Committed Relationships! Only the hearty need apply.
“When our children were little, I was totally overwhelmed. I worked twenty miles away from home, was responsible for buying the groceries, cooking the meals, doing all the laundry, finding day care for the children, taking them there, picking them up, not to mention cleaning the entire house all by myself. I actually think I had a nervous breakdown. I’m mad at you for not helping me more, and I’m mad at myself because I didn’t think enough of myself to ask for help.”
The mood in my office was surprisingly calm as she said these things, and more, to her husband; things she has been stewing about off and on for years, things she thought he could never understand, things that have never been spoken about calmly and have nevertheless shaped their marriage.
“Do you think he heard you?” I asked. “Yes”, and then she looked right at him, and said, “Thank you for listening.”
“Those were stressful times for me too” he responded. “I was afraid that if I didn’t perform I would lose my job. Mr. Bartlett kept giving me more and more responsibilities. He would assign me hours of additional production work then leave for the evening. I knew that I wasn’t getting paid to do the extra work, and I also knew that if I didn’t do it he would find someone who would. I remember working like crazy on Christmas Eve to finish a project, then feeling bad because it was done in such a rush it wasn’t up to par. I was afraid of getting fired.”
It wasn’t always like this, him speaking in a clam reasonable way, her looking at him with compassion and curiosity. As a matter of fact, this conversation, and the renewed connection they felt toward each other took a lot of work from both of them. It takes a great deal of commitment and courage to create a healthy relationship. For those of you who want this in your life, let me tell you how it happened.
First, they both agreed to keep their energy in the relationship and not run away. After “The Honeymoon” ends, and we all know it does, it’s tempting to want to give up on the marriage and look for something new and exciting outside of it. I hear this all the time, “I want us to be like we were in the beginning” or “Things have changed.” (No kidding! But if both parties are willing to honor the commitment, I actually think that something better can emerge.)
Secondly, this couple put forth a Herculean effort and worked through their anger, on their own, appropriately, without letting it hurt anyone else. This is BIG! No one gets everything they want in a relationship, and when we don’t get our way we have a tendency to get mad about it. (Some of us more than others.) And no one likes conflict; so actually addressing anger is hard work for almost anyone. Some of us are so scared of anger, even our own, we put off having to look at it. For some people it takes months to do the anger exercises I assign. On the other hand, there are people who just want the rest of us to learn to live with their inappropriate rage. “This is who I am, I can’t change.” As a therapist, I know better. And I also know it’s hard.
Finally, they practiced appropriate communication. Surprisingly, once the anger has been addressed, good communication is fairly easy. It means the speaker is able to talk only about himself without tossing out zingers, and the listener is able to hold the “noise” inside his head long enough to really hear what the speaker is saying. And isn’t that one of the things we like about being a couple? Feeling heard? Feeling seen? Feeling understood? We love it. It helps us feel complete and optimistic.
It’s not surprising to me that so many people are unwilling to put forth the effort it takes to create a rewarding relationship. It’s hard work to stay and fight instead of flee. But for those of you who are up to the challenge, let me leave you with what I hope will be an encouraging quote by Joseph Barth,