exercise to meet this shy sub-personality.

The shy part, appearing as a pale timid little boy with glasses in the visualization exercise, reminded him of several occasions in his life where the shy part within had protected him from getting into trouble. His shyness allowed him to think first and then act, to reflect rather than to make a rash decision. After embracing this part of himself, he was able to let his son live his life as an introvert. The son is now able to find his own way of integrating both sides of his personality.

One of my sisters has a son who is very straight-forward and outspoken. If he does not want to do something, he will say it. My sister likes that. She also has a daughter who according to my sister is “sneaky.” My niece, so claims my sister, will say “yes” when told not to do something and then do it anyways secretly. My sister at times is absolutely furious about this.

As much as I love and admire my sister I have to say that she is not the most direct person. She doesn’t like conflict. If she disagrees people who know her can read it on her face but she will usually not say it. Instead she will find a different way to achieve what she thinks is best. My niece mirrors for my sister a trait she is unaware to have herself. How often has my sister told me things “after the fact”.

The moment my sister could admit to avoiding direct confrontations and perhaps being “sneaky” at times as well, her daughter might feel less judged. It would probably make my niece feel as accepted as her straight-forward brother and thus help her to have more open conversations with other about what she wants and needs.

What do your children mirror for you? How could you improve your relationship by embracing exactly those character traits in yourself?

Contact me if you are interested to work on your relationships or take the Shadow Energetics Workshop in May 2013.