Stronger Marriage

Understanding the Individual Within the Couple

Understanding the Individual Within the Couple

Victor W. Harris, MS

       Have you ever wondered about the details of how a relationship develops? Does it begin with two individuals who notice each other or does it begin long before that? As we contemplate the various systems that may have an influence on the development of your relationship, the following diagram might be helpful:


      The circles above represent borders, parameters, and filters through which each of these systems has varying bidirectional influences on each of the other systems. At the center of these systems is the individual. If we can begin to understand general principles about how the individual functions, then we can begin to understand our relationships.


       Our mind is an amazing instrument. It filters out and sifts through the many things (i.e., stimuli) that are going on around us and allows us to focus on the things that we desire (see the diagram above). As we retrieve information from the outside world (filtered through the other systems that constitute our environment), this information is perceptually processed through our individual genetic make-up. Physiological, neurological, and psychological processes all combine to allow us to respond to these incoming stimuli as effectively as we can. Our experiences with these stimuli allow us to tune some of them out (e.g., habituation) while allowing us to focus on those that need our immediate attention.

       The "fight or flight" sequence is a good example of what happens on this level of perception. During this sequence, we quickly perceive incoming stimuli and then experience a quick and dirty emotional and cognitive response in order to help us determine if these clues to the nature of our immediate environment are threatening or not. If they are threatening and we perceive that some harm may come to us, we immediately move through the second filter and decide to fight or flee.

       If we perceive that these incoming clues to our environment are not immediately threatening, then this information proceeds through to the next perceptual filter made up of past experiences and sociocultural influences more gradually. Our sociocultural filters are made up of all of the filtered influences from each of the other systems that impact our perceptions, feelings and actions.

       The most powerful sociocultural influences on how we think, feel, and act are our families and our spouses (or the person we are seriously dating). The next most influential sociocultural systems on how we think, feel, and act are our peers, our work setting, our religious community, and our school and educational settings. Finally, the historical and political settings, the media, economics, our neighborhoods and communities, significant adult role models, and the laws and norms of the society in which we live each influence our perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.

       However, even though we are influenced by all of these systems and by our past experiences, the magical thing about understanding the individual within the couple is that we as individuals possess free will or the power to choose how we will respond to these influences. It is important to note that we are not only shaped by these genetic and environmental systems, but that we also influence these systems as well, largely through our own choices. In summary, our sociocultural and genetic systems set conditions, facilitate, inhibit, support, promote, and limit our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

       However, because we possess the power to choose, we can choose not to criticize, to express contempt, to speak defensively, or to stonewall our partners (see 9 Important Skills for Every Relationship) even if we are having a bad day because of work. We can also learn to calm down when we feel threatened, to speak non-defensively, to validate our partner, and to conflict constructively (see 10 Rules for Conflicting Constructively). As we learn to choose to positively respond in our relationships (see 10 Ways to Daily Improve Any Relationship and Happy Talk: Keep Talking Happy Talk), we can minimize the major predator to any relationship - negativity and resentment.

       If satisfaction and happiness is our ultimate goal (see Preparation for Marriage: 10 Things You'll Wish You Knew), then we as individuals have the power within us to choose to gain the skills that will help us to achieve these desired outcomes. If we are not happy or satisfied with ourselves or with our significant relationships, then it is our responsibility to learn to recognize what the issues are and to gain the help and the skills necessary to change the outcomes.

       In conclusion, two short examples might help illustrate why seeking to understand the information and principles mentioned above are critical in our attempt to understand the individual within the couple:

Example 1

     It is Friday night and Steve and Susan are on a date. They have been dating now for almost six months and their relationship seems to be going well. They are both college students and the semester is winding down with finals for their classes scheduled for the following Monday. Susan notices that Steve seems a little distracted and wonders what is wrong. When she attempts to inquire if anything is wrong, Steve simply shrugs his shoulders and replies, "Nothing. Why do you ask?"


1.    Using the first diagram above, what kinds of genetic and sociocultural influences do you think Steve and Susan may be experiencing?
2.    Using the second diagram above, can you follow the events of the night through the perceptual filters as Steve and Susan respond to each other?
3.    How can understanding both of these diagrams help Steve and Susan avoid some potential negative interactions?

Example 2

     It is a Saturday night and Steve and Susan are both at a dance but they are not on a date together. Steve has proposed that he and Susan need some space in their relationship and that dating other people off and on is a good way to see whether or not he and Susan are right for each other. After all, marriage is a big step and a huge commitment. Susan, however, is devastated by Steve's proposal to date other people and is bent on making him jealous at the dance.


1.    Using the first diagram above, what genetic and sociocultural systems may be influencing Steve and Susan?
2.    Using the second diagram above, explain what may have happened in Steve's and Susan's relationship and postulate about any potential future outcomes in consequence of Steve's and Susan's recent decisions.
3.    How can understanding both of these diagrams help Steve and Susan grow and progress in their relationship?

Note: I am indebted to Family and Human Development specialist Dr. Lori Roggman for her insight and review of this information.

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