For the Days When Instead of "Happily Ever After" It's "I Hate Your Stupid Face"
Updated: Sep 11
In the continual cycle of all relationships (harmony, disharmony, and repair), the disharmony can be tiny, an annoyance, a frustration, a blip in the relationship; or it can be massive, a blow-up, a rupture, something that changes the course of the entire relationship. But often the disharmony is neither of these. Instead, it’s an internal experience of bubbling anger, resentment, and deep dislike of our partners. When Terry Real refers to this experience of “normal marital hatred,” he often quips that in the decades that he has used this phrase that no one has ever asked him to explain it. When we are in this state, it’s clear that we aren’t connecting with our partners. We’re probably not even trying to. Chances are, we’re not even seeing them. Instead, we are seeing them as a comic book villain version of themselves. A grotesque caricature where all of their worst traits are exaggerated, and their better qualities vanish from our perception. In his audiobook, Fierce Intimacy, Standing up to One Another with Love, Terry Real describes this state as being “CNI Triggered”.
Real explains that “CNI,” his acronym for “Core Negative Image,” is often the culprit at the root of our discontent with the people we love. We all have a CNI of our partners. In fact, we all have a Core Negative Image of virtually every person with whom we have a significant, intimate relationship (with possible exceptions for young children and beloved elders). Our Core Negative Image is our distorted view of our loved one at their worst. When we experience them as their most infuriating, most irrational, and most impossible we aren’t seeing them, we’re seeing our Core Negative Image of them. The CNI is our immutable vision of the worst qualities of our loved ones. Something which remains essentially fixed throughout the relationship. For most of us, this vision is not something we acknowledge or give voice to, and as such, it wreaks havoc on our relationships. But, according to Real, if we can understand it and use it constructively, our CNIs of our partners, and their CNI of us, can serve as powerful tools in deepening the intimacy and connection in our relationships.
When Terry explains this concept in the audiobook Fierce Intimacy, he shares his Core Negative Image of his wife, Belinda, as well as her CNI of him. He explains that in the early years of their marriage when he would rush off to work in the morning and leave the milk out on the counter to go bad, again, that Belinda would come home from a long day at work and realize that now there was no milk to give their young boys and then she would get triggered. Once she was triggered, she would immediately see Terry as nothing but a narcissistic, irresponsible, charming, selfish, bad boy. In this “CNI Triggered” state, she would greet Terry’s return home with anger and a verbal attack, and he would then immediately become “CNI Triggered” and view her as a completely insatiable, critical, controlling, retaliatory, mother witch. In these triggered states, both of their behaviors would then reinforce the other’s Core Negative Images of them. With Belinda acting more and more critical, angry, and controlling, and with Terry answering her in ways that expressed more and more selfishness, irresponsibility, and narcissism. The cycle then would escalate as they both would behave in ways that validated the other’s worst view of them.
We all experience some form of this in our relationships. Our CNIs of our partners may not look like Terry and Belinda’s, but the dynamic we all experience is the same. Because the ugly truth is, that as exaggerated and distorted as our CNIs are, they are based in reality. No one who knows her would have a CNI of Belinda that includes being an irresponsible bad girl, and no one who knows Terry would experience him as hyper-critical and controlling. Since our CNIs are based in reality when we move into a reactive, triggered state, and the worst part of us emerges, that is the part that our partners use to construct their CNIs of us.
But this specificity is also why, if used thoughtfully and constructively, our CNIs can be fantastic tools for de-escalating contention, and resolving conflicts with our partners. If Terry has learned that Belinda’s CNI of him is that he is selfish and irresponsible, then when he comes home, and she is on the attack about how his carelessness is negatively impacting her, he can recognize that she is in a CNI Triggered state. He can deliberately choose to stay centered and behave in a way that counters her CNI of him. He can apologize and acknowledge how upsetting his irresponsibility was (countering her view of his narcissism) and take responsibility (countering her image of his irresponsibility) and offer to go out immediately and get more milk (countering her vision of him as selfish). By behaving in ways that undermine, rather than reinforce, her negative image of him, he can shift her view out the distortion of her Core Negative Image of him, and back to a place where she can recognize him as a loving partner who messed up.
For many of us, getting to this place may feel particularly difficult and loaded. The idea of writing down three or four adjectives and one descriptive noun elucidating our worst beliefs about our partners and sharing that description with them while they share an equally critical view of us may feel overwhelmingly difficult. And for couples in certain fragile states, or for those who have not learned to develop healthy protective boundaries, it is an exercise that could cause more harm than good. But for those who are confident in their ability to remain connected and protected as they verbalize their own distorted visions and also learn the equally distorted, albeit rooted in fact, images that their partners hold, the CNI can serve as a map for finding the way out of the most entrenched destructive patterns in their relationships.
If you feel ready to explore the idea of your CNIs, start by writing down, for yourself, your view of your partner when you think of them at their worst. You may see your partner as a critical, humorless, uptight, joyless, taskmaster. Or maybe you are paired with a person who you view as a flaky, undependable, unrealistic, selfish child. For most of us, the Core Negative Image that we hold of our partner is not difficult to capture. Once you have drafted your CNI of your partner, take a few moments to write what you imagine your partner thinks of when they have their worst thoughts about you. If your relationship is not in a place where you feel like you could sit together and share this information, don’t. But even going through the exercise on your own can significantly heighten your awareness of your own distortions about your partner as well as alerting yourself to opportunities to shift your reactions in a way that could move your most entrenched destructive dynamics into a healthier exchange.
Once you have your CNIs, whether you have shared them or kept them to yourselves, you may want to go further with the exercise and identify the Core Negative Images that you hold of your parents and other significant relationships from your formative years. Reviewing these, you may see certain similarities or shared adjectives. For example, if a key descriptor in your CNI of your partner is that they are judgemental and then you write your CNIs of your family of origin you also have judgemental in your CNI descriptor for your mother and your favorite and closest uncle, you may realize that you have heightened sensitivity and wounds around being judged. This doesn’t mean that your partner isn’t judgemental when they are at their worst, but it does mean that you may experience judgment from them even when they aren’t being judgemental towards you.
Finally, based on your partner’s Core Negative Image of you (whether they have shared it with you, or you have drafted it on your own) Terry suggests that you think about your own recent past behavior and list three things that you’ve done that confirm your partner’s CNI of you. Then develop a list of three alternative behaviors that would prove your partner’s CNI of you wrong. If your partner experiences you as rigid, come up with a behavior that would demonstrate flexibility. If they see you as selfish, think of ways that you could be giving. None of this is to prove your partner wrong, manipulate your partner, or be inauthentic. Rather, it is an opportunity for you to grow and flex in a way that gives your relationship a chance to shift from entrenched and destructive patterns into a new and more cherishing and thoughtful way of interacting.
It can be better. You deserve to be in an intimate, connected, and cherishing relationship.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nikki Loscalzo, Ed. M. is an RLT Certified Therapeutic Coach who helps couples and individuals learn to get past surface issues and heal the damage that gets in the way of intimate connection. Nikki first discovered the tremendous power of Relational Life Therapy when the RLT creator, Terry Real, transformed her own marriage.
Inspired by her personal experience with RLT, Nikki trained directly with Terry Real through his Relational Life Institute to learn how to empower couples to transform their relationships. Through his intensive certification program, she learned the skills that she employs every day in private practice at Savvy Strategies Relational Life Therapy, where she works with couples to quickly diagnose the problems in their relationships, uncover why these issues exist, and repair damage to shift unhelpful relationship dynamics and rebuild a truly intimate relationship.