John and Sharon had been married for 8 yrs when they called to make an appointment for marriage counseling. They had three children and “Sharon” was thinking about leaving “John”. He was devastated, and although he knew there were issues, had no idea it was that bad. She felt he had no consideration for her feelings, and that he just did whatever he wanted. He’d go out with his friends, drink too much, come home late, and got annoyed when she got angry. He loved going fishing on a Sunday, and she was left home with the youngest two children. When he came home, she would be livid, and was unwilling to talk to him about it. She just shut down, and he knew to stay away. Every time they tried to talk about it, the conversation escalated into a painful shouting match, and both of them felt unheard and alone. As time went on, the distance between them grew, and they felt more and more hopeless.
Though the story of John and Sharon may differ from yours, the dance is usually similar. It all comes down to not being able to navigate through the conflict, which always creates disconnection and disillusionment. As we know, in every partnership, there will be conflict. What you do during those times will determine the level of satisfaction in your relationship.
In the course of therapy, they learned many important things about themselves and each other. Sharon grew up in a home with an alcoholic dad, who was emotionally distant. She also saw her parents fighting, and felt totally powerless and anxious, knowing there was nothing she could do. She felt helpless and out of control. What she did to take care of herself was to go to her room. She learned to distance in order to protect herself from the conflict.
John’s parents were divorced when he was young, and his dad was a very wealthy business man, whose focus was mostly himself. John’s dad lived in another city, and would send limos to get his son on his weekends. On occasion he would forget. If John tried to tell his dad how that felt, he would be met with his dad’s defensiveness and disapproval. John continually felt unimportant and unsafe around his dad. Although John’s mom was supportive and loving, she was a working mom, so as an only child he spent his time with his friends, and his friends’ parents.
When we fall in love, we fall in love with a person who will trigger those childhood memories. It is not a conscious remembering, so the feelings that arise during difficult times feel very current and very raw. As children, we find ways to protect ourselves from that pain. Sharon learned to distance and shut down. John learned to go play with his friends and get his needs met elsewhere. When John would go out with his friends, Sharon felt angry and out of control, so when he came home and would want to talk about it, she would be really mad, and not talk to him. He continually felt unsafe and unappreciated for all the ways he tried to take care of her and his family. She continually felt like what she needed was unimportant to him, and felt alone and hopeless. She longed to feel safe, loved, and that her needs mattered to him, and he longed to feel loved, important, and appreciated.
Sound familiar? In the course of therapy, both of them learned how much their childhoods impacted their relationship. They saw how neither of them were “bad” but were just doing what they’d learned when they felt discomfort (to put it mildly) in the relationship. They were able to develop understanding and compassion for themselves and each other, and begin to see their defensive behaviors more clearly. Each began taking responsibility for the reactions that inevitably resulted in pain and disconnection, and began learning and practicing new and safer ways to connect with each other.
Last week we had our last session. They told me they were pregnant with their fourth child. They were really excited about that. We talked about all they’d learned, and that though they knew there would be ongoing challenges (you think?), they now had options. They had new communication tools and knew that if they stayed aware, they could consciously move from any conflict to connection. They also knew that their children grew up in between the two of them. As they created more safety in their relationship, their children would feel safe to be themselves and would learn healthy relationship skills. I’m really proud of them. They worked hard were committed to their individual growth and the health of their relationship. Living life consciously is not easy, but knowing you have choices makes all the difference.