All couples have, at one time or another, deeply disappointed each other. The emotion attached to any hurt inflicted upon each other might be one of any number of negative emotions. But unless couples can learn to release of some of these negative feelings, it becomes difficult to co-exist peacefully as a team. As hard as it is to let go of anger or disappointment, for example, it is a necessary and quite affectionate gesture. Essential to the development of mutual regard and appreciation for the relationship is a sense of caring and concern toward the offending partner.
Benevolence is hard to come by when you feel angry. Or, hurt. Or, betrayed.
When discussing her recent postpartum depression, Stacy said she could not forgive Drew.
“I think he felt bad for me for about 2 seconds. Then, it was back to who’s making dinner, why are you still crying, why do we have to pay so much for all the goddamn doctors, get your shit together already, I need you!”
Therapist: Did this surprise you? Were you expecting Drew to respond a different way?”
“Um. Yeah. Well, wouldn’t any human being reach out to their wife if she is curled up in a corner sobbing and saying she’s rather be dead? I mean, c’mon. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I needed support. He’s a moron.”
When hurt, anger and other negative emotions remain unattended, they insidiously morph into monsters. When that happens, fangs come out, poison spews, and claws take hold of the unsuspecting partner. What did I do this time? Drew wondered.
It's hard to let go when you feel so bad. Besides, it can actually feel good, paradoxically, to feel so bad. Sometimes, people feel entitled to their anger and the unwillingness to let go feels like a badge of honor, in a way, you hurt me so I’m not going to budge. Clinging to the anger feels unconstructively gratifying. We hold grudges, we wallow, we wait for an apology with prickly anticipation. We vow never to let ourselves be that vulnerable again. In the meantime, we sidestep the opportunity to find relief and an open heart. When you blame others, you keep yourself locked into the pain. When you let go, you move from role of victim to taking responsibility for how you feel by taking control of yourself and your life again. Letting go can set the stage for a deeper understanding and effectively reduce anger.
Conflict in a relationship never feels good. When in the throes of it, emotions can run amuck and things can escalate or decompensate quickly. Either way, it can feel hard to escape from, even claustrophobic, for a marriage. Yet conflict plays an important role, particularly when you can harness the conflict on behalf of the relationship and make sense out of what is being disputed.
Therapist: “Why do you think Drew had a hard time supporting you during the darkest days?”
“I have no idea. How would I know? You mean, besides the fact that he’s an ass?”
Therapist: “Something like that. What do you think got in his way? Why do you think it was hard for him?”
“I’m not sure.” She took in a swelling sigh while her eyes darted back and forth, trying to find an answer that made sense. “It’s hard for him when I’m sick. Whenever I’m sick, even if I have a cold, he spazzes out and gets angry.”
Therapist: “What does he do? How does his anger manifest when you get sick?”
“He storms around like he’s 5 years old. He starts snapping at me and insisting that I take care of him when I’m hardly able to take care of myself!”
Therapist: “What do you do when that happens?”
“I scream back at him. I know, that’s not helpful, but it’s all I can do when he’s acting like a child.”
Therapist: “Why is that? Do you scream at your children?”
“Of course not. No. Well, I try not to.”
Therapist: “Then why do you scream at your husband?”
“Because.” She stops and listens to her words. “Because, um, I’m frustrated and I don’t know what else to do?”
She stops talking. And hears that her responses to Drew’s behavior are indeed, not helping.
She also begins to realize that his regressive behavior has been channeled by whatever symptoms impede her ability to take care of the family. She discovers after further exploration that her illness reminds him of when his mother was repeatedly sick and unable to care for him and his young siblings. So the slightest hint of Stacy’s impaired capacity to care for the family instantly charges an emotional reaction. He feels abandoned, frightened, confused, and angry. Stacy’s eventual appreciation of his emotions enabled her to respond more effectively. When she reframed his anger as an expression of an unmet need that scared him, she was better able to reassure him and ultimately, help him, help her.
When you insist on staking claim to a negative feeling in response to something your partner has done or said that was hurtful, you simultaneously block out any positive emotions that might accompany the process of letting go. We refer to this as letting in. When you let go of hurt, you let in relief.
One of the worst things you can do in a partnership is beat the other side down.
Whether it’s ego-driven by unfulfilled needs, or simply because you’ve had a bad day, energy should be spent building each other up, not breaking each other down. When you insist on focusing on what your partner is doing wrong, you employ unsophisticated tactics that never feel good.
It is not fair, it is not nice and it is not helpful.
In order to create a community of respect both partners need to want to do that. Respect and esteem do not come from power or anger or fear. They come from opening your heart to the possibility that good things will happen when you take care of each other and the relationship.
Copyright 2013 Karen Kleiman
Adapted from Tokens of Affection: Reclaiming Your Marriage After Postpartum Depression (Routledge, January 2014)