couples therapy
imago therapy

Maximizer or Minimizer

As part of my graduate training in Imago Relational Marriage Counseling, my husband and I had to take a weekend couples workshop led by Imago therapists. Along with three other couples, we recalled that first attraction, tried to understand how early life experiences might have drawn us together, reaffirmed what we value in the other, described patterns that cause us difficulty, and learned how all of this could lead to what is called Mature Love. We were taught that the phase of romantic love always fades, how a power struggle always ensues, and how, just when things are feeling bleak, the opportunity to really get to know each other and strengthen the marriage presents itself.

One of the most freeing exercises of that weekend had to do with learning about a pattern that apparently is present in every couple: one partner is the 'maximizer' and the other is the 'minimizer'. The maximizer is the pursuer, the partner who initiates emotional connection in the relationship; the minimizer is the withdrawer, the partner who needs space. After this was explained to us in the workshop, all the maximizers were asked to go to one side of the room, the minimizers to the other. We all recognized our role immediately, and without a moment's hesitation, without even meeting our partner's eyes for confirmation, we each picked ourselves up and walked to our designated side. There we were, two men and two women maximizers, facing our spouses the minimizers, each side of the room invited to tell how hard it was to put up with the other.

This exact issue had been an annoyingly recurring pattern in my own marriage, and as the maximizer, I just couldn't understand why my husband needed to be alone at times to mull over his life, more passive in managing our relationship, and didn't seem to need or want the same intense connection with me that I did with him. And here I was with three other people who knew exactly what I was talking about and had the exact same complaint. As a group, we were asked to try to describe the pain we felt to always be the one who wanted more. We got pretty vociferous about it and it felt great.

The freeing thing, though, was to hear the other side. Here was my husband, and three others, mixed personality and gender, explaining to us the pain that they felt to be pushed, nagged, found wanting by we partners who could be bullying and angry, when they, too, wanted the intimacy and closeness, just at a different pace and with time off from the constant attention we maximizers apparently demand. Hearing it from the four of them, admirable and likeable people in their own right, somehow legitimized the minimizer role as just different, not less evolved, as I had wanted to see it. Then, with the help of the therapists, we tried to understand how we had each come to our roles based on some wounds or worst-case scenario worries from growing up in our family of origin. Minimizers had the experience of over-protective, non-safe, suffocating relations with parent figures making too close connection dangerous. Maximizers had abandonment as their greatest fear, resulting in a greater need for reassuring connection In my case, every time my husband would detach from me, I'd think of my father and start to worry that this was the beginning of an ever growing detachment, whereas, in his mind, he was taking a short break and knew he'd soon be back as strong as ever.

So here we are with a greater understanding of at least one upsetting pattern. We can see it coming, because it still does, but most of the time, not all of the time, we can agree to some compromises and head off the worst of it.

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