I watched a documentary on the teamwork and relationship skills that mom and dad penguins use to rear just one baby. It’s amazing how each of the couple knows just what to do to help the other. The unselfishness they each bring to the picture is quite amazing. I’d not make a very good penguin.
Lot’s of learning and growth this last year, with individual counseling and marriage counseling. I’ve not stopped being surprised how many of my tendencies don’t mesh well with my husband’s tendencies. Our psychologist is great at helping us figure these out and practice healthier responses to our emotions.
We work together (psychologist and I) to identify my unhealthy tendencies, find the root cause of that habit, and be intentional to form new tendencies and responses to different feelings.
Identify an unhealthy tendency –> Work to identify the root cause –> Intentionally practice a healthier response.
Sounds easy, right? One of my favorite movies is, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”. It is hilarious. Poor Matthew McConaughey’s character could not keep up with all of the shenanigans from Kate Hudson’s character. He was constantly being challenged to have responses to her quirky behaviors that he thought would be pleasing to her. All the while she is trying to drive him over the edge. Life isn’t always this funny, but sometimes…
Tendency #1: When I’m angry, I stuff it. I eat it. I hold it inside for as long as possible. The end result is explosive anger. The root causes we’ve identified go back to childhood — my mother modeled this behavior for me very well. Knowing the cause helps me address this: I don’t want to look like my mother from day to day. I don’t want to treat people the way she did. It is disappointing to see how much I have become the person I swore I’d never become.
Husband’s Tendency Response: When I try to talk through small things that are bothering me, he becomes very defensive. By the time these conversations were over, I’d hear myself apologizing and he’d get to continue on, changing nothing. When he sees that I’m angry and doesn’t know why, his tendency is to steer clear and hope it goes away. (I don’t blame him…I’d steer clear of me too. I steered clear of my angry mother. I totally get it.) His root causes are childhood related patterns as well.
These two relationship tendencies don’t work well together. I stopped talking about small issues a long time ago. Instead of husband reaching out to learn why I’m upset, or creating a safe space to have healthy dialogue about small things, he ignored me until he couldn’t any longer. Then he responded to me defensively because I was triggering his emotions, which happened because I was really upset by the time we’d talk about something.
Our New Practice: We have set the relationship boundary to share things early and often, while they are small. The kinds of issues we’re having these days are so small they don’t need any emotion attached to them. Also, being I’m super bad at talking about a small issue, and he’s not so hot at responding well, we are intentional about the way we initiate these conversations. No “surprise!”, jumping out from around a corner, ambush style conversations to sort out issues. If he is getting upset when we’re talking about an issue, I ask him if he needs a break. I respect when he says he needs a break. For that matter, I can take a break! Better to go to neutral corners and calm down for 15 – 20 minutes, than let the old practice sneak into the new practice. Practice, practice, practice. I never knew how horrible I am at this. I am absolutely horrible at bringing an issue to the table without all kinds of jangling emotions getting into the mix. Fear of failing to keep it together, fear of rejection, fear of making husband angry, etc. Yet, we’re working on it, and getting a little better all the time.
Tendency #2: When I’m hurting, I (wait for it…) stuff it, eat it, and keep it inside. The root cause has a clear two-fold foothold. (Hey, that rhymes!) My mother and father weren’t comforting people. I learned if I went to them for comfort, I would get ignored (dad) or a list of why this is my own fault (mother), and comforted by nobody. Either way, it felt like rejection. Who knowingly signs up for that?? Over time I fooled myself into believing I was able to comfort myself — with the stuffing and eating and keeping it inside. And my husband has trained me that he’s able to be compassionate when someone else has hurt my feelings, but not if the hurt is from him.
Pause for thought…why are we often nicer to perfect strangers than we are to the people we love? I’m just as guilty as the next person who is guilty of this. I can be purely comforting at the drop of the hat to anyone outside of my immediate family. However, my default position is to offer guidance when my children come to me for comfort. (I’m working on it! Who wants advice in the middle of hurt feelings, for Pete’s sake?)
When I’ve shared hurt feelings with husband, he would minimize my feelings, and spend a lot of time explaining why he was right to do what he did. Or, explain how he could have done something much worse. He has said a few times, “I could get a piece of ass any time I want to, but I haven’t.” Wow. This would be to explain even though he took women on dates and carried on emotional phone/internet affairs, it could have been much worse. That’s never worked. He just didn’t quite get that. He’s having to learn how to empathize. As bad as I am at sharing something small without freaking out or saying it poorly…he is equally new to seeing something from someone else’s perspective.
What we’re practicing: We practice sharing our feelings. We practice moving towards each other instead of away. We practice holding hands, and saying I love you, and all sorts of other meaningful ways to show love and affection. The best I can do consistently so far is answer “no”, when husband asks if I’m okay. He’s doing a super asking that question, and it means so much more than just “are you okay”. It means he loves me and wants to know how I’m doing, and he’s ready to hear it if I’m ready to try to say it. So far, it’s very difficult for me to say why I’m sad. I don’t want to make my husband sad. The painful answer to his question is usually that I’m just having a bad day, flooded with too many memories of things I can’t un-see and can’t unread that husband has said to another. He’s willing to try to learn empathy. I will keep trying to practice.
We’re two people who are trying to build new tendencies together so we can have a loving and fulfilling relationship. As I practice building my new skills, it gives him the chance to practice building his, too.
Two Thoughts to close this post out….
Thought One: If just one of us would have had healthier tendencies to bring to the table, we’d have been able to model healthiness for the other person to learn from. We’ve been married for 32 years. We’ve basically grown up together. We just didn’t bring very healthy relationship skills to our marriage.
Thought Two: Finding the root cause sounds like I’m just making my own behavior someone else’s fault. That’s really not it. I own my lack of skills. The “root cause” work has helped me understand myself better, understand why I became the person I did, and what internal dialogues I need to change inside myself. It’s really hard work, but it is worth it.
Reminder: I’m not a doctor, counselor, psychologist, or even someone who has been in years of therapy. I’m using my examples as illustrations, and not “how to” for improving someone else’s relationships.