Couple Power Struggle as Compromise Formation?

As I’ve been exploring the idea our most challenging and repetitive intimate partner conflicts may be generated by our dueling partial cures, Freud’s discussion of dreams and compromise formations popped into my head in the middle of the night. The unbidden thought/question was: Is it possible what we can remember and report about a painful fight is really the waking dream equivalent of a dream’s manifest content? I recalled Freud’s view of dream work is that the dream we remember – the “manifest” dream is actually a compromise formation: a psychic product, symptom, symbol, or dream form that expresses simultaneously and partially satisfies both the unconscious impulse and the defense against it.” (For more on manifest versus latent contents, see link below.)

What gets our attention, what we fight about, is something we can think about. Something deeper, and sensed to be threatening at some level, remains hidden – latent – from consciousness . (see link below) The compromise formation is psyche’s camouflage tool.

So what about the unconscious impulse and the defense against it? The Wilkinson discussion of micro-fractures in communication comes to mind. Micro-fractures as manifest content carry a charge reflective of a compromise formation dynamic at work. Through the opening/piercing they provide, something unintended is shown to us. What is being shown at some level can be thought of as an out-picturing of “raw material from the patient’s internal world and history.” As compromise formations, these spontaneously expressed offerings can become the engine of self – other analysis. Note it is best to recognize by definition that what is being revealed is wearing camouflage, and all parties want to respect the dynamics at play to keep hidden the true meaning until the conditions are favorable.

The phenomenon of the blur, as an altered and altering state of emotional consciousness, provides an important bridge between the here and now and the unconscious-to-ego “latent” contents. When triggered, internally or externally, activating complexes, if unchecked, provide the stage, actors, and script for the purpose of re-enacting the wounding. That is, until such time as one or both can gather enough consciousness to wake up within this dream.

How might it shift the dialogue to consider, mutually, what we are fighting about in the blur reflects to some degree a manifest content? Note one does not want to ask is this or is this not the real fight we’re having. Rather, if something of our reality is defensive, in what ways might this reflect our co-created manifest content? And if so, how might we  penetrate the defensive camouflage? Recall, if manifest content rules are in play, psyche is allowing into consciousness material which expresses simultaneously and partially satisfies both the unconscious impulse and the defense against it.

A simple example which comes to mind is if we argue about who gets to drive the bus and something about your tone awakes my inner child, I am likely to project my shaming parental figure/introject onto you. My impulse might be to scream or cry out “NO! I want this, that, or the other” but, fearful I might sound like a two year old, and/or be shamed or punished for trying to have a say, I may hold back, in silence or protest. The defenses responsible for our early survival will kick in automatically and silence the impulse to be heard, to matter, to be a part of all that is good in the family. How are the defenses enabling our survival then still being deployed today? Getting to the core character building origins of his/herstories is never easy.

I am struck with the overlap between the concept of compromise formation and Jung’s view of the symbol. An image functioning as a symbol both informs us about, while at the same time protects us from, an emerging, essential to conscious life awareness. Jung (1921) defined the symbol as “the best possible designation or formula for something relatively unknown yet recognized to be present, or required.” (Jung, C.G., CW6)

Is it possible the blur, when recognized for what it is, may be the best possible designation or formula for something relatively unknown yet recognized to be present, or required? For more on this see my section on Complexes as Bridge to the Symbolic World in the Psycho-Educational Symbolic Overview, or my exploration of the teleology of the complex in Musings on Metamorphosis post.

When one can see the unconsciousness present in the blur as an unbidden opportunity, one can get perhaps more  wholeheartedly embrace the suffering which comes with the piercing of the the veil of camouflage. In telling our stories we create opportunities to reminisce deeply, experience again more and more of the original affects. We practice embracing our lost selves, taking care of them and bringing them home.

The take away is be on the look out for mysterious movements and meanings. The participation mystique is more than an abstract concept!

Here is more response ease for Freud’s use of manifest versus latent dream content:

“Manifest content
The manifest content can be interpreted as the information that the conscious individual remembers experiencing. It consists of all the elements of actual images, thoughts, and content within the dream that the individual is cognitively aware of upon awakening. Illustrated through iceberg imagery, the manifest content would be identified as the “tip”: it is barely exposed above the surface with an enormous portion still hidden underneath. As the hallmark of psychoanalytic theory suggests, what is observed on the surface is only a partial representation of the vastness that lies beneath (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). Although images may initially appear bizarre and nonsensical, individual analysis of the dream can reveal its underlying meaning.

Latent content
Related to yet distinctly separate from manifest content, the latent content of the dream illustrates the hidden meaning of one’s unconscious thoughts, drives, and desires. The unconscious mind actively suppresses what can be revealed from the latent content in order to protect the individual from primitive feelings that are particularly difficult to cope with. Freud (1900) believed that by uncovering the meaning of one’s hidden motivations and deeper ideas, an individual could successfully understand his or her internal struggles through eventually resolving issues that create tension in their lives. In contrast to the information easily recognizable, latent content makes up everything underneath the surface. Illustrated once again through iceberg imagery, the depth of meaning that can be derived from examining this layer can reveal deeper underlying thoughts within an individual’s unconscious.”

Explore posts in the same categories: Complexes and More, Connecting the Dots Series

One Comment on “Couple Power Struggle as Compromise Formation?”


  1. […] the blur is working, we believe in the reality of the manifest content. This means what gets our attention is our here and now problem, and our best guidance is too call […]


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