Don was a tall thin, ex bass guitar player of 43 who had been sober for 18 months. He had, for the first time in his adult life begun to experience the pleasure of being alive without drugs in his system and had met Karen. Karen was a divorcee with two teenaged children. Her ex-husband had been a raging, violent alcoholic with whom she had struggled nearly 20 years to make a life.
When she met Don she felt relieved to be with someone who listened to her feelings, cared about what she thought and wanted. Together they forged an attempt at a marriage. Within six months Don had begun verbally putting her down and nagging at her for minor infractions. Karen had been “through this before” and she withdrew from him emotionally, mentally making her plans for divorce before they were through their first year.
The Underlying Issues
Before the year was out she had divorced him and was convinced that no man could be what she needed. When I spoke with her a few months after the divorce she told me about the failure of their marriage. She said he had never been able to perform sexually, but that she was not upset about it; she was just happy to have someone who cared about her. But as his own since of inadequacy around his sexual performance grew, he became angrier and angrier toward her, ultimately pushing her to divorce.
I was saddened that she had not discussed her marital problems with me prior to their divorce because I knew what had happened could have been prevented had she been aware of the dynamic underlying his behaviors. Don’s insecurity put him in a position of feeling trapped and hopeless, despairing of being the partner for his wife in the way he wanted. His instinct was to move into a self-protective mode, pushing her away so that she would not want to be sexual with him. Karen then reacted back in her own self-protective mode and retreated behind first emotional barriers, then legal ones.
Both in tremendous pain and feeling like a failure, the marriage dissolved without so much as a look back.
Failure Out of Fear
Don and Karen’s dramatic example of how a marriage can fail out of a fear that is not addressed highlights the pain that results from a lack of compassion in marriage. Do I think Karen should have continued to put up with his verbal abuse? No, I don’t. But I do think that if she had been able to see through the rage into the pain that was underneath, she may have been able to save her marriage.
Don continued to be the same loving, gentle, wounded soul she had married, but she lost sight of that because of how his hurt and fear played out. No one can blame her for that considering the abuse she had endured for nearly 20 years. Yet all in all, it was such a shame for both of them.
Had Karen recognized that he was pushing her away because he was so fearful of rejection by her because of his inadequacy in the bedroom, she could have responded to him with empathy instead of self-protective anger. Had Don recognized and been able to own his true fear to her instead of pushing her away, things might have turned out very differently…
If Karen had come to me sooner, I could have helped them work through their fears and begin to see each other as human beings who are hurting and desperate for love. Had either of them taken ownership of the situation and offered empathy and respect to the other, compassionate understanding could have transformed their relationship.
How to Work Through the Fear
If you find yourself in a situation where your partner seems to suddenly be pushing you away with anger, nagging or other kinds of protective withdrawal there are things you can do.
- Breathe, and know that whatever is going on with them, while it might seem like it is about you, rest assured it is not. Contain your own reactivity long enough to hear what is really going on.
- Listen to the fear and hurt underneath the anger. When someone is angry and bitter or cold, they are in pain and/or fear.
- Respond in a way that acknowledges your recognition of their feelings. Say something like; “I can see that you are really hurting right now. I’m sorry. What is going on?” Use your own words to convey that message.
- Give them a chance to fully disclose what they are feeling even if it makes no sense to you initially and you don’t agree with their point of view.
- Respond to what they are saying with some kind of acknowledgment that what they are saying makes sense given how they saw things. (This does not mean you agree, only that given how they are seeing it, it makes sense.)
- Let them know you empathize with their pain and/or fear. Have you ever felt anything like what they are expressing before? Our human experiences are always similar. Letting your partner know you’ve been there helps them feel safer with you.
- If they will let you, connect through some kind of physical touch, a hand on the shoulder, a kiss, a hug, a held hand… something that gives them the physical sensation of your being there with them.
Of course, I recognize how difficult this is to achieve when someone is expressing their anger directly to you. But when you can shift out of the automatic reactive self-protection mode you have a chance and getting beyond the tit for tat battles that are the downfall of even very close relationships.
The compassion that is the end result of such communication can really change everything about your life in every relationship. It can save your marriage.