Blog by Miriam

Belonging in Marriage

Ed Wilson, Harvard professor, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of On Human Nature, was fascinated with ant colonies from a young age. It was enough of an interest for him as a boy that he continued it over the course of his long, successful career as an entomologist.
He was most intrigued by the similarities between ant societies and human societies. One of the things Dr. Wilson believes, after his many long years of thought and study, is that our two species share the same biological drive to be connected, to be a part of, to belong. He believes both ant (16 species of them) and human evolution took a major turn when each developed the DNA that made us utterly and irrevocably, emotionally dependent on each other—to our families, our tribes (and yes, ants have families and tribes and are “emotionally” or instinctively dependent on each other). When this occurred, when we became more emotionally tied to one another across generations, both humans and ants began to thrive and to multiply exponentially.

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So, what does this have to do with you and your marriage? That emotional or instinctual connectedness that developed thousands of years ago is part of not only what made us produce offspring by the billions, but also what made us a little too focused on each other…with too much, and at the same time, too little expectation of each other.
We come into marriage with highly romantic expectations of our spouses (you-complete-me/I-complete-you), which of course doesn’t pan out. So, we try really hard to make it pan out. Which, of course, usually leads to trying to get our spouses to change…to listen better, to understand, to be more loving, to see us as equals, and on and on. When that doesn’t work, our high expectations turn to low expectations. We expect them to fail us. Let the blame game begin.
While this process is terribly painful and feels “unhealthy” and like something is wrong, perhaps it would be helpful to remember that the heart of the issue has more to do with our instinctual focus on other rather than on self. We are more tied to our evolutionary history than we really know.
But how to we turn this focus on other into something else that might lead to a greater sense of belonging?

The “I” Position: A Bastardized Concept

I’m sure most of my readers have heard of the communication technique known as the “I” statement. It’s a tool by which the speaker uses the word “I” rather than “you” to work out a conflict. Here’s a great (and funny) example of how this technique falls apart: This is 40
The original concept known as the “I” position, has unfortunately been bastardized into the “I” statement. I say bastardized because most people don’t know where the idea originally came from…they don’t know the father of the idea…and it’s hard to really understand the concept if you don’t know where it came from. If you’d like to learn more about the man who observed that developing your “I” position (a.k.a. maturing emotionally) is a powerful and more effective way to solve problems, you can go here.
The “I” position is the idea that despite what difficulties your spouse (or son or daughter, mother or father) is causing you, you can learn to better manage your reaction to it. You can work on ways to react less emotionally, and more empowered. This doesn’t mean talking yourself out of what you think your spouse is doing. It just means doing something different with your self in response. When family relationships are troubled, developing your self (your “I” position) is your best bet for developing a greater sense of belonging.

Examples

So, instead of coming from here: You are making me miserable…or…If you would just listen…or…I just need you to understand me better… or Can’t you give me some space?! Consider coming from here: I am miserable, and I think my reactions to you might be a part of my misery…or…I wonder if I stopped taking so much responsibility for your feelings, I might start acting a little better…or…Ya know, I know you’re a good person, and I know you have a point of view that’s is legitimate, and I’m not sure I really understand it. Will you tell me again what you think about X, so I can try to understand. I’m going to try to listen and not react so much.
As Michael J. Fox once said (and I’m paraphrasing here)…the key to a good marriage is to keep your fights clean and your sex dirty.

Belonging is not romantic.

I think it’s helpful to think of belonging as biological rather than romantic. I mean, I get it. Feeling like you belong to someone is pretty darn amazing. I want someone to think my spindly legs are all that and that my bulging thorax is just beyond! But being unrealistic about our expectations of what belonging is supposed to be and how it is supposed to happen leads to low expectations and resentment and bitterness. Try approaching it more objectively, like it’s a project you want to use to learn more about yourself and your spouse (or any other family member), the easy-to-learn as well as the difficult. Try developing your “I” position. It won’t happen in a vacuum.
The hope is that we can come alongside each other and hold hands as we face our relationship difficulties separately from our loved (or not-so-loved) ones. Together and separate…at the same time.
Where do you belong? With whom do you belong? If you’re struggling with the answer or if you know exactly where you belong I’d love to hear from you. How did you cultivate that sense of belonging? What do you think goes wrong when you are attempting to connect?

The Space Between

And if I’ve built this fortress around your heart

Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire

Then let me build a bridge

For I cannot fill the chasm

And let me set the battlements on fire

 

-Sting, Fortress Around Your Heart

 

A husband came to me several years ago, let’s call him John, having been sent to therapy by his wife. The wife, let’s call her Jan, had had an I-am-not-doing-this-any-more moment and demanded he either seek therapy or they divorce. John had spent their marriage working more than spending time with the family. He finally heard Jan and her distress, and he embarked on a mission to try to “make up for” all the years of distance and neglect. But all his efforts to make her feel loved ironically made her feel like she needed space, and it was starting to feel more and more like Jan had one foot out the door. John grew beside himself with fear and anger…and confusion. Hadn’t she asked for more closeness? Why did she keep saying she needed space?

Flying McCoy's

Flying McCoy’s

Negotiating Space in Tight Quarters

I remember, a long, long…long time ago, when I lived in a dorm with a roommate. How did the two of us live together peacefully, even joyfully, in such a small space? And I also remember when my then boyfriend (now husband) and I first moved in together, how tight his small apartment felt to me, even though it was at least quadruple the size of my old dorm room. What was the difference between these two “spaces”—between these two relationships? Why did one feel so roomy while the other felt so tight? What was the dilemma that John and Jan were struggling with? Did the relationship need closeness as Jan had initially requested, or did it need space?

Space vs. Connection?

The question of either space OR connection is actually a false dichotomy, a question that makes you feel like you have to pick one or the other. But when it comes to emotional space and emotional connection, the two are utterly intertwined. A meaningful connection is spacious. It feels like you and your spouse can respect each other as individuals even when you see (and feel) each other’s flaws. There is a measure of peace that descends when people can even begin to accept life as it has presented itself to them…flawed, full of wish-I-hadn’t of’s, and infinitely complicated and twisted and curious. This kind of peace leads to more spacious connections over time.

John had been over doing it, trying to force a connection in tight quarters…in a space that was filled up with anger, resentment, hurt, and longing. It was going to require much more patience and time than he’d thought. It was going to require that he grow.

4 Tips for The Space Between

  1. Get centered…calm down The way John put it after a few weeks in therapy was that he needed to stop “catastrophizing”—to stop filling any space between them with anxious reassurances and fear. John had to learn to stop taking Jan’s every silence, every angry word, every criticism as the end of the world. Yes, he had a serious issue in his relationship, but his reactions to every problem or bit of tension between them made the issues feel even more unworkable…even though the only unworkable issue was the anxious bouncing off of one another. The actual issues were quite resolvable.
  2. Connect with your family In addition to his marriage, John had also spent years too busy to spend time with his family (his parents and brothers). His father was more than tough on him growing up, and his mother’s passivity was overwhelmingly frustrating. The space between them was full of judgment and fear. But in his distress with his wife, he reached out to them for help. He was surprised to find his parents’ open arms. He was even more surprised to discover how reconnecting with them was adding to his sense of inner calm and sense of himself. Open-arms isn’t always the response, of course, but it occurs more often than people suspect. As John continued his work, he continued to be surprised by what he learned about himself by talking with his parents and brothers more regularly.
  3. Learn the difference between a distant connection and spacious one. Both distance and space are forms of connection. Distance is an intense and emotionally reactive connection. It says GET-AWAY-FROM-ME in such a way that invites the space between to be filled with anger, resentment, and hatred. You may feel lonely, but at the same time you can’t think of much else, and the tension (tense connection) can be cut with a knife. Space, on the other hand, is a calm, quiet connectedness that doesn’t try to force anything. It recognizes the intensity (pain, anger, etc.), respects it, but isn’t controlled by it. Space is often about a clear decision to wait until things are calmer to delve into important topics. Space can handle tough emotions without thinking the end of the world is coming, while distancing is an automatic reaction to move away from pain. Space builds a bridge while distance creates a deeper chasm.
  4. Have a look at Bowen Theory For those of you who are real nerds about this kind of thing, have a look at Bowen Theory if you haven’t already. John learned to use the theory to make more accurate and neutral observations of his marriage, his parents, and himself. He learned to create spacious connections with his mother in particular. Instead of automatically reacting to her passivity he learned to be curious about her. This translated to his marriage slowly but surely over the course of a couple of years.

Space in a relationship isn’t full of anything except peace…which leads to a feeling of fullness. While distance is tense or vacant, space is relaxed. Space creates an atmosphere where people can share themselves and where they can receive and give generously.

Thanks again for reading the blog.

 

Easter: Bringing Dead Relationships Back to Life

“I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems; I’ve got to open my eyes to everything. Without a thought, without a voice, without a soul; Don’t let me die here. There must be something more. Bring me to life.”

                                                                        Evanescence lyrics “Bring Me to Life”

 

Easter is a time of year when Christians begin to think about atonement—the idea of a kind of reconciliation between themselves and God. In my work as a marriage and family counselor, I tend to think of the concept in terms of husbands and wives, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, etc. What is it that reconciles two people together who have either grown apart or who are so angry at each other that compromise or making peace seems impossible? Does it have to do with some kind of “cleansing” of “sins” as Christians celebrate at Easter? How are dead or dying relationships brought back to life?

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If you have a look at most religions, you’ll find this idea of atonement or reconciliation via cleansing is at their heart. It’s the idea that community or union or connection comes through a cleaning out, a detoxifying, a letting go…a death of sorts. A death that leads to new life.

In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes described it as the “life/death/life nature of love.” She wrote that in order for people to live and love in a “way that is most wise, most preserving, and most feeling, one has to go up against the very thing one fears most. There is no way around it…”

She tells the story of Skeleton Woman which she describes as “a hunting story about love.” In this story “love does not mean a flirtation or a pursuit for simple ego-pleasure,” but rather “a union which prevails through bounty and austerity, through the most complicated and most simple days and nights.”

It starts with a girl, living in the frozen north, who “had done something of which her father disapproved,” and although no one could remember what she had done, her father “had dragged her to the cliffs and thrown her over and into the sea.” It was there, in the bottom of the ocean, being turned and tossed about, that her flesh was worn and picked away, and she was turned into Skeleton Woman.

Eventually caught by a fisherman who’d lost his way, she became helplessly entangled with him and with her own bones. Just when he thought he was free of her he realized she was as entwined with him as ever. But something happened to him in the dark night, once on land and back in his bungalow. Something softened toward the whole mess of her, and he began to tenderly untangle her twisted bones. His work done, he rested. As he dreamed, a tear dripped from his eye. Untangled and watching, she moved toward him and drank, and she found the single tear “was like a river and she drank and drank and drank until her many-years-long thirst was slaked.”

By the end of the night together Skeleton Woman had sung her flesh into being. Pinkola Estes writes that the woman “sang for hair and good eyes and nice fat hands. She sang the divide between her legs, and breasts long enough to wrap for warmth, and all the things a woman needs.” And the fisherman and the woman were tangled together again, “in another way now, a good and lasting way.”

I find this story deeply satisfying. It speaks to the importance of untangling the emotional mess that human life and relationships can become. It speaks to the importance of tears and of their potential to nourish. And it speaks to what can happen in a person’s life when they can attend to and soothe their own emotions and existential dilemmas.

You may have thought of this story as a prescription for marriage. As something that can or should happen between spouses…that one should tenderly untangle the other and then feed her with tears of love. The story could certainly be interpreted as a primer for spouses to heal one another, but I think it’s much more interesting (and effective) when thought of as an emotional process one does with oneself, with spouse alongside.

But how do you soothe your own emotions, ones that may be as deep and painful as to have hollowed you out over the years like for Skeleton Woman? How does one “drink a river of tears” as to have one’s thirst be slaked? It’s an ongoing process, one that I believe we continue unto our dying breath.

Attending to our painful emotions is just one aspect of the process, but it is a critical one. Our emotions can lead us toward our core values or away from them. They can lead us deeper into ourselves to be lost forever in a sea of moodiness, anxiety or depression, and they can lead us deeper into communion with others. Self-soothing is key to living a happy life. Here are a few principles or tips to help you along the way.

5 Tips to Dealing with Strong Emotion

  1. You can’t let go of or be “cleansed” of something you don’t know you’re dealing with. In order to become aware you’ll have to create the space…the time…the quiet. Even if you’ve done this work before and if you’re stuck, chances are there’s some emotion that needs tending. It’s different for everyone, but one method to get the emotions flowing is watching sad movies that in some way tell your story. Other ways to get things flowing are meditation, reading, and journaling. Try to get past anger as the only emotion you deal with. Usually with anger, there are other more vulnerable emotions lurking in the background like sorrow, grief, despair, and fear.
  2. Once you are able to feel some feelings, the next step has to do with naming them. This can be harder than it sounds, especially for emotions that have been lurking around for years or even decades. The hard part for people seems to be in the naming of an actual feeling like scared, helpless, sad, etc. Most of the time people want to say something like: “I feel like he doesn’t love me…” Try to stick to actual feeling words. I remember in my training as a therapist 20 years ago our professors would hand us sheets of paper covered in emoting faces as a way to train us in identifying our own feelings.

The final three tips have to do with soothing the emotions that come up. It’s so important to not stop at having one’s feelings but to also grow skilled at soothing them. Keep in mind this is not self-love. This is self-soothing.

  1. One important way to soothe emotion is simply self-care. Maybe it looks like rest or nourishment, but it can also look like time with a long time friend or an important family member or maybe it looks like a weekend away alone. It can also look like quieting your mind when you find you are over-thinking or over-analyzing your problems. Self-care can mean finding a way to stop banging your head against a wall.
  2. Artistic expression is another powerful way to express and soothe emotion. Get your guitar out and learn the chords to a song that has particular meaning to you. Then play it loud along with the band. Or get your canvas and paints, and sit outside in this beautiful Spring weather. Write some fiction. Write an autobiographic short story. Chanel the emotions into something important to you.
  3. The next and most important tool in your self-soothing tool kit is finding out what is important about your emotions. How are they a reflection of you and your core values? I had a client who suffered a terrible loss about 4 years ago; his wife left him after 35 years of marriage. After 3 years he was still not “over it.” He was very upset with himself for this. Among other things he worked on forgiving himself for his mistakes, but even this didn’t soothe him fully. When he started accepting his grief and sorrow (rather than being upset with himself for having it for so long) he began to see that his grief and sorrow had something to do with a core value of his: family. When he realized this he began putting much more effort into his familial relationships…with his 97 year old mother…with his 3 children…with a couple of cousins he’d lost contact with…with his little sister. And slowly, with acceptance and persistence, he found meaning in his life again.

If you’re in a dead or dying relationship there is a way back to life. It often begins with tuning into your emotions, but more importantly with learning to soothe them meaningfully. Is it time to untangle Skeleton Woman?