In your relationship when your partner is in pain, your first instinct may be to try and fix it. None of us want the person we love and care about to be in pain. The problem is, often times our attempts to fix it make it worse. We may explain, hey, I didn’t mean it that way, here’s my perspective. In which case, your partner is likely to not feel heard, or is likely to feel dismissed. We may get defensive, because sometimes when our partner hurts because of something we said or did, we want to correct the record and defend our good name and get them to see that they have it all wrong. Hey, I’m the good guy here, not the bad guy! And if you just saw that, we’d be okay. Again, this typically leaves a partner feeling unheard, dismissed and alone in their pain.
What your partner is looking for is not for you to fix it. In fact, they will often hear that you are trying to fix them. That their feelings are wrong and they shouldn’t feel that way. What your partner wants and needs, in many cases, is just for you to hear and understand their perspective, their hurt and they also want permission to feel what they feel, not to be made to feel it’s wrong, or silly, or stupid. They want to know their pain makes sense to someone, that they are seen and heard and understood. Once that occurs, then you can ask for what they need. And usually, it’s some type of reassurance that he/she matters to you, that their feelings matter and are important to you. That you’ll be there to listen and give your care and support and a moment that it was missed.
Simply being there, being present is often enough. It’s not about performance or having all the answers. It’s about being present, engaged, hearing, seeing. I like to tell people when your partner is sharing, leave your window for a moment, and walk over to your partners window to see what the picture look like from their point of view. Look through the lens of their story, their experiences, their personality, to see out their window the way they see it, then they will feel heard, and held and comforted and seen. You don’t have to have the answer, what your partner needs, is you.
Shame. It’s a very powerful force. We all have it. But it’s hard to talk about. It’s a dark, difficult, lurking emotion. But the less we are aware of it, and the less we talk about it, the more power it has over us.
It’s easy to see when shame is triggered when you know what to look for. Here are the common responses to this trigger. Blame/projection. When someone is saying something negative about us, and somewhere inside of us we are either afraid this is true about us, or deep inside we believe it’s true, our self protective defense kicks in and we point the finger at the other person, We project our fears/beliefs back onto them and tell them they are the problem. Note: we often are not aware we are doing this. Another typical reaction is to get defensive. This is similar to the first in that it is touching on something we fear or believe is true about us so we protect ourselves by defending ourselves. We tell the other person how wrong they are. The last typical common response is that we shut down and numb out. We don’t want to feel these feelings and it’s overwhelming. Shame often makes us hide. We don’t want others to see what we fear is the truth of who we are in that shame place. All of these responses are detrimental to ourselves and our relationships. They push those close to us away. Which then reinforces feelings of shame that we are unlovable or not good enough.
No one can really make us feel something we don’t already feel.
If I know I’m intelligent and I feel secure in my competency as a person and someone tells me I’m dumb, I may not like it, but I’m not going to have a big reaction to it because I know this isn’t true. But let’s say I had a parent that put me down as a child, I struggled with school and was belittled for it. There’s a tender spot around my intelligence that includes feelings of shame. I feel not smart enough, not competent enough, and then someone tells me I’m dumb. Boy am I going to have a big emotional reaction to that that may include lashing out and blaming the other person, defending myself and telling them how wrong they are, or turning inward and shutting down. If we don’t understand where our tender spots are, our shame places, we often react while never really understanding why we react the ways that we do, and those reactions become damaging to ourselves and to our relationships.
This scenario quite often plays out in our intimate relationships. Our partner has the ability to hone right in on our most tender spots because they are the ones that matter the most to us, and they know us the best. This is the person we care the most about what they think, they are close enough to really hit those raw spots, and because they mean the most, they get the biggest reaction when those shame spots are triggered.
So let me illustrate a relationship example where both people are triggered by shame and how it leads to disconnect. Please note, all names and content are fictional, but it’s so common and universal, it’s not unusual to see yourself in it. I’m using some extreme examples of childhood wounds, but they don’t have to be this significant for us to have feelings of shame. Remember, we all have shame to varying degrees.
Joe had a very critical father grown up. If he got a B, his father would reprimand him and question why he never got an A. So Joe would try to perform and perform to get his father’s approval, and never felt good enough. His deepest shame fear was that he was a failure and would never be good enough. Sara was abandoned by her mother when she was very young, so she has deep feelings of shame that she is not lovable and everyone will leave. Joe and Sara are in a long term loving relationship.
Often times if Joe is not being particularly attentive to Sara because he is just distracted by a bad day at work, and he also forgets to take out the garbage. Sara’s shame is triggered, she fears she is not lovable and he doesn’t really care about her. So she launches into a critical attack telling him he never remembers to take out the garbage and all the household chores are up to her. She gets angry at him and tells him he doesn’t pull his weight and she’s tired of it. Sara doesn’t realize her shame is triggered, she is just reacting. Her reaction then triggers Joe’s shame. He starts to feel like a failure as a husband, that no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, he’s never going to get it right with her, he’s never going to make her happy. His reaction is then defensiveness. He tells her how she is wrong, that he does a lot around the house and she’s being ridiculous, thereby triggering her shame even more. If only they could see what’s going on. Their reactions are pushing each other away. But the shame they feel is real, it’s not their fault they have these feelings, and if only they could share that with each other.
So what do we do about this? We have to get in touch with it, acknowledge it, understand it, and have empathy for it so we can lessen it’s hold on us. Tune into those tender spots in yourself. Where do you recognize you have big reactions like this? What tends to trigger it? How do we react when it’s triggered? Having this information gives us the power to change our response so we can then love ourselves better and love those closest to us better. It takes tremendous courage to take a look at ourselves and acknowledge something so vulnerable as shame. But remember, it is part of being human. But if we can look at it and understand it with compassion, we can begin to heal it. We can begin to challenge these beliefs about ourselves that just aren’t true. Because the truth really is that we are all lovable, we are all enough, simply because we exist.
To learn more about Shame and it’s impact, Brene Brown has many amazing TED talks and books that delve deeply into this topic. Some of her books include: Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, Rising Strong and others. And if you need support, counseling can help.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
I pulled the following text from a lawn care website. They had a section on lawn care tips and as I read it, it reminded me of marriage.
“Contrary to popular belief, dandelions cannot be effectively prevented. They can only be controlled when they’re actively growing.The best defense against weeds is a thick carpet of grass – so thick it doesn’t give the weed seeds a chance to sprout. That’s one reason Scott’s LawnServicefocuses on improving your lawn’s turf density. And during the growing season we constantly monitor your lawn for new weeds and knock them out if they appear.”
So how do I relate this to marriage? Read More
Often times couples find themselves so emotionally exhausted from the issues that plague their relationship, they look for a way out and make the decision to file for divorce. Many times the couple is made up of two people who still love each other, but they just don’t know how to get along with each other. They don’t necessarily want out of the marriage, but they want out of the pain and frustration and think divorce must be the answer.
For this particular couple, they were in very damaging cycle in their relationship and did not know how to break out of it. They had already begun the divorce process at the time they came in for counseling.
In the first session, they were unable to be productive because they were so caught up blaming each other that they could not see their own part in the cycle. They decided to separate. During their separation, they continued individual counseling.
In continuing my work to share stories of couples who sit on my couch, it is my goal to provide hope and encouragment out there to those who are struggling in their marriage.
Infidelity is one of the most painful and difficult challenges for a couple to work through because it pulls the floor of safety and security right out from under you. But the marriage can be restored. In fact, it can be better than before. It's been said that time heals all wounds. When it comes to infidelity, time is certainly a factor, but it's not the only one. There is work to be done in that time to restore trust, emotional safety and connection to the relationship. Time alone won't solve those problems.
This story is about a young couple I'll call Tom and Suzanne (fictitious names, of course). Suzanne had lost her father at a young age which left her feeling abandoned. She grew up never having felt "good enough". When she married Tom, she had a lot of insecurities and needed a lot of approval. Because of this she avoided conflict like the plague. She was afraid if Tom got upset with her, he would abandon her. He would see the qualities that she saw in herself and he would not want to be with her any longer. Because of this fear, she manipulated herself to please him, never really being authentic. As some years past, she felt a loss of her sense of self.
This is my second month writing the stories of couples who come through my doors. As I stated in my first article, not every story will be a success story. But I hope each one is one that you can learn from. I hope to bring to light the struggles of many couples so others might realize they are not alone.
This story is not the story of one couple, but a story that I have seen repeated one too many times. (Names are fictional).
Joe and Mary have been married for 18 years. They have two children who are now 13 and 16 years old. Joe is a hard worker and dedicates himself to his career. He believes that by providing well for his family, he is doing his job as a husband and father. He puts in 60 to 80 hours a week and has for the last 20 years. He has done quite well in his career and provides a nice lifestyle for his wife and kids.
This is the first in a series I am starting. The series is going to involve couples stories. Some of them will be success stories, and some of them not. But each of them will give you a glimpse into what other couples struggle with. I think you'll find that you are not alone in your own struggles. I hope that from reading these stories, you find insight into your own marriage and how to make improvements. These stories come from my experiences in counseling couples. In my 4 years of practice, I have treated over four hundred couples. To protect the confidentiality of those involved, names are not used. I will also leave out certain details or edit parts of the story so that the couple cannot be identified and confidentiality is maintained.
Remember to like my facebook page, follow me on Twitter or Linkedin, or subscribe to my rss feed so that you can keep up with the series.
I recently had some experiences that gave me a renewed sense of passion about what I do, helping couples improve their marriage and keeping families together.
There has been a lot of media lately around a recent study that was published. It reported that 40 percent of respondents said marriage is becoming obsolete. Phooey!
Marriage has great implications to our health as individuals and as a society. Research has shown over and over again that communities where marriages are strong and prevelant have lower crime rates, higher education, lower healthcare costs and other great benefits. The same holds true for individuals.
Divorce may seem like a viable option when you are unhappy or unsatisfied in your marriage. But divorce brings about tremendous upheaval and devastation in it's aftermath, especially when you have children. You should not have to remain in a miserable marriage, but divorce isn't the only option. With help, there are things you can do to create a marriage that is what you desire.
I’d like to preface this article by stating that this article is intended to focus on the needs and roles of men in marriage. Women have important needs in marriage, but that is not the focus of this article.
Laura Schlessinger wrote a controversial book called The Care and Feeding of Husbands. Well, she tends to be a controversial figure in this field because of her bold views and I won’t debate them here, but why this book was so controversial is because it was offensive to feminist women who don’t want to cater to their husbands. (I’m sure I may get some of those responses here as well!)
Men’s needs in marriage differ from women’s needs. We are often attuned to what women need in our culture today and men have had to work hard to better understand the needs of women. But how much do women understand what men truly need. In a culture where women have worked so hard to achieve equality (a work still in progress, but we’ve come a long way), and women have more power of choice in their lives and don’t depend on men for financial survival, what is happening to men in marriage?
Willard Harvey, in his book His Needs/Her Needs, states the five top needs of men in marriage. Those five needs are admiration, physical attractiveness, recreational companionship, sexual fulfillment and domestic support. The need that is often most neglected and that I want to focus on here is the need for admiration.
Women in our culture have become independent and self-sufficient. This is a wonderful thing, but men are suffering in many marriages because of it. Many have lost their place in their marriage. Men want to feel useful, purposeful and admired for their use and purpose. When women are too independent and don’t “need” their partner for anything, men can become lost in where their place is. I see problems occur when women become critical toward their partner because he is not fulfilling emotional needs or needs for help around the home. Men put forth effort and it isn’t recognized or it is criticized as not being good enough.
Affairs occur for many different reasons and I am only touching on one of them here. When a lot of couples come to me for help after an affair, I see this pattern occurring. The husband is not feeling admired in the relationship and he becomes vulnerable when a woman at work, or female friend shows that admiration. Men bear responsibility here as well, they have a choice and certainly an affair doesn’t have to be one of them. But in examining what makes marriage successful, we have to be aware of and acknowledge the needs of both partners.
Many women who come into my counseling office don’t take men’s need for sex seriously. They dismiss it as him “caring about one thing” or having a “one track mind”. But for many men, it is through sex that they feel emotionally connected, admired and desired. Typically women are the opposite, they need to feel emotionally connected (usually through thoughtful acts and conversation) before they want to or are inspired to engage in sex. So if a woman is not feeling emotionally fulfilled in her marriage, she will often stop having sex. This is one need in marriage that is not acceptable to get met elsewhere. In order to be successful at preventing affairs, we have to be aware of and able to navigate this difference between needs among men and women.
Criticism is the worst offender. That’s true for all of us. But it goes right to the core of the man’s need for admiration. So the first step is working toward eliminating criticism of your partner. Notice and acknowledge his efforts. Even though a woman does not need a man for survival, she certainly needs him for the relationship to survive. So what does admiration look like in a marriage? This is a question best asked to the man in your life. I think many men might answer that feeling desired, sexual fulfillment, being responsive sexually, acknowledging the efforts and contributions he makes, and through actions showing him why he’s the man you chose to spend your life with. These gestures go along way toward preventing affairs.
I see a lot of couples, and it is quite common in marriage, to get into fights about nothing. It seems you are fighting all the time about little things that after a while, you don’t even remember how it started. Usually when a couple finds themselves fighting a lot, there are issues beneath the surface that are not being addressed. In this article I will discuss one common theme among fighting couples.
Think of the saying, “the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference”. What does this mean? When there is love and when there is hate, there is connection. When there is indifference there is no connection. To further explain, if I can push your buttons and get a reaction out of you, then I know you care. I know I can get to you, reach you somehow. But if I get no reaction, if you are indifferent, that is a whole other story. In relationships, we all need to know that our partner cares. We want to feel we matter in the lives of one another. So what happens if I am feeling like I don’t matter?
Isolation is among the most painful of human experiences. The most severe punishment for inmates is to be put in isolation. To be ignored, or to feel alone, this is what we ward against. We are wired for human connection.
So now think about your intimate relationship. In order to feel connected, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. To feel in tune with our partner, we must open ourselves up to be seen. Well this can be very scary. So what might we do instead? If I don’t want to be vulnerable, but I still want to be connected, I’ll fight.
Often when couples want to feel noticed, cared for, not ignored, instead of being vulnerable to get this from their partner, they will start a fight. This way I don’t have to be exposed, but I still know you care about me because you are reacting to me.
This is an important concept to understand if you are going to make changes to improve the health of your relationship. Many times couples are not aware that this is why they are fighting. They want desperately to be connected, but don’t want to take the necessary and vulnerable risks to do so, so they connect in a protected way, by fighting.
So how do you break out of this? Awareness is the first step. To begin to look at the fights from a different angle. See their purpose, to connect. Then see the consequences of connecting in this way. While it may protect you, it deteriorates the foundation of the relationship, it does damage. So by understanding that you are seeking to connect with each other, you can begin to take the courageous steps of being vulnerable with your partner. You and your partner have to work together to create a safe environment where you can share openly with each other without fear of judgement, criticism or rejection. Once you feel that sense of emotional safety, you can then communicate in ways that build intimacy and connection without damaging the relationship.
If you are struggling to make these changes in your relationship, marriage counseling can help.