“We were doing pretty good until we came in today.” I hear this from a couple pretty often, who visit me weekly for marital counseling. She has anxiety and perfectionistic tendencies and he enables her controlling tone and anxious decision-making. Being a co-dependent husband isn’t unfamiliar to him, because he learned in his childhood to be the “good boy” by getting good grades, not rocking the boat, and being helpful to anyone as much as possible. He learned to find approval and belonging by playing this role in his life. She happens to feel shame about her image and her performance, so she manages her anxious feelings through him….by trying to control, prevent, and maneuver life decisions. If she feels uncomfortable, she lets him know and he receives the information about her feelings as his responsibility.
When challenged about this behavior, he and she say, “But isn’t that love, isn’t that why they’re married, so they have each other’s back?” The answer is no, a resounding, confident, “NO.” They are experiencing an unhealthy coping mechanism they each created in their childhood and now its the only way they know to manage married life. Though they may know this in their minds, the heart is still the deciding element used to make decisions. So they remain unable to accomplish or follow through to address what is really going on in their marriage.
Marriage can be more fulfilling if we can grow from it, spiritually and emotionally. As children and young adults, we grew up trying to avoid the scary things about life. Our care takers taught us a good amount of fear about crossing the road without looking, touching a hot stove, not talking to strangers, and so on…. But when is it okay to recognize that pain is good? When is it okay to feel sadness, disappointment, fear, anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, shame, or guilt? How did you learn to manage these types of feelings? They exist for everyone and they do not go away just because we get married or fall in love with someone. Love does not stop these emotions from occurring, no matter how much we deny them. These types of feelings will and do push themselves to the surface, regardless of how much we do to push them away.
Pain is good! When couples argue, fight, or disconnect, they experience the stages of feelings that are being triggered from the outside. But the feelings come from the inside. The outside is not always manageable or controllable, but our inside feelings and response to what we think can be understood, evaluated, and managed. Pain can be productive. Pain points to our inner truth, our beliefs, our fears, and our most intimate thoughts. When my client says, “I know, because she looks like she’s mad at me. I can’t stand it when she doesn’t talk to me and just shuts down! What am I supposed to do with that?!?” The issue is not the wife’s appearance, but the assumptions the husband is making about her appearance, and then he must evaluate how he is going to respond and whether or not he understands the truth of his response. The issue is not, “How can I keep the other person from being disappointed or upset with me.”
If you are living with someone who feels like the end of the world is drawing near when something feels scary, painful, hurtful, or disrespectful, then you need to understand more about your dynamics with this person. If you are taking on someone else’s emotional burdens and feeling smaller, unimportant, and less than them, then you need to evaluate your willingness to be in such a relationship with the other person. Ask yourself what allows for such a dynamic, what type of pain is this situation pointing at for you.
Clients often leave sessions saying they felt better before the session started because they have been working on denying the painful and uncomfortable feelings in order to maintain an unfulfilling marital life. The purpose of marriage is not to coddle an adult who wants to remain in infancy and childhood, feeling afraid of crossing the street. The purpose of marriage is to bring about productive pain and discomfort that results in fulfillment and personal growth.