Stressed and Anxious
Making Marriage Work, Part 1
(This is part 1 of a 5-part series on making marriage work) It was Joan’s first counseling session with me, but it didn’t take long before the tears began to stream down her cheeks. “I’m married to the man of my dreams, but I’m miserable,” she said, reaching a hand up to wipe away her tears. “We were so in love and now things are falling apart. We are fighting and distant much of the time. I love Justin and I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know why this is happening.
I seem to be getting angrier and angrier and he is getting more and more distant.” “What are you angry about?” I inquired. “Justin keeps pulling away from me. He’s working longer and longer hours. But even on the weekends when he is home, he just seems to be distant.
He’s either watching TV, playing computer games, or in the garage working in his workshop. When I try to talk with him about it, he shuts down even more. We can’t talk at all anymore.” Like Joan and Justin, many couples are stuck in a dysfunctional relationship system, wondering what happened to the love and passion they had at the beginning of their relationship. Two major fears may be undermining your relationship with your partner: Fear of rejection: the loss of another’s love through anger, judgment, emotional withdrawal, physical withdrawal, or death. Fear of engulfment: the loss of self through being controlled, consumed, invaded, suffocated, dominated, and swallowed up by another’s demands. Until these fears are healed, you will likely react defensively whenever they are triggered. Joan reacted by getting angry when her fears of rejection were activated, while Justin withdrew when his fears of engulfment were triggered. You might react in different defensive ways, but the result will be the same - your reactive behavior coming from your fears of rejection or engulfment will trigger your partner’s fears of rejection or engulfment. Now both of you are acting out of fear.
Together you have created an unsafe space where love and intimacy will gradually erode. Most of us have not learned to stay open when our fears of being rejected, abandoned, engulfed, or controlled are triggered. If, when these fears are activated, you focus on who is at fault or who started it, you perpetuate the problems. Blaming your partner for your fears, as well as for your own reactive, unloving behavior, makes the relationship feel unsafe. You both end up feeling badly, each believing that your pain is the result of your partner’s behavior. You feel victimized, helpless, stuck, and disconnected from your partner. You desperately want your partner to see what he or she is doing that (you think) is causing your pain. You think that if your partner only understands this, he or she will change - and you exhaust yourself trying to figure out how to MAKE your partner understand. Over time, passion dries up. Superficiality, boredom, fighting, and apathy take its place.
The dual fears of LOSING THE OTHER through rejection and LOSING YOURSELF through being swallowed up by the other are the underlying cause of unloving, reactive behavior. These fears are deeply rooted. They cannot be healed or overcome by GETTING someone else’s love. On the contrary, you must heal these fears before you can SHARE love - give and receive love - with your partner. The key to doing this is learning how to create a safe inner space where you can work with and overcome your fears of rejection and engulfment. In this series, I will show you a powerful six-step process you can use to create and maintain the inner safety you need to become strong enough to love. Only when you have achieved inner safety and inner strength can you create a safe relationship space. Joan gradually learned to stop attacking Justin and take loving care of herself whenever her fears of rejection surfaced. She learned to create inner safety when she felt threatened rather than trying to get Justin to make her feel safe from her fears. You can do this too.
In fact, any two people who are willing to learn to create their own inner sense of safety can also learn to create a safe relationship space where their intimacy and passion will flourish and their love will endure. The rest of the articles in this series will lead you through this six-step healing process.
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