By Nicole Zasowski, LMFT
I remember the day clearly. It was exam week at Fuller Theological Seminary, where I attended graduate school and my husband and I were taking a walk through the lovely tree-lined Pasadena neighborhoods for a much needed study break. I loved these times together not only because we enjoyed walking together and looking at the beautiful homes, but also because of the conversations we would have. We talked about our goals, our hearts’ desires, our hopes for the future…we dreamed together. During this particular walk I looked up and saw a very quaint and charming home and said, “Look at those shutters on the windows! I would love to live there!” Well…I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that the home happened to be enormous with an immaculately landscaped yard on the most exclusive street in Pasadena. Frankly, we could have parked our apartment in the foyer. For the remainder of the walk my husband became very quiet. The connection between us was lost. Feelings of inadequacy had shut him down. Meanwhile, I was feeling like a failure and alone and was trying desperately to say the perfect thing to recreate the connection between us. It wasn’t working. What happened!? We were spinning in a cycle of pain.
We can all think of times when we have quickly found ourselves in a painful cycle with our spouse not knowing quite how we got there. Often we cope with this pain in ways that perpetuate the cycle in a desperate (yet ineffective) attempt to demand love and safety from our partner. The good news is that there is hope for understanding yourself and your spouse and ways that you can give to your relationship that will truly make a difference. Here are just a few.
Know thyself – Know your sensitive spots. What makes you hurt? When you feel that hurt, what kind of hurt do you feel? Inadequate? Unsafe? Rejected? Alone? Where might that have come from? Chances are, every time you feel emotional pain, you are feeling the same two or three feelings no matter how diverse the situation or the people involved. These “sensitive spots” tend to come from life circumstances or relationships gone awry. What are yours? It is likely that these “sensitive spots” were developed long before you even met your partner. Once you are able to identify these core feelings, you can move toward understanding the truth about who you are. When my husband and I were able to identify those specific feelings, we were able to recognize the truth. While my husband felt inadequate, the truth is he is more than enough as a person and as a husband regardless of what we can afford. While I felt alone and like a failure, the truth is I have lots of people in my life that love me, and the “failures” I experience don’t make me a failure as a person or a wife. When we can see the truth, we are able to act in ways that constructively give to the relationship because we are no longer desperately seeking love and acceptance from somewhere else.
Focus on Your Own Growth – When we are able to own the truth of who we are and do something different, our relationships will benefit. On that day in Pasadena, I wanted my husband to be the one to make it better. I wanted him to remain reliably connected and not shut down. I wanted him to make me feel like I was enough and make him responsible for recreating the connection between us. What I quickly realized was that I needed to focus on my own growth in order to give to my relationship in a positive way…regardless of who “started it.” In Ephesians 4:20-22, Christ calls us to “take off the old self and put on the new,” commanding us to ask ourselves how we might need to grow and change. Jesus spent very little time helping people change others. Rather, He encouraged people to grow themselves. A dear friend and mentor of mine once said, “committing to ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ mindset leaves people blind and toothless…it doesn’t do much good.” He makes a good point. When we don’t take responsibility for our own growth, the relationship remains unchanged and the individuals remain hurt. Rather, when we are able to take the first step toward our own growth, the relationship changes and healing takes place.
Know Your Dance – The realization my husband and I had that day in Pasadena was that the distance between us was not about me liking a pretty house. When I said, “I would love to live there!” my husband heard, “you aren’t doing your job as my husband unless you can provide a mansion!” These wildly different interpretations are the result of a deeper pain. Shutting down was the best he could do with the deeper pain that was present long before he ever met me…the pain of feeling inadequate. Likewise, my desperate attempt to say and do the perfect thing was an old habit I had been practicing for a long time as a desperate attempt to get the love and acceptance I longed for as a result of not feeling good enough. This is a dance my husband and I have come to know well. The good news is that once we were able to understand our deeper feelings, own our own growth process, and understand this dance as a couple, we were more able to act instead of react to the pain that we feel. We were able to access the true heart of the issue. Every couple has a destructive dance that emerges every now and then. This is a part of life. The hope comes when we are able to understand and verbalize our unique pain, understand our partner’s pain, recognize the truth, and own our part of the dance, allowing us to act in ways that create love and trust in our relationships rather than distance and pain.
Therapy can help you understand you and your partner’s deeper feelings, actively pursue your own growth, discover the truth about who you are, and experience the joy that comes from a true and lasting connection with your partner.