Posted at 11:15 am in Couples Therapy by jlbworks

By Philip Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP

Board Certified Clinical Psychologist

Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry

Vanderbilt University Medical Center



“The problem with trying to help (this couple) stop arguing with each other is that they actually aren’t arguing with each other anymore; they’re arguing with each other’s ghosts. By the time they move into ‘You always’ and ‘You never,’ they no longer address their real partner but rather a caricatured version of that partner…They are no longer actually fighting with each other, but rather with each other’s core negative image. A couple’s repetitive fight remains unresolved because neither truly engages with the other, but rather with his worst fantasy about the other. As with losing strategies, each partner’s negative fantasy leads to accusatory and defensive behaviors on both sides that only further confirm their fears. Our negative fantasy is the engine that drives relationship vicious cycles.” (Real, Terrence. The New Rules of Marriage, pp. 82-83)

My colleague Rod Kochtitzky, M.Div., introduced me many years ago to the concept of “frozen negative image” to describe what happens to many couples, when their conflicts have led them to put each other in a kind of “negative box” that neither can get out of. The smallest slight can then trigger increasingly unresolvable interactions, leaving each partner hurt, angry, and despairing. Terrence Real’s version of this “frozen negative image” is what he calls a “core negative image.”

As Real writes, “Your core negative image—or CNI—of your partner is that version of him that you feel most hopeless and frightened about. You say to yourself, in those furious, or resigned, or terrified moments, ‘Oh my god! What if he really is…?’ (You can fill in the blank.). What if he really is a vicious person? What if she really is a cold-hearted witch? A betrayer? An incompetent? Constricted? Selfish? Your CNI of your partner is your worst nightmare. It is who your partner becomes to you in those most difficult, irrational, least-loving moments.’

Real continues, “The first and most important thing to notice is the way that each partner’s CNI calls forth and reinforces the other’s. Each CNI is like Brer Rabbit’s Tar Baby: The more you fight against it, the more stuck you get…Each partner’s CNI is a direct carryover from their childhoods. Remember the idea that our repetitive bad deal represents a fight we never finished, a wish to get from our partners something critical that we didn’t get growing up?”

Real suggests that what tends to maintain my Core Negative Image of my partner is that my partner usually shares characteristics of my difficult parent. Talking about one such couple, Real states, “Each has married their father. And in their worst moments, endlessly and irresolvably, each sees the other with the same anger and with the same sense of hopelessness that they each felt toward their father. But, in fact, they are wrong…Unlike each other’s fathers, at their best, each of them has much more to offer.”

Real adds, “Remember the rule that said that each of us chooses a mate enough like what we grew up with to enable a re-creation of the old struggle—to be heard, to be appreciated—but at the same time enough unlike what we grew up with that the old drama might have a new outcome? Here is that moment: when CNI meets CNI. The moment of challenge, and opportunity…Left to themselves, partners’ CNIs will at best create logjams and at worst, fester and poison the relationship. But for many couples, learning how to work with each other’s CNI has proven to be the single most transformative aspect of relationship empowerment work.”

Real suggests that it can be enormously helpful to write down and make explicit your CNI of your partner—how you see your partner as being when he is at his all-time, absolute, most despicable, most impossible worst—and also, as honestly as you can, what you imagine your partner’s CNI of you is. He also encourages each party to identify the resonance of your CNI to your own childhood experience growing up, and what you imagine your partner’s answers would be to this same question about their childhood experience. He then asks couples to share what they have written with each other, in a safe and respectful manner.

Real continues, “When our partners confront us with their CNIs of us, we almost universally react to the fact that their CNIs are distorted and caricatured. In other words, we argue with them…Instead of denying the truth of your partner’s CNI of you, I want you to try a radically new approach. Imagine that your partner’s CNI of you is not, as you’ve been thinking it was, completely fabricated and nutty. Instead, consider it as an exaggerated version of you at your very worst…try on the idea that the CNI, exaggerated and limited as it might be, is nevertheless essentially true. Your partner’s CNI doesn’t describe someone else; it’s you. It’s how you can be when the most immature parts of yourself have grabbed hold of the steering wheel. Your partner’s CNI of you is a super-bright, high-contrast photograph of your fault lines. You work hard not to fall. But when you do fall, this is where you go. Words cannot convey the power that comes when you stop denying the truthful aspects of your partner’s CNI of you and join him in his concerns about them.”

Real suggests that each partner make lists of “CNI-Confirming Behaviors” and “CNI-Busting Behaviors,” and then share these with each other. He adds, “Your partner’s list of behaviors that serve to either support or dispute his CNI of you is the most direct set of operating instructions for your relationship with him that you will ever receive. Use it. Know that every time you behave in ways that come close to his CNI of you, you will likely trigger upset in him…anytime you behave in ways that are emphatically different from your partner’s CNI of you, ways that are the opposite of his expectations or that are found on his CNI-Busting list, your behavior will most likely reassure your partner, feel good to him, and, at the most profound level, touch something deep inside him…These acts of kindness are not obligatory. And they do not take the place of your partner’s own healing. But they are merciful. They are generous. If your partner can take them in, they will fall on his soul like warm, cleansing rain.” (pp. 83-89)