This is part two of a three part series about the rescue of a drowning marriage. To read part one, click here.
“We need help.”
These three simple words were immediately followed by lots and lots of other words.
It was messy, frustrating, beautiful, sweet and sad all at once.
Our first therapist appointment was an orientation. What was the world of our marriage as we understood it? What did we think the problem might be?
Defining the REAL problem can be difficult when all of the symptoms of the problem also look like problems.
I thought the problem with our marriage was that Frank was not partnering with me on my agenda.
Frank was equally certain that the problem with our marriage was my inability to get on-board with his agenda.
Clearly, one of us was absolutely wrong and it wasn’t me.
In our second meeting, our therapist asked Frank to describe his family of origin (a fancy way to describe the family you were raised in).
And so Frank began to speak…
While I was listening to Frank talk about his family of origin and the people he loved and his stories and his life, I realized I was genuinely listening to Frank for the first time in months. I realized that I was soaking him in. It reminded me of something familiar and lovely and warm: it reminded me of one of our first dates.
One of our very first dates was to a restaurant called John’s Place in Lincoln Park (now the White Oak Tavern & Inn). Our conversation was light and quick and funny. My face hurt from smiling so much. I wanted to know everything about Frank after that date. He was one of the most fascinating and spellbinding humans I had ever met.
We spent our first nine months of dating learning everything we could about each other while simultaneously trying to create new memories together. It was dizzying and exciting and intense. And then Frank proposed and we spent six months planning our wedding together and taking premarital classes with quizzes and personality tests. Every avenue we walked down was an opportunity to learn more about the other person.
At some point – maybe it was while having twins or maybe it was while Frank lived in Atlanta most of the month or maybe it was while we were sprinting through life, we stopped really knowing each other. We stopped running together.
So it goes – one thing leads to another and to another and then we were in therapy and Frank started talking about his life. I knew many of the stories, but had forgotten some and needed reminding about facets of others. I found myself watching him talk and feeling my heart thaw.
All of the pretense and pain and mess of life melted away. The more I learned about Frank, the more I wanted to know. Good, bad, ugly. Whatever.
Intimate partnerships thrive on knowing and being known. When couples who know each other intimately are separated by time and space, they long for the other. They thirst for their other half.
It sounds silly and cliche, but I think this was the heart of our problem: we were thirsty for each other.
Thirst is a tricky thing. Thirsty people often think they are hungry. That’s why most diets and eating programs insist that participants drink plenty of water. Most of us have been walking around our entire lives thinking we were hungry, when more often than not, we were actually quite thirsty.
That’s how it was for us in our marriage: we were thirsty. We thought we wanted our spouse to act differently or to follow our agenda – but really, we were thirsty to know and be known.
The other thing about thirst is that once you realize that you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Once we realized there was a problem with our marriage, we were already pretty far down a troubling road.
Realizing that the problem was that we were missing genuine intimacy was only the beginning. We needed to figure out our way back to a place where we could know each other.
So here is what our counselor did: he gave us a road map for communicating more effectively. He recommended a book called Nonviolent Communication (don’t get hung up on the title – it’s not about actual physical violence) which gave us the framework for expressing ourselves in a healthy way. Aside: The book is awesome and provides so many examples and concepts that are useful in all types of relationship/interpersonal situations. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend it.
In a nutshell, the concept is that you state what you observe (he was late), how you felt (and I was frustrated), what you need/value (I could have used that time to do other things) and a request (do you think you could let me know when you are going to be late in the future).
The result is that we own our emotions and our emotional response to things. Frank doesn’t make me feel a certain way. He does things and I have an emotional response. He can’t change my feelings, but he might be able to change his behavior.
And vice versa.
We also became aware that expressing emotions is very difficult in the English language. A great example is that other languages, like Greek, have multiple words for the concept of love. There is the love you have for your spouse, the love you have for ice cream and the love that you have for your friends. In English, we just use the word “love” and hope the listener understands the subtle yet significant differences in intention. Other languages use entirely different words to describe different types of love. We spent some time reviewing words that describe emotions so that we would have a greater breadth of language to use with each other.
Once we had a framework for communicating and words to use, we just started talking. It was, at first, like drinking from a fire hydrant; the conversations came so quickly and with such intensity that we almost couldn’t keep up with it. We talked about our marriage, our lives, what we loved, what we feared, who we want to be when we “grow up,” our daily struggles, and so on and so on and so on.
But those conversations, over the course of weeks, helped us find our way back to each other.
Some of these were hard conversations. It is hard to hear from your spouse that what you did or what you failed to do caused them pain. It was hard to take responsibility for the part I had in the blaming and posturing and distancing.
This kind of examination and vulnerability required a LOT of trust between us. We had to trust that we could be honest without fear that our comments would be used against us in our (inevitable) next argument. We had to trust that our spouse wouldn’t feel responsible, and therefore hurt and resentful, when we had differing opinions and feelings about topics. We had to trust that our conversations would be met with compassion, kindness and love.
Truly, that kind of trust is only possible when two people are more interested in the good of the other. We had to be certain that the other person would receive our feelings and stories and ideas without judgement. The only way to be sure, though, was to be vulnerable and to see what happened. Try, succeed, fail, forgive – on repeat.
As we moved towards the other, we sent out “feelers” to make sure it was safe to share. It felt sometimes like two people in opposite trenches, peering out across a battlefield. Will he shoot? Will she lob a grenade?
Over the course of consistently kind and honest conversations it became clear to us that we would listen and love and be compassionate, which meant even more feelings and experiences and stories came tumbling out.
The result of using the tools we learned in therapy and building trust between us was that we both felt known and heard and loved. For the first time in years, we felt truly connected. We were on our way home – we just had a few more hurdles to clear…
Part three: the walk