Oxygen. Below each of Ned and Amy’s anger Ned’s frustration and anger were deeper, more menacing emotions. Ned felt hurt by Amy’s rejection of his generous gifts and he feared that ultimately she didn’t really like him. And boy was that a familiar feeling. During his first marriage, Ned’s former wife frequently made her disapproval of Ned known. As the marriage deteriorated, she eventually drifted in her commitment and ultimately left the marriage. This left an indelible mark on Ned’s heart and created what in I called in my first book The Smart Stepfamily The Ghost of Marriage Past. These ghosts are deep bruises on a person’s heart that whenever bumped resurrect overwhelming emotions and often relationally destructive behaviors. Ned’s ghost reminded him of how awful rejection is and led him to fear another divorce. The only solution—according to the ghost—was to first shower his wife with gifts so that she would feel cherished and return his love. When that didn’t work and Amy complained, the ghost activated Ned’s fears leading him to “return fire,” hurting her with criticism as he had been hurt. The ghost somehow convinced him that arguing with someone who rejects you can somehow make them accept you (and there’s not much chance of that happening). In addition, blaming her for being too tight with money allowed Ned to distance himself from Amy protecting him from her seeming rejection. “If she can’t reach me, then I can’t be hurt again,” Ned used to think to himself. Ironically, the oxygen Ned was breathing led him to be angry, reactive, fearful, and distancing—all of which were actually bringing about the very rejection he feared.

Putting Out the Fire

In order to stop the fires of conflict from raging in their marriage, Ned and Amy must squelch part of the fire triangle of heat, fuel, and oxygen. Ned, for example, might become a “ghost buster,” coming to terms with the difficult bruises from his past that lead him to be fearful and then reactive to Amy’s value about money. Amy could recognize that when she “scolded” Ned with her eyes or tone of voice, it made him feel very small and child-like. Doing so made it very unlikely that Ned would appreciate her need to save money and more likely that she would feel ignored. And both of them could stand to learn a process of resolving conflict that would help them manage the negative emotions that arise from time to time in every couple’s relationship. Then, and only then, will ghosts be put to rest and intimacy begin to grow.

This article originally appeared at SmartStepFamilies.com.

Ron L. Deal is president of Smart Stepfamilies™, director of blended family ministries for FamilyLife®, a popular conference speaker on marriage and family matters, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily, The Remarriage Checkup (with David H. Olson), The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), The Smart Stepdad, and his latest Dating and the Single Parent. Learn more at www.smartstepfamilies.com.

Publication date: March 1, 2013