If we have been trusted to look at the depth of our partners’ wounds and through empathy touch their pain, we cannot help but be moved to compassion (unless we are completely blinded and numbed by our own pain). Without a compassionate response, your partner will immediately retreat behind old defenses and you probably won’t get a second chance. Assuming that your heart can look outward, what is your next move?
Billiards Is Easy To Learn – Norman Rockwell, 1920
Here are some thoughts leading to responses that are not going to work:
- Eureka!, I thought. She finally admitted that it is her problem. I knew I was right!
- Now he has to change and he knows it.
- I’ll do everything I can to help her fix that problem.
- Poor thing. I guess I’ll give him another chance.
A better idea is to participate and reciprocate, as in:
- Gosh, if we’re being that honest here, I could share a few things.
Seeing Through the Heart Space
Still, a direct response to your spouse’s wounds is invited. Empathetic acknowledgement is the action in the moment. Beyond that, do understand that these wounds likely have roots in childhood and are not disappearing anytime soon, if ever. Your partner’s radical change is not right around the corner. The difference in your relationship is that you now have the interpretive key for his or her out-sized defenses and aggression. With this key, you can take less offense, dampen irritation and stay cool, for more of the world’s pain is caused by taking offense rather than by giving offense. Remind yourself that what is really happening is that his/her wounds are crying out and then recall the innocent one who received them and the powerless one who confessed them.
Accommodation Is an Act of Mercy
Then you make a series of accommodations. The word means “towards a fit.” You go out of your way to avoid the irritants and positions that are uncomfortable for your spouse’s wounds. You exercise greater patience. You act this way not because of any requirement of fairness or honor. You accommodate as an act of mercy. It is needed, so you provide it, with no expectation of recompense. Henri Nouwen wrote of healing friendship:
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
You want to be that friend for your beloved.
I am unhappy with my spouse. At best I am disappointed and at worst I am fully ticked off. The tender support of a loving partner that I imagined in the beginning isn’t happening. Our relationship “isn’t working out,” to say the least. I still can’t believe that anybody, let alone the person who claims to love me, could be so cold and even callous in ignoring my needs. On top of that, some the behaviors I see repeatedly, some of things that are said, are just not right, not for a sensible adult, and at times they are simply mean. If I say anything it gets thrown back in my face – all my fault.
In the struggle of life, I find myself in the cruelly ironic position that my own spouse is against me, not for me. Is what I’m feeling closer to love or hate?
If Only Mother Could See Me Now – Norman Rockwell, 1918
One day my spouse “wants to talk.” I expect the usual litany of my faults and shortcomings. Already my blood pressure is rising. But within seconds I realize that it’s a very different kind of talk. I’m not offended; in fact it’s not even about me. Not an apology, but a kind of confession. I hear about fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and shame – things that go back a long time, even before we met. There is some acknowledgement that my needs are real along with an admission that the strength and skill to respond is just not there. What I think should be automatic is actually very hard without any training, any early example to follow.
This talk feels very honest and very sad. And I suddenly find myself seeing my spouse with new eyes. I just can’t be angry with this miserable person right now. All my standard defenses and counter-arguments seem pointless and inappropriate. I’m disarmed. Instead I actually feel a tinge of sorrow for the raw vulnerability that I’m hearing – a first moment of compassion.
Marriage intimacy (into-me-see) is of two parts: acknowledging your own wounds (shadow self, character flaws) and daring to expose them to your partner. Until you have seen the other’s shadow, you do not know him/her, and it is unwise to marry someone unknown. In fact, this is the best answer to the perennial question of how long is long enough to be in relationship before committing to marriage: until you’ve seen it all. The shadow self is always the last to emerge, despite best efforts to hide or deny it forever.
Girl Reading Palm – Norman Rockwell – 1921
First things first, however. There is nothing to own and share that you do not first see in yourself. One sacred text calls it “the plank in your eye.” Marriage aside, any progress in personal or spiritual growth starts here. Think of Socrates’ axiom on the unexamined life. Yet rigorous honesty with oneself is very difficult. Your ego has to be strong enough to survive the come-down without crumbling and humble enough not to veto the entire project. Ordinarily, we would defend against such critiques, especially when they come from outside. The key is to stop playing the worthiness game. Your worthiness cannot be a character judgment (by anybody); it has to come from something larger and/or more intrinsic. Some call it grace.
The second step is also not automatic. Disclosing the nature of your woundedness is a risk, a dare. The central question is – will your partner be a safe guest inside your tender truth? Vulnerability refers not to the wounds revealed but to the possibility of new ones. The trouble for many couples is that one or both partners are not safe. Safety in this context means listening without judgment, without righteousness and without exploitation. To grow in intimacy is to slowly reveal yourselves to each other, building trust along the way. One threatening response can set you back a long way.
The opposite of intimacy is estrangement. All of your problems are external, “over there,” in your partner, who is simultaneously thinking the same way. Marriage becomes a scapegoat system rather than a support system. We get married to have a very close-in support system, for which intimacy is not just an asset, but a pre-condition.
A marriage is an attachment relationship for adults. As in childhood with one’s primary caregiver, attachment is a relationship bond to a thoroughly supportive other. In human evolution, that person was the advantage that helped you to survive and raise children. Psychologically, this parent or partner helps regulate your emotions and connect you to your strengths.
Woman Pinning Boutonniere on Man – Norman Rockwell, 1922
Marriage, or any committed romantic relationship, hinges on a simple question. When I need your support, are you there for me? The question is not of money or housework, but of emotional support and three types are essential:
- Affirmation – Will you, can you, reassure me that I am a good and worthy person? We are hardwired to doubt our original dignity. Thus we need a person to mirror our strengths and goodness back to us.
- Encouragement – Will you remind me of my strengths, resources and potential when I feel weak?
- Consolation – Will you hold me when I feel defeated or lost? Will you stand by me when it feels like others have abandoned me?
Couples who sense that their relationship is in serious trouble have come to believe that their partners will no longer support them in these basic ways. At that point you start pulling away because you have to shore up your independence. Your friendships become more valuable than your marriage. Your partner cannot lessen your pain and cannot deepen your joy.
Why This is Harder Than it Sounds
Why do so many relationships deteriorate in this manner? Three factors pose steep challenges:
- Insecure adult attachment style – If you did not experience security in your first attachment relationship (with your primary caregiver) then you will have over-sized or under-sized needs in adulthood that most people cannot satisfy or cannot reciprocate.
- Insecure self-identity – You are so wounded yourself that you cannot muster the presence or the empathy to support your partner, or you quickly suspect that your partner’s needs are a critique of you and you get defensive.
- Projection, displacement or scapegoating – Your partner decides that you are the problem, lashes out at you and again you get defensive. This situation is most difficult even for the very mature person.
How Do We Get Back to Supporting Each Other?
A great number of books have been written on this subject.† Here is a emotional recipe to get started. All ingredients are for both partners.
- Dare to be vulnerable – In a “make-up” phase or with a marriage therapist, be rigorously honest and thoroughly subjective about your pain, your needs, your weaknesses and self-doubts.
- Find your compassion – See your bleeding, broken partner with your heart, without judgment. Listen and feel as if you are meeting this person for the first time.
- Be charitable – Make allowances for your partner’s shortcomings, slightly easing your ethical and moral demands, even trimming your own needs. This is real self-giving love. Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est.
(†) A few recommended books:
Johnson, Sue. Hold me tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown, 2008.
Borys, Henry James. The Sacred Fire: Love as a Spiritual Path. Harper, 1994.
Yerkovich, Milan & Kay. How We Love. WaterBrook Press, 2006.
Why is that co-worker so … (obstinate, devious, boastful, greedy, aggressive, et cetera)? The question is usually posed at the water cooler and is rhetorical, meant to solicit an affirmation of your judgment (“I must be right in thinking that so and so is bad because my friends agree”). Gossip is not so much about telling secrets as it is about group reassurance. But why, really, is that person behaving in a way that seems dysfunctional for the larger team and/or the business?
Depression, anxiety and stress are obvious possibilities. A legitimate personality disorder is a more difficult burden. Ruling those out, what is up with the normal neurotic (i.e. everybody and anybody)?
All of us are striving to be relevant and effective while staying within our comfort zones. This struggle is played out with the highest stakes in the workplace, the milieu in which we are applying our highest, most valuable skills. At the job is where our self-esteem and our very identities are on the line. I suspect that the more advanced you are in a trade or a profession, the more this is true. The business and teamwork are nice but I’ve got to prove that I matter! Otherwise I don’t have a meaningful narrative for my existence, which everybody needs.
When you observe your co-worker being difficult, get out your compassion heart-lens and see the person in a desperate struggle to matter. Win your victories with humility and never induce shame in your rivals.