Your partner is ignoring you for the fifth day in a row. She is cold and rejecting when you reach out to her. Your transgression, everyone would agree, was minor. You were 15 minutes late getting home from golf. Fifteen minutes! Honest to God. Even your golf partner — who has a degree in sociology — agrees with you that your wife is acting hormonal and bitchy. Totally unreasonable. And she always does this. Why can’t she ever, EVER just relax and give you a break?

Russell Collins

Russell Collins

The greatest contribution that psychotherapy has made to the happiness of couples is this realization: Those conversations you have with yourself about your partner, like the one above, are artifacts of your mental and emotional processing. They come from inside you; in other words, they are not a description of anything real. Different psychological theories have different names for this particular conversation — projection, life script, stinkin’ thinkin’, core belief, drama, schema, shadow, narrative, to name just a few. But they share a few simple and obvious themes: a) almost everyone has these inner diatribes, b) the unflattering descriptions are not real or true, and c) they make us unhappy in our lives.

If it’s so simple, why all the fuss? Why all the theories, self-help books, or the months of therapy to get to the simple and obvious solution: Stop thinking this way, stop demonizing your partner, learn to be a little more forgiving and take a little more responsibility for your thinking when you start down this victim’s path.

My own guess is that these defensive scripts are so tenacious because the instincts that drive them are built in at the cellular level. And they arise from the primitive parts of our brain where everything is geared for survival. The crocodile parts. Don’t be tricked into investing more in other people’s lives than they are investing in yours, these primitive brain functions tell us. Don’t allow yourself to be dominated or manipulated into giving more than you get. The crocodile brain is suspicious by nature, always lurking just below the waterline of consciousness, always scanning the horizon for signs of a threat.

There are as many ways to attack these stubborn monologues as there are theories of human nature, but maybe the most interesting idea is the theory of the Shadow. According to this way of thinking, you are pinning the blame on your partner for things you hate in yourself. In other words, by listening carefully to your inner complaints about your partner’s most horrible traits, you may gain a glimpse into your own heart of darkness.

The Shadow was conceived by Carl Jung (this is early in the 20th century) as one of a number of primal forms — he called them archetypes — that reside in the deep layers of the unconscious, shaping our moment-to-moment experience of life: maleness, femaleness, self, mother, child, hero. These are not just words we inherit in language from our parents, in Jung’s view, but universal ideals woven into the fabric of our perceptions by evolutionary design.

The Shadow archetype is the repository for those drives and desires that have been shamed into the dark recesses of our awareness by societal taboos. To get an idea of how this might work, imagine an infant who grew to adulthood without ever getting the memo about being polite. He comes to the dinner table with the same greedy, self-centered delight as a baby at his mother’s breast. He slurps up everything in sight without concern for you or anyone else. He slops food everywhere because he doesn’t care who is going to clean it up. And when he is done, he lets out a huge belch, soils his pants and falls asleep in his chair. This kind of behavior gets less and less attractive after about age 2, so society — our parents, teachers and friends — knock it out of us as we grow up, and their most efficient tool for this work is shame.

They don’t knock it out completely, however, at least not according to the Jungians. It’s still hiding down there, bubbling, aggressive, waiting for its chance. Except for a few lucky sociopaths like Uday Hussein or the Zodiac Killer, our shadow urges get expressed only in the most oblique ways, such as in violent dreams, through creative efforts such as poetry or painting, and as images we project onto the people we love and need the most — and sometimes get very irritated with.

So, if the phrase that arises inside when you fight with your wife is “hormonal bitchiness,” it may be the shadow of your own femininity, rage and emotional need that have been suppressed by your training in what it means to be a man. If you see your partner as a narcissistic jerk, it may be your own selfish urges returning to haunt you from a childhood in which they were repressed through shame. You may, to put it another way, be seeing your evil twin.

Psychotherapist and author Terry Real uses the term “Core Negative Image,” or CNI, for this shadow projection of ourselves. Real is not so interested in the source of the image (he’s not a Jungian), but in using it for healing couples. Recognizing the difficulty — the impossibility, really — of erasing these critical images and dialogues with logic, Real has his couples do the following exercise: Take 10 minutes and write down the major features of the CNI of your partner — your most negative image of him or her when you get hurt or angry.

Now, notice which aspects of this CNI remind you of your childhood. And which aspects trigger the biggest reaction. See if you can identify and claim the parts of your partner’s CNI that represent your own shamed needs and drives — the repressed and rejected aspects of yourself. Now, taking full responsibility for the fact that this CNI of your partner is at least partly your own creation, gently tell him a little about it. You can do this with humor, recognizing that every long-term couple — even the normal couple next door, even Brad and Angelina — harbors these caricatures of each other in their hearts. (A little warning, this exercise can go bad if one or both of you has too much shame around the sensitive areas of your own fallibility — in which case, get a therapist involved. Or pick up a copy of Real’s excellent book, The New Rules of Marriage.)

If the exercise is a success, you will each gain a little distance from these demonizing diatribes — enough to begin hollowing them out and sapping their toxic power. Even better, you may get a clearer view — a healing view — of the dark urges that push and pull each of us subliminally. Our need to demonize the one we love the most is just a frustrating aspect of human nature. Acknowledging this can be, if there is such a thing, something of a miracle cure for those shaming childhood wounds. Your partner cannot love you back to health if he or she is truly a demon, but recognizing that the demon is a fun-house mirror can provide a compass toward new levels of openness, and new dimensions of intimacy.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.