Marital disagreement and struggle for recognition

Alberto Eiguer


Mutual recognition has a definite place in a couple’s life. To recognize is essentially to acknowledge the other’s state of mind. It is thanks to this mutual acknowledgement that partners build their link, that they are able to care for one another, to love each other. This means that each feels interestedly engaged by the life past and present of the other, that he tries to understand him/her and help if necessary. The projects shaped together are based on acknowledgment of the other’s needs and wishes with the aim of fulfilling them while at the same time fulfilling one’s own.

To acknowledge involves what each is, as well as what each has inside: fantasies, illusions, desires. To reach mutual acknowledgement we need to acknowledge the other, acknowledge oneself and be acknowledged by the other.

Before going any further I would like to mention that the many of the subjects I shall discuss might have been broached by other authors with varying interpretations, but I think that the  concept of mutual acknowledgement brings new openings into play, for example, understanding the meaning of the couple, the raison d’être of its being. We come across this issue so frequently that we end up wondering if this expectation of acknowledgement may not be something universal, a goal everybody has. Indeed partners who do not feel mutually acknowledged create conflicts, and thus frequent disagreements.

I would like to quickly present the theoretical framework inspiring my approach: group psychoanalysis and intersubjective links.

The first highlights the fact that members of a couple live unconsciously as if they were part of a whole whose expressions are a spirit, a mentality, myths and fantasies and common affects, secret and unconscious pacts, conflicts, symptoms and  a separate identity.

The second puts the emphasis on unconscious interrelations between spouses, which are at the same time structuring and the source of difficulties. They can be understood only by each person’s mental functioning. The link is more than the relationship between two subjects: it outlines another psychical reality, beyond both individual psychic reality and material reality. I will discuss the 4 levels of the intersubjective link‘s functioning and then the 4 principles of its functioning (the 4 Rs).

The couple’s intersubjective link’s psychic functioning includes four levels (René Kaës, 1999 ; Thomas Ogden, 1994, 2004).

  1. At the first level, the deepest and archaic level, a certain indifferenciation between the two partner’s identities develops, each putting his primal origin in the one with whom he has identified. Narcissism and primary processes play a decisive role in this move. It is quite frequent that, as soon as they fall in love, partners finds similarities in their gestures, criteria and life goals, and can even say that some of their family members do look alike. Between surprise and enthusiasm, they « discover » that they have lived similar experiences before even meeting. They find this delightful and reassuring and it spurs them to become attached to one another and this progressively contributes to the founding of their union. The key word of this level is resemblance.
  2. At the second level, the « oniric » level, each spouse becomes attached to the other as a way to achieve one of their unconscious desires. Thanks to the link and leaning on it, the partner also hopes to fulfil the wishes demanded by his Ego ideal, his ambitions, and his projects. Having said that, the desiring subject is irremediably confronted to the other, who is also a desiring subject. Here, it is not waking up which makes the dream disappear, but the desire for dreaming which strives to create in each person innumerable oniric representations. These representations find an echo in the other, in form and content. The key word here is
  3. At the third level, the « mythical » level, these fantasmatic collective productions which support the pre-conscious work and are being supported by it, are in movement. Anzieu (1974) suggests that the pre-conscious space is the scene where groupal functioning circulates and takes action, in return for the fomentation of fantasies and inter-fantasmatisation. The key word is then
  4. At the fourth level, the most superficial one, the members of the link refer to and depend on the laws suited to their functioning (prohibitions and prescriptions regarding gestures and acts with the other, etc.). These laws are specific to them and therefore different from laws governing other links they might be involved in. This is the link’s legislating level. The relationship’s code for spouses is different that of brothers and sisters, for example. The most suitable key word here is shared law.

On the other hand the couple’s intersubjective link involves principles we can refer to as « the four Rs »:

  1. Respect, which assumes that subjects in a link do not judge each other, even if they can criticise each other.
  2. Mutual Recognizing of the other’s psychical state and his difference.
  3. Responsibility for the other’s suffering and his destiny, each of the subject feeling affected by what happens to his fellow-being.
  4. Reciprocity of investments in a creative intersubjectivity.


In this study, it would be interesting to distinguish empathy of acknowledgement and to highlight in which way identification plays a role in mutual acknowledgement. Let’s say that empathy is a state which precedes acknowledgement, but this latter goes beyond what empathy actually does: by recognizing what the other lives through, we compenetrate his identity and admit his singularity.

The various forms of identification (adhesive, projective, introjective, transgenerational) come into play in the process of mutual acknowledgement, of course, but identification mobilises resemblances and thus enhances the work of narcissism (in the wider sense of the term, trophic and deleterious). « I am like the other, I see the other as part of myself, I identify the other with my internal object etc. »

On the other hand, mutual acknowledgement connects the similar and the different: the other has a subjectivity and an unconscious we are inescapably brought to take into consideration. Furthermore, this latter demands to be considered. To recognize is to accept, admit and justify. I shall come back to this.


Couple’s love

There are questions linked to acknowledgement which are worthy of our attention when dealing with a couple’s link, knowing that mutual acknowledgement also has a determining role in other links such as filial, brotherly, to ancestors, between friends or colleagues… But how does it show itself in a couple’s life?

1) It is linked to the fact that it is an erotic bond, in which trust and intimacy play a major role as well the sharing of secrets, principles, experience, decisions, sadness, joys, glory and… children.

2) It plays a major role in a couple’s sexual life.

3) It shows when we wish to fall back on regressive   positioning or on the contrary progressive positioning and strengthening of the self that the other accepts.

4) It shows in the couple’s attitude in front of others where each member of the couple makes it obvious they are together. It is not necessarily a matter of having the same point of view, but that both identify themselves as belonging to  a differentiated whole, “our couple” and that they are recognized by anybody as a unit. Here to be recognized is “to be identified”


Those who think that love is just giving and receiving “presents” should think about these words: « I don’t love you for what you are, but it is you that I love. » « I don’t need things, objects, but words with which I can see you understand my wishes. »

We have to say that acknowledgement is not a smooth path. It can create real struggles.  Sometimes the battles are harsh and ferocious, with no compromises. Each can demand to be listened to, heard, looked at and accepted.

If the problems take this direction , it is because, at the beginning, the partners refused to accept  they needed the other’s acknowledgement, but when they realise they need it, that it brings satisfaction and that on top  of that it is necessary for them to know who they are, , then they think they have the right to ask for it and if the other doesn’t comply still, they start a struggle for acknowledgement  :they hassle others until they get what they want (G. Hegel, 1807 ; J. Benjamin, 1988 ; A. Honneth, 1992).

Couples who argue a lot show multiple difficulties with mutual acknowledgment. This can be clearly recognised by the partners. And even if it is not the case, the lack of or wrong acknowledgment of the other is a major cause of dysfunction. What’s more, the foundations of the link are directly touched by this.

But we can distinguish not knowing from ignoring the other, where this latter disappears, in a way; he becomes « invisible », considered as a non-human thing, a material object. We can also find limited forms of lack of or wrong acknowledgement, meaning some that touch on more or less important sides of the link.

This situation needs to be treated as a matter of priority if the couple’s suffering are to be dissipated and minds calmed. This has been substantiated by several cases.

At the same time, during therapy, we are tempted to wonder if this struggle for acknowledgement happens because of a real claim or because of a susceptibility inspired by pathological narcissism, an insatiable need or by an excessive need to control.


Homère and Pauline

In the following case, the lack of recognizing of the other appears at various moments and concerns mainly two aspects: the theme distance-rapprochement and the differences linked to gender (male-female). Their analysis was very enlightening and really calmed the conflict.

Twenty years ago, this couple (in their forties) came to see me as a matter of urgency. Homère (a finance manager) had recently admitted having an affair with a divorced woman, mother of several children; he is thinking of leaving Pauline (a secretary), but he still hasn’t made his mind up. The revelation of his affair has put an awful lot of things back into question.  Pauline is desperate and wants to avoid a break up. « Nobody understands why it has gone that far. » It is true that the couple been floundering for a while, but not to the point of breaking up. Homère says he is very dissatisfied with Pauline; he cannot manage to « make her change » in spite of years of discussions and requests from him. She doesn’t listen, neither when he asks for things nor when he talks about his own difficulties. He is exasperated by her look, for example, as well as by her sloppy dress, her ungainly manners, her lack of warmth and her opposition to his caresses. Pauline herself, saying that she finds him too forward, constantly caressing her and asking to make love. Homère is omnipresent, she says, he « knows everything », « puts his nose into everything ». The way he pressurises her to change serves only to make her withdraw, and even though she recognizes he is right, he doesn’t make her want to comply with his demands. If she had to mention a fault of his, though, she’d say it is his « desire to control everybody and to go on and on and on ».

In one of the later of their weekly sessions, they explain that they both had been previously married. Pauline and Homère met in High School. He already loved her then; he says she was an unusual young woman; he loved her romantic eyes, the way she seemed to be elsewhere, at the same time sure of herself and somewhat vulnerable, impenetrable and endearing. She did not seem to care about material things.

Pauline loved him « a bit » in those days, but they never « dated ». When they were in their 30s they met again and then she found a real passion for Homère.  However, she adds, now she loves and appreciates him but she is not in love with him anymore. She still cares for him though; he is « the man ». She feels sorry that her love crumbled away with time.

For a few years, Pauline has had serious health problems, and then at work, there was a conflict with her boss which led her to « fight ». Homère was always there, behind her, supportive. He gave her practical help and this enabled her to overcome these difficulties.

Homère says then that he is surprised that now that Pauline knows of the existence of his mistress, her behaviour changed completely; she is now tender, talkative, smiling. « So, she can do it after all! » « Why is she not like that all the time? »

But is this a change within herself or a way to copy Homère’s ideal of a woman? Does she react in this way because she finds herself with a rival?

I’d like to say a few words on how they appear. They seem to be overwhelmed and anxious, especially Homère. While he demonstrates a strong need for support, Pauline looks at the same time confident and modest, the look of somebody who thinks that the appearance of carelessness given is of no importance. Her discretion rather puzzles me, it renders her inaccessible, like these people about whom we think that they would have interesting things to say if they opened up more. I find her fascinating and at the same time irritating because of the way she let things deteriorate without doing anything about it. Homère shows a dynamism fed by a permanent worry that he seems nevertheless able to channel through creativity. After a while, I find them moving.

A few weeks into therapy, the analysis focuses on the fact that if he wants to educate Pauline, if he is demanding towards her, it is because he feels lonely and hurt by the distancing she has established, and which gives him the strong feeling of being abandoned.  He realises then how important it is for him to know she finds him still seductive and even that she admires him. The more she avoids showing him off to advantage, the more he needs to be appreciated by her. She seems to find pleasure in it, he adds. Pauline admits then that she can’t stand his « kiddie’s » devotion for her, even though she should be flattered by it. It irritates her more that it gives her pleasure, she says

She’d like to be recognized by Homère for all the little things she does for him, indirectly, all the every day little gestures. Why can’t he accept her as she is in all her simplicity? They nevertheless agree that it is not enough, that words cannot be replaced.

I intervene (interpretation) to say that neither of them seems to accept what the other needs; for Homère, getting reassurance through tender words and gestures; for Pauline, getting her serenity back. They had organised a fight like situation around depreciating the other, choosing their own viewpoint ,as being the right one and resisting the requests of the other, just like if they’d acceded to them they would lose some of their own worth.

We then talked about how the flat had been done up; Homère changed it into a loft en loft. Pauline feels lost in it, he defends his concept: there is more space, they can move around it more easily. During this session, they manage to recognise that this conflict reflects how differently they conceive intimacy. For him, the way the loft is satisfies his need for company; she would rather that each has his own space. I suggest that this conflict shows once more how they don’t know each other. Would acknowledging the other put them face to face with the disillusionment that the other is different from the way he/she had been imagined in the past?

Indeed, we can say that the dream which has propped up their link for the 25 years they did not see each other became an obstacle to acknowledgement.

Pauline defends herself straight away during a session: she doesn’t want to change anybody. Homère says she does it indirectly, making it known through her attitude. Pauline would like him to change the way he is by recognising that he is « clingy » she wants a relationship which is simply fusional. « Our illness is education », he admits.

I will later add that the need for a presence and the need for a discreet distance do not seem to be there because of a whim. There is a kind of message underneath the requests which comes from these personal needs: these attitudes complement each other, they are useful and necessary depending on the time and circumstances. Distance is not lack of love; presence is not intrusion.

A large part of the session focus on Homère’s mistress‘s personality. Apparently, she is sparkly, full of life, dealing with work and home very efficiently etc. Pauline is extremely envious.

To my surprise, after three months of therapy, Homère decides to « drop » his mistress. Along the treatment, several sessions focus on the theme « accepting the other as s/he is ». They laugh about their own myriads of tricks they used to try and change the other. As they knew each other when they were teenagers, they are a bit on a small cloud of illusions and fantasies. They find reality hard.

Pauline remembers her miscarriages. She gets very emotional when she remembers Homère as being understanding, full of attentions, apart for the third one when she had the feeling he did not want another child with her. She felt quite affected by this. To lose a child is a woman’s pain; he couldn’t or didn’t know how he could put himself in her place. She resents it to this day.

Is a man able to understand a woman’s pain when she loses a child? How can one perceive a body different from one’s own, at the same time another person’s and from another gender? Homère admits that he is not at ease with the body, his own and above all his wife’s.

I think that there are limits to putting oneself in the other’s shoes and recognizing his nature. You can blame the other, of course, but it means also ignoring the other’s freedom and desires, a bit like a small child who wants to ignore that his mother is also a woman and has an adult sexuality.



This crisis was triggered by Homère revealing he was having an affair. Homère was feeling quite happy with this because he could show Pauline that he could seduce another woman. That she had several children certainly played a role in this. This confirmed that his fight for acknowledgement through wanting more warmth and sexuality was fully justified. But he was ashamed to have broken a common pact for their unique and rare love whose bases had been started by himself 25 years previously and that he had actively kept going since. He seemed to have good reasons for leaving the woman of his life. But he was afraid to have orchestrated a manipulation, an unusual way for him to say to Pauline that she was wrong if she thought that her « coldness » was normal. But as long as the other cannot be recognized in his specificity, any complaint becomes sterile.

Beyond the fact that Homère went too far when demonstrating his argument, and that he frightened Pauline with his affair, the crisis meant that Homère’s restricting or even brutal methods came to light. He wanted to educate Pauline by force. It also showed her disinterest manifested by denying she made her husband suffer by making him more anxious, powerless and lost.

They were ignoring the fragility of their « precious toy » being overconfident in their ability to turn criticisms to their advantage. All their energy was taken by trying to crush the other’s argument, even to crush the other’s personality. Therapy gave them the opportunity to identify and accept their cruelty. Indeed the lack of recognition, which is denial of the other, makes people prone to sadistic pleasure and brings a kind of support to perverse violence. There is reification (choosification): saying over and over to Pauline she’s like a freezer; to Homère he is clingy and heavy-handed…

The end result of these realizations was that each person took in the fact that they could change their own functioning without doing exactly what the other demanded, but in their own way. The habit of making a show of it was demythicalised : feelings don’t have to be expressed in an obvious manner ; they can exist and reveal themselves through indirect gestures and with restraint ; this is enough to express an otherwise intense affection. Believing too much that the other understands everything, one creates the risk of misunderstandings which gets worse as time goes by. It is important to recognize the need for proof as regards to availability.

Many new things can be mentioned about this couple. Homère’s confession was the trigger. He strayed away from his usual context. The couple’s sexual intimacy was from then on shared with a woman who had several children; this is a reality which is shocking, bringing to the sessions the memory of all the miscarriages. And there appeared the critical resurgence of the splitting, the rivalry between women and the lack of acknowledgement, and above all, the unknown other and the mystery of the sexual body.

This couple was haunted and persecuted by the representation of the rotting corpses of the « dead children» (the miscarriages), which « poisoned » their link. Each of the symptoms reflected the shared unconscious group, inhabited by these objects: with Pauline, her casualness, disinvestment and refusal of sex; with Homère, his hyperactivity (to skim over the drama and not let himself be touched by Pauline’s pain), but also his rage and dissatisfaction, and then his looking towards another woman for the lost vitality and joy.

This would confirm that the conflict at the time of the crisis became more acute due to the enigma of the other gender, a real stop to mutual acknowledgment. Indeed, when the miscarriages are mentioned, we touch the basis of this couple: the spouses did want to ignore the other’s body and their castration.


In conclusion

How can we diffuse this helplessness when faced with the unknown in the other?

Difficult question. The limits of mutual recognition demand another level of recognition. We are brought to admit that we don’t know and we will never know. This means accepting that the other has the key which can tell us what it’s all about. This is a test which can damage our omni-power and omniscience.

Furthermore, I think that mutual acknowledgement finds fulfilment in legitimacy, in other words, when the members of a couple both feel that they deserve their union and the feeling of well-being it gives them. The legislating level of the link and the responsibility towards the other are involved. As long as this is not acquired, many difficulties and conflicts will happen.

Through a better mutual acknowledgement, Homère and Pauline have managed to accept their right to live in harmony with one another.

Mutual acknowledgement covers thus a complete spectrum of a couple’s functioning from the engagement of the link, it being built,  the crystallisation of the meaning given to the link, the  conflicts, the fight, and to the final outcome of these latter.



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Translation by Marie-Christine Williams