“I said some really awful things, and I feel horrible about it.”
“I told her the truth and I know it’s going to take a long time to regain her trust.”
“It was a brutal week, we both became nasty. But the past few days have been better.”
These are typical phrases that couples share at The Nook. These are the couples who make me want to simultaneously do the happy dance, have a ticker tape parade, and award them enormous gold medals. These are the real couples, with real commitments and responsibilities, everyday stresses, and sometimes-extraordinary circumstances that stretch marriages thin. They may blow up or lick their wounds in a pity party. But they return, over and over to try again, and try harder.
We all screw up in our relationships. ALL OF US. Me included. I’ve been with the same awesome guy for over two decades. We’ve miraculously stayed connected through moving countries (a few times), renovating a century home (God give me strength), and raising three kids. Not every minute of everyday has been champagne and tender glances. I’m not always the best version of myself, but we continue to work at it and attempt to figure it out.
This is a tribute to the couples that show up in their relationship and work hard. I’m not talking about efforts made in my office – that’s the starting point. In some regards, that’s the easy part. In our time together, I help my clients articulate what they’re thinking and feeling and bring clarity to murky issues. I slow it all down to a gentler pace. I help the other partner hear what was actually said and I teach them how to respond in a way that is respectful and boundaried. I like to think that in the serene atmosphere of The Nook, everyone feels safe and supported. This is not to say it’s a PG love fest where we sing kumbaya. Tempers flare, voices rise, and tears flow.
The rubber hits the road outside the office – putting into practice the new, awkward skills of listening, being non-defensive, and non-reactive. Traction is gained through letting go of being right and trying to understand how it looks from where your partner stands. The real work is being able to call up these skills when you’re exhausted and frayed, when your feelings are stinging and brittle, the fridge is empty, the sink is clogged, the dog just threw up (again), the baby hasn’t stopped crying for two hours and the toddler is melting down because you cut her sandwich the wrong way. It is intensely tempting at those times to enter the wrestling ring and start flinging out blame and accusations of who works harder and who does more.
I have a (very) small minority of clients who come from families that modeled relational skills daily. They had parents who were loving and affectionate with each other and with their kids. Thoughts and emotions were discussed openly and regularly. Disagreements happened, sometimes angrily, but they were resolved with patience and warmth. If that was your family, be grateful – that is the familial equivalent of winning the lottery. I know many of my clients would read that description and have an easier time imagining being raised by faeries and an animal menagerie.
The couples that awe and impress me the most are the ones who grew up in The Other Type of families. Families where belittling, negligence, or abuse were the norm. Families that didn’t know how to have respectful discussions or respectful disagreements. Families that were cold or pretended everything was fine all the time.
If you were from this type of family and you are determined to create a different way of relating, in my mind that makes you a hero. That may sound like hyperbole or laying it on a little thick. But it isn’t, and here’s why; when we are hurt and vulnerable there is a magnetic draw to behave in the ways that were modeled for us. Every fiber of our being may want to lash out and spew insults, become tight lipped and silently punishing, or cut and run. In choosing a new, different way of relating you actually are doing something heroic. I am proud of you. Immensely proud of you.