marriage

How to Heal the Hurt

Part 1: Why Does It Hurt So Bad?

by Isaac Knopp, PLPC

Relationships can be a major source of pain. The following kind of dialogue is common amongst couples.

Him: My wife is always saying hurtful things that make me feel so small. I just get frustrated and feel like whatever I try to do does not make a difference to her. 

Her: Every time I bring up an issue, he just leaves the conversation or says he does not want to argue anymore. I don’t feel like he understands how much his silence is stressing me out.

As a human being, a counselor, and someone who is married myself, I know how easy it is to experience disconnection. Personally, I resonate with the above couple. Especially when attempts at repairing relationships seemingly end up pushing each other away. 

Is it really a mystery why our emotional connection with our partner goes wrong? Can we not simply name it outright?

When couples come to me talking about their hurt feelings saying, “I don’t know why it hurts so bad, I’m an adult, I should be able to handle it.” I am inclined to take these statements literally, it does hurt! Pain is not entirely a metaphor about other unresolved issues we should grow out of. Pain hurts because having a secure emotional bond is vital to the human mind as bread and water are to the body.

As humans and mammals, with highly sophisticated limbic systems, we need secure emotional bonds with our partner as a part of our built in survival code.

The good news is that we do have a road map for relationships like never before!

Why do I speak about this as a breakthrough revelation? Because it is! In only the last fifteen to twenty years, “science is, at last, beginning to address the core mysteries of human relationships” (Berscheid, 1999, p. 206). We now know that when we are even in the proximity of a loved one, their presence alone acts as a tranquilizer to the nervous system (Schore, 1994). On the flip side, when we feel like our partner is not available or responsive to us, our nervous system receives a shock that can put us in a state of distress. 

Further, we also know that the result of a literal shock is pretty predictable. If I were to stick my finger in an electrical socket, I would receive a shock which would more or less incapacitate me. So, when we are not able to make the vital connection we need in love, often we do not realize we have experienced a shock of another kind that sends us reeling. Usually we react out of our sense of distress. The dialogue mentioned above is very predictable. A man trying to manage his own reaction by withdrawing, and the wife trying to manage her reaction by protesting his withdrawal.

If we truly do have a new understanding of love, how with this help the hurting couple?

Simply put, when a couple understands their emotional bond with their partner they have the tools to work through their distress.

Johnson, Susan M. (2012-02-24). Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection (Basic Principles Into Practice Series) (p. 24, p. 26). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Why are some relationships just harder?

 

Why are some relationships just harder?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

I’ve recently seen some articles asserting that ‘if people just communicated and committed to their relationship, then their problems would go away.’ While communication and commitment are very important, I think this overlooks the many people who are committed and communicating but still struggle.

In fact, I find that many people that come in for couples counseling are deeply committed and are communicating very clearly. Then why are these relationships still difficult?

We have outside stressors

Many of the sources of relationship difficulty have nothing to do with the effort invested in the relationship. In fact, studies show that some of the biggest predictors of relationship difficulty are largely outside of the couple’s control:

  • Poor health
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage after 20 weeks
  • Low income
  • Multiple children with ADHD
  • Partner with mental health issues
  • Death of a child

If your friend seems to have an easier relationship than you, it may have more to do with your different stressors than it does with different effort. Actually, I find that most couples that come to counseling have been working tirelessly on their relationship. If they weren’t trying, they wouldn’t be coming to counseling. But with major or persistent stressors, communication can become a minefield. And it’s not always as easy as learning a few communication skills.

I am overjoyed when I see people who have easier relationships. But there is something uniquely encouraging about a couple that is still trying after years of difficulty. It takes a special type of courage and commitment to seek the help you need to better love your partner, even when it’s hard.

Our families are different

The families we’re born into also impact the ease or difficulty of our relationships. For better or worse, parents model what relationships are like, and some people have better models than others. We can choose to act differently than our parents, but in stressful times we tend to fall back into the patterns we saw modeled (or against the pattern, in an equally harmful overcorrection).  

Parents teach us what love is, how to show it, and how to receive it. They also teach us how to view ourselves. If our parents were neglectful or abusive, they gave us a distorted picture of our self. Without working through these issues, this lack of self-worth will lead us to look for that worth in our partner—creating challenging and often volatile relationships.

This requires more than a simple resolution to change. It takes awareness of how our families impacted our view of the world, relationship, and our self. Since our families tend to be our normal, we often need an outside perspective to help us heal from this impact. This doesn’t mean that you are too weak to handle it alone; it means that you are strong enough to pursue what is necessary to change it.  

We get stuck in a cycle

Couples often get stuck in patterns of relating that rob them of their joy in connecting. These cycles have nothing to do with their effort, compatibility, or how much they love each other. In fact, the fear of losing the other is often what escalates the conflict.  

The most common negative cycle is the pursue/distance (or attack/withdraw) pattern. People usually aren’t even aware that they are in this cycle. Most often, each partner simply sees the other as being unnecessarily critical or distant. It is hard for people stuck in this pattern to see the bigger picture.

Beneath this cycle, both partners truly value their connection, but they seek to preserve it in different ways: the pursuer by attacking  (to get through to them) and the distancer by withdrawing (to avoid conflict). Their mutual attempts to save the relationship (seen as criticism or lack of care by the other), only escalate the problem as each person doubles down on their ‘go-to’ strategy for preserving the relationship.

In these cases, demands for more communication will only push the withdrawer deeper into his bunker. Instead, we need help gaining awareness of our own role in the harmful cycle, so that we can interrupt it and develop a healthier pattern of relating.

Everybody’s relationship is different

It isn’t useful to compare our relationships to others, because everyone’s history and circumstances are different. Learning a few communication skills may be very helpful for someone whose relationship has had few stressors, had model parents, and hasn’t been stuck in a cycle.

For others, there will be too much anxiety and conflict in the relationship for communication skills to be the answer. This doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, that you don’t love each other, or that you aren’t compatible. Relationships are messy, and life often leaves us in places where we need help sorting out the pieces. In my opinion, one of the surest signs that someone loves and is committed to their partner is that they are willing to seek help during the hard times.

Relational Trauma

By: Andy Gear, PLPC

I recently read a book entitled Your Sexually Addicted Spouse that I found very illuminating, and I wanted to pass on what I learned to you. In it Barbara Steffens specifically seeks to help partners of sexual addicts “survive, recover, and thrive.” But her ideas can be helpful for anyone dealing with pain from damaging relationships.

One of the most helpful ideas she brings up is the concept of relational trauma. When many of us think of trauma, we think about physical wounds. But she points out that victims of betrayal have also experienced very real trauma. This relational trauma is often just as painful and life altering as physical trauma. Many people even experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress as a result of being betrayed or emotionally victimized. The pain is increased when done by someone we should have been able to trust.

I have found this concept extremely helpful, because I have noticed that many people who have experienced consistent relational trauma tend to minimize what they have been through. People often believe that because they cannot locate one definitive trauma in their life, then they have no reason to feel hurt or traumatized. But Steffens helps us realize the lasting impact of chronic relational trauma.

The rest of the book proceeds to explain what it looks like to begin the journey of healing. If your life has been impacted by a damaging or hurtful relationship then I would encourage you not to ignore its impact. Please take the time to begin the journey of healing, because relational trauma is significant and your pain is real.

 

 

 

7 tips for a healthier marriage

by: Andy Gear, PLPC
1. Avoid blaming

In our consumer culture it is tempting to look for ways to change the other person. We often look at the people in our relationships as we would products and want them to perform to our liking (Doherty). However, it is ineffective and destructive to try to change someone else. Instead it is much more effective to initiate change in your own behavior. In most cases changing how you approach the relationship will have a positive effect on the marriage, regardless of your partner’s intention to change. This is a countercultural way of living, but one that will improve relationships immensely if lived consistently.

2. Take time to reflect

Changing the way you act in relationships requires a great deal of self-reflection. We must think about who we truly are and how we want to live. It is vital to see beyond our surface frustrations to the softer emotions that are driving our fears and longings. If we do not reflect, we will see our marriage issues as merely frustrations with the other person’s behavior. In order to communicate with your spouse effectively you must know what is going on inside you.

3. Determine true needs

Reject the consumer mentality that your partner must meet your each and every desire. Spouses cannot meet every one of our needs and that is ok. We can distinguish between our needs and desires. We all have hopes and desires, but it is unfair to establish goals for another person. Determine what you truly need from your spouse, and what are simply desires or qualities that can be met by a friend.

4. Communicate your needs directly

Communicate to your spouse what you truly need in the relationship honestly and directly. Though it may be terrifying, we must have the courage to communicate our honest feelings to our spouse instead of someone else. If we do not communicate what we most long for in the relationship, our partner is unable to respond to our deepest needs.  But if we communicate our deepest feelings we open ourselves up to the possibility of closer intimacy.

5. Respond to each other’s needs

Respond to your partner’s feelings, reassuring them that you are there for them (Johnson). Be emotionally responsive to each other’s deepest fears and needs. It is not about agreeing with the other person’s view but trying to understand where the other person is coming from. Our problems often have more to do with the hurt and the disconnection than about the disagreements. Seeing one’s partner respond empathetically to their deepest needs has a deeply bonding effect. This does not imply that we solve them, but that we show that we understand. Showing your partner that they matter to you helps create a safe and secure relationship where one can be less defensive (Johnson).

6. Clarify your commitment

Knowing that you are both committed to the marriage can help lower the emotional intensity of your conflict. It helps to understand that the frustrations you are pointing out in your partner are not deal breakers. Agree that you do not want divorce to be a part of the conversation (Doherty). With this commitment, you can take the time to improve the marriage at its root, rather than frantically trying to rescue the marriage from the brink. Of course not all couples will be able to tell each other that divorce is not an option, but for those who can, this can reduce tension and improve your ability to work on your marriage.

7. Fight for the relationship

Relationships naturally weaken when they are neglected. Resist the urge to simply fight for your own needs, instead fight for the needs of the relationship (Doherty). Take responsibility for the relationship and be intentional about it.  Work together to look for creative and practical ways to continue to connect in your daily lives. Make it a priority. Staying together even through a difficult marriage (except in extreme cases) is rewarding, both for you and for your entire family. But keeping that close connection requires work, commitment, and making the relationship a priority.  


Why can’t I handle it on my own?

By: Andy Gear

When I think about life before the Fall, I don’t think of people going around lonely. But that thought comforted me because I realized loneliness in my own life doesn’t mean I am a complete screwup, rather God made me this way. You always picture the perfect human being as somebody who doesn’t need anybody, like a guy on a horse in Colorado or whatever. But here is Adam, the only perfect guy in the world, and he is going around wanting to be with somebody else, needing another person to fulfill a certain emptiness in his life . . . I wondered at how beautiful it is that you and I were created to need each other. The romantic need is just the beginning, because we need our families and we need our friends. In this way, we are made in God’s image. Certainly God does not need people in the way you and I do, but He feels a joy at being loved, and He feels a joy at delivering love. It is a striking thought to realize that, in paradise, a human is incomplete without a host of other people. We are relational indeed
Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller
I often feel like I should be able to handle all my problems on my own. Images of John Wayne and Bruce Willis float through my mind as I suck up my pain and try unsuccessfully to pull myself back up by my bootstraps. If only I just relied on God more, all my loneliness would just melt away. But as I read the first chapters of Genesis, I begin to question this assumption. Adam walked in the garden in perfect fellowship with God, and even then God said that Adam needed other people. He didn’t create us to be lone wolves. He created us to need each other, and He doesn’t call this weakness. He calls it being made in the image of God. We are relational, like our Father.

Growth in maturity doesn’t mean learning to solve all our problems on our own. Seeking caring, empathetic, and authentic relationship is not a concession for the weak. It is the wisdom that comes from realizing who we were made to be. We were not made to ‘stick it out’ on our own. In the Old Testament God called a family and a nation. In the New Testament He called His church to do life as a community of brothers and sisters. He wanted us to understand our need for help in this journey. Why can’t I handle it on my own? It’s not because there is something wrong with me. I was never meant to do it alone.  

Fiction, Hollywood, and Real Relationship

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

SPOILER ALERT:  for those who haven’t read the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, there may be plot spoilers in the following paragraphs, though I will try hard not to reveal too much.

My wife and I were discussing some of our thoughts about how the books The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay ended, and how they served to wrap up their respective series.  We were thoroughly disappointed in each and for similar reasons.  The core of our disappointment was the principle of “putting a bow on ugly”.

The Harry Potter series ended with an epilogue titled “19 years later”, that (we felt) too neatly and agreeably attempted to wrap up all the threads from the series.  The fact that Harry named a child after the person who most utterly despised him and treated him viciously even behind closed doors was just too much.  I can see coming to respect him, but one simply does not name a child after an abuser of this magnitude.  All the ugliness seemed to have inexplicably vanished.

The Hunger Games series tried to do the same thing, though the attempt at closure was somewhat better.  The author at least attempted to acknowledge that ugly existed in the post-story world, but it was still resolved too simplistically and without the flesh to make it believable for me.

Hollywood and fiction train us to expect that all the loose ends can be resolved, that resolution equals “happily ever after” or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.  They train us to need things to work out that way.  This is most plainly true in the (despicable and utterly useless) genre known as “Romantic Comedy”.  I cannot say more without using profanity.

Think of the sense of disappointment or unease when you watch a movie in which resolution is not clean or neat. We recently watched the movie Moneyball, which does not conclude with a “Hollywood Ending”.  I can only say that the events depicted happened within the recent lifetimes of many, and as such could not be modified to fit the pattern described above.  I feel that if they were more ancient history they would likely have been changed into something completely victorious.

This is fine, and even necessary (to a degree) for celluloid.  The unfortunate side effect is that because reality is very much different, many people are left with a sense of disappointment and even despair when real life does not work that way.  The truth is that human beings are generally a broken, selfish lot that is capable of both great goodness and great evil, often within a single breath.

The fact is that intimacy, real relationship, and engaging responsibly with another human being is often like a wrestling match.  The very best relationship in the world experiences conflict and disagreement, hurt and offense, misunderstanding and tension on an ongoing basis.  The couple who tells you that “never a harsh word is spoken” is either whitewashing, outright lying, or they are not experiencing real, deep intimacy.

If you are going to really do deep, intimate relationship with another person, you’d better know how to fight.  I don’t mean knowing how to eviscerate your opponent in the shortest period of time.  I mean knowing how to hold in tension the following two truths: 1. This other person and I are on the same side,  and 2. There is pain and friction between us.

When I talk about knowing how to fight, I mean knowing how to understand and express my own feelings and thoughts in a way that does not accuse or attack the other, even when it is plainly and wholly their fault.  I mean learning how to uphold their honor and dignity while feeling the painfully powerful desire to rip their eyes out.  I mean knowing how to view conflict as a necessary part of doing relationship, and not as a threat to relationship.

It is often one of the hardest lessons to learn in relationship that resolution is not about coming to agreement, but rather it is about coming to a deeper understanding of the other person, and thereby learning how to craft a unique relationship between the two of you.  No part of that process is clean, neat, or simple.  It is ugly, and to expect or demand otherwise only leads to disappointment.  You can put a bow on it if you like, but that doesn’t make it easier to look at.  It takes patience, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love.  When you’ve come to the other side of it, it will still be ugly, but there is a beauty in what has been created by moving through it that will last a lifetime.

Start at the Bottom… And Stay There.

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

I work with a lot of couples, and one thing I notice a lot of is Expectations.  I think this is a simple fact of being human.  We place a lot of expectations in the people around us.  The closer they are, the more we expect of them.  Most of the arguments I hear (and honestly, most of the arguments I start myself) begin the same way:  “You always…” or “You never…”.  Loosely translated, what this usually works out to is something like this: “You don’t do what I want/hope/expect you to do.   I have the right to expect that you will do this. My expectations are disappointed.”

Naturally when someone hears a statement like this, the human response is a defensive counterattack.  “Oh Yeah?  Well, YOU always…” and it only goes down hill from there.   A good rule of thumb is to listen for the words “Always” and “Never”.  Often, those words are code for the expectations that we have, and that we feel our partner is not meeting.

It is a natural pattern to look at everything our partner is supposed to be doing and highlight where they are dropping the ball. But what if we turned this pattern on its head?  What if we were able to shift our focus away from the places our partner is disappointing us and look instead at how we can help them be everything they were made to be?  To organize our efforts at encouraging and building them up instead of encouraging them to build us up?

I am not suggesting that we should simply try to do everything our partner tells us to do.  That would be about as much fun as boot camp.  That only feeds the conflict monster.  I am suggesting that we work toward helping them be more emphatically themselves, rather than trying to shape them into who we want them to be.  

This requires listening to and learning about who they are, who they want to be, their hopes and dreams, desires and fears.  It requires starting at the bottom, working to understand what makes them tick and why they do things the way they do rather than trying to convince them that the way they are doing it is wrong. It requires placing yourself in the position of learner rather than expert.  We are asking the question, “How can I help you reach your dreams and goals?” rather than “What have you done for me lately?”

This is not mindless subservience.  Sometimes helping someone be better at being themselves can include challenge. It can include confronting hurtful and destructive patterns. It can include stretching and pushing someone we care about outside their customary limits.  And again, these things must be done in a spirit, not of reshaping them into our own image of what they should be, but of helping them sharpen and explore their own potential.  I am talking about placing yourself at the service of your partner.

There is a lot more to this idea than there is space to explore it here.  Consider this a teaser, food for thought. I am asking you to simply consider what it might be like to “through love, serve one another”.

The Characteristics of Abuse and Control

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
I recently spoke at the Women’s Safe House on the subject of identifying and avoiding potentially abusive relationships.  The presentation was called “How Not to Go Back:  Finding a Different Kind of Mate”.   What follows are a few of the ideas presented at that meeting.
Very often, as people move from relationship to relationship, they find themselves attracted to the same kind of person.  They leave one relationship for whatever reason, and find themselves in a relationship with another person who looks, acts, thinks, and speaks in similar ways. The problems of the previous relationship happen all over again in the current one.  This is especially troublesome when the other person is abusive or controlling. 
Often “number one” on the list of criteria used to judge the suitability of a mate is their appearance, but what needs to be considered most carefully is what is on the inside.  Charming behavior and kinds words all too often give way to harshness, belittling, demands, and even physical altercations. 
While there is no single characteristic that guarantees that a person is an abuser, I have assembled a list of characteristics that are common among abusive or controlling partners.  What follows is not exhaustive: I have tried to assemble a representative list of suggestions on how to see into a person’s character regarding how they will likely view and relate to a mate or partner.  
I use the male pronoun because unfortunately, the vast majority of abusers are male.  I do not in any way seek to suggest that “all men behave this way”. There are indeed men “out there” who are good, honorable, respectful, kind, and loving. 
Warning signs:
  • Easy frustration or quick temper
  • Jealousy or possessiveness (indicates a sense of ownership rather than partnership)
  • Getting “carried away”, even in little or positive things (lack of control over impulses)
  • Lies, excuses, cover-ups: “I didn’t mean it! I was drunk: it wasn’t me! It was the alcohol.”
  • What happens when you say “No.”?  If it is disregarded or discounted, take warning!
  • Parent/Child relationship (you have rules and consequences for breaking them)
  • History: Has he abused before?  Does he use force to solve his problems?
  • Pushing blame/lack of responsibility:  “I wouldn’t have had to do that if you hadn’t…” “You brought this on yourself. You made me mad.”
  • Giving orders/making demands versus making requests or seeking your opinion. 
  • “I’m sorry, but…”  The “but” undoes whatever came before it!
Areas to look at:
  • Church/Faith/Religion: how is the language of  “headship & submission” used? If being the “head” means “I get my way over yours” there is a potential problem!
  • Family Patterns: What is his parents’ relationship like?  How do his siblings relate to their significant others and children?  How does he treat his mother?
  • F.O.G.: Does he use Fear, Obligation, or Guilt to get his way? (‘You owe me! Look at all I do/provide for you!”)
  • H.A.L.T.: Who is he when he is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?  These are not valid excuses for lashing out!

Two Laws of Relationship:

  1. You ALWAYS have the right to say what happens to your body. Nobody can tell you that “You have to take it”.
  2. You are ALWAYS responsible for how you use your body. “You made me do it” is a lie.
I hope some of these ideas are useful as you think about your relationships or as you consider new ones.  As I said before, no single characteristic or idea listed above guarantees that a person is abusive or controlling (or not so!).  These are ideas to help you see what is on the inside of the person you are attracted to, and to hopefully help you choose someone who will treat you with the dignity and honor that every human being deserves.
Some reading this post may come to understand for the first time that you have experienced a relationship like that which is described above.  Some already know it and feel it deeply.  Some may realize that these are ways in which you habitually relate.  Please understand that hope is real and change is possible.  If you would like to discuss this post with me in a confidential manner, please contact me at jonathan@avenuescounselingcenter.org so we can arrange a time to talk.