Monday, January 25, 2016

Being Real with Each Other is Beautiful--Even When It's Ugly

In this earlier post I promised to tell the story of how Brittany and David keep maintain a fresh sense of connection, a sense of vitality to their relationship that makes them feel like they're still boyfriend/girlfriend after thirty years together. They do it by being authentic even when they know their genuine response will challenge or disappoint the other.

It took them a long time to get where they are now. Before they learned to get real and stay real with each other, Brittany recalled that she and David "Lived parallel lives." It would be easy to assume that the distance between them provided some sort of safety--a buffer that softened what went back and forth, making interactions easier to bear. Not so. In fact, Brittany recalls, there was an ache that saturated their lives and relationship. "We could never get out of trauma and get on with our lives."

Working for five different tech companies over the years, David has travelled a lot. They'd go days feeling disconnected, and then he'd come home and they'd fight. He couldn't figure out why Brittany was so guarded with him and why she never seemed to want sex. The truth was, David seemed to her like a stranger. Even though they'd been married for years and were raising two children together, Brittany felt utterly disconnected from David. 

Knowing their relationship was not working, Brittany kept trying to "work through things" with David. He dreaded those "grilling sessions." At first when she probed him, David insisted there was nothing to share. When Brittany persisted, her queries felt intrusive to him. When she still wouldn't let up, he joked that she wanted him to be like a girlfriend to her, always gossiping and sharing feelings with each other. 

The truth was, David dreaded talking more openly with Brittany about his porn use. He knew porn offended her sensibilities. For that matter, it also violated his own morals. But all hell seemed to break loose every time she saw something on the computer that worried her or he admitted that he had fallen back into viewing porn on a semi-regular basis. 

At Brittany's insistence, four years ago David came into counseling with her. He admitted right up front, "I do pull away, even when I'm in town and we're around the house together. It hurts to hear over and over again all the things I am that she doesn't like, all of the the things she want that I don't deliver. I try to tough it out, rise above it, remember that she loves me. But when being close means I get reminded of all the ways I don't measure up, I do want to pull away. She's a blamer, and when stuff isn't going her way, she comes on the warpath. So I find every excuse I can to run errands, go do things with my buddies, or retreat to the basement and hope she'll leave me alone so that we can live peacefully. Is that too much to ask, to have some peace and harmony in our lives?"

This was the beginning of things going differently: Instead of merely pulling away, David was talking about why he was tempted to pull away. It's very different to talk out what we feel like doing instead of acting on those feelings. I encouraged Brittany to do the same thing: talk out what happens inside her when she feels like she needs to pursue David, when it feels to him like she is hunting him down and trying to drag something out of him. 

"I feel like I've been pretending things are fine, pretending we're okay, when actually I have this gaping emotional wound from not really having a relationship with each other. He's away for a week at a time and when he comes back he wants me to hop in the sack with him and pretend to have a grand time even though he feels like a stranger to me. His porn habit hurts me and he knows it, but he won't talk about it. Ninety percent of the time I don't even know how that's going. I have to guess, do detective work to find out, or ignore it and pretend it doesn't matter. Sometimes I've tried to do that, pretend it doesn't matter. But then I feel detached not only from him, but from myself. That's the hell I've been living in."

Over a period of months, David and Brittany kept talking about how they felt and what they felt like doing about it. They got better and better at avoiding those actions--David withdrawing and going silent and Brittany blaming and attacking. But they weren't stuffing the familiar feelings that led them to do those things, they were talking those feelings out instead. 

There is a key roadblock David and Brittany had to work through that prevents most couples from engaging in this kind of communication. They had to get over the unrealistic expectation that if things were going well, if things were as they should be, they wouldn't find each other to be a disappointment. It's a hard truth, but it's liberating once we accept it: in the natural course of life we are bound to be disappointed in our spouse, and it's okay to talk about it. 

It turns out that it really is okay to be disappointed. It's not an indictment of our spouse as a human being, it's a part of life. And the same shoe fits the other foot: we are bound to be a disappointment to our spouse, and it's good for them to tell us about it. 

Sometimes we think we're protecting each other by hiding the truth, pretending we share their opinion, or acting like something doesn't matter to us when it really does. But the resulting lack of understanding and closeness takes a toll.

How about your relationship? Do you notice a difference in how close you feel and how alive the relationship seems when you're being open and truthful instead of careful and diplomatic? 

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