Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Couple Trouble? Day 2 - You Mean, "I" Have To Change?

Last time, we discussed an extremely important cause when it comes to Couple Trouble. Please go back and read Couple Trouble? What's At The Root Of It? This will give you a better understanding of today's blog. And, please complete the exercise on life messages. However, before we move on, I want to answer a really good question that was asked by a reader!
Painful Life Messages

Holli, aren't most of the problems that couples have - like arguments, personality conflicts, opposing needs or priorities, personal or relational stresses, parenting disagreements, and even unhealthy behaviors such as addictions or obsessions - a manifestation (an outcome) of each partner's painful life messages?  

In my opinion, yes (*see note below). In fact, aside from genetic predispositions and/or from organic pathology or psychosis or excluding life-altering events or diagnoses, I believe that most couples find themselves in trouble because of their innate integration of their maladaptive life messages into their own lives and into their relationships. As I mentioned last time, we ALL have these life messages and we ALL carry them with us into adulthood. I want to go back to our couple from last time - Jacob and Jen - but before we do, I want to discuss one more very important piece to the Life Messages Exercise that I left out deliberately until now. There is a 5th column:

Age     Life Messages     From Whom     How I Felt/Feel         What I Did/Do To Feel Better

With each life message that we recall or that spontaneously surfaces that was or is difficult or painful, we each turn to something or someone, take refuge in a behavior, thought, or feeling and/or even take on a different persona in order to cope. Or, we may resort to a myriad of healthy or unhealthy coping mechanisms. This is natural.  Let's take a look at Jacob and Jen.

When Jen tells Jacob that he is selfish and self-centered, his life messages kick in:  I'm never enough... I am nothing. And then Jacob does what he did when he was belittled and berated by his alcoholic father - he shuts down emotionally, he stays out with his band even later and longer, and he pulls away to protect himself. This in turn hurts Jen further. And when Jacob tells Jen that he's doing the best he can and that he can never satisfy her, Jen's life  messages surface: I'm not lovable...I disappoint everyone. And then Jen too does what she did when her mother was emotionally absent and when Jen was blamed for her mother's unhappiness - she buries her pain, she focuses her attention on taking care of her children, and she silently contemplates how to leave Jacob. 

This is important. Our unhealthy life messages are like triggers waiting to go off. When our partners say or do something that immediately takes us back to those tender and vulnerable beliefs about ourselves that we held when we we children, we immediately respond or react in the same or similar ways we did in our youth in order to protect ourselves.  And, for most of us, those coping strategies may have served us well (or at least allowed us to survive) when we were children, but they do not serve us well as adults and they do not lend themselves to healthy relationships.

Connecting The Dots of Brokenness
Before we look at some healing strategies, it is really important to fill out that last column in the Life Messages Exercises.  By identifying what our individual coping mechanisms were and are - what we did and do to make ourselves feel better or at the very least to soothe our pain - we are connecting the dots of our brokenness. We begin to understand that our pain has a beginning and it has had a long life. We learn that we can heal that brokenness now by taking responsibility for owning our shattered beliefs about ourselves and tending to them. You see, it is unrealistic to expect our partner to fill our voids or mend our wounds or rewrite our life messages for us. And, it is unhealthy. At the same time, as we learn about ourselves and are able to communicate that understanding to our partners, couples begin to reconnect from an empathic re-framing of one another and they are able to start the renewal process of the relationship.

I know it can happen. I've seen it time and time again. Couples came into counseling after injuring one another repeatedly and thought there was no hope. And then, when they took the time to self-examine, to identify their life messages, and to take responsibility for their individual recovering, the hurting stopped and the healing began. I will never forget the look in Jen's eyes while Jacob was describing how he felt when his alcoholic father verbally and emotionally abused him. I remember the tears coming down Jen's face when Jacob shared his life messages and how little he thought of himself, as a boy and now as a man. And, I see in my mind how Jacob softened as Jen described her difficult childhood, her loneliness, and her longing for someone to love her. I recall how he tenderly took Jen's hands in his as she voiced her life messages of not being lovable and being blamed for others' unhappiness, as a little girl and now as a woman. I remember that I, too, was moved as both Jacob and Jen...
Revealing Truths

 told their truths, 
claimed them, 
  honoring themselves and their relationship in the process.  

Next time, we will discuss healing strategies further, but for now take your time, but do spend time on the Life Messages Exercise - What I did and do to feel better. If you have not completed the first four parts, please do so. In this last column, write down any thoughts, behaviors, or feelings that you adopted and that you still utilize in order to cope. Is there something (hobbies, interests, sports, faith, etc.) or someone you turned to that helped you or hurt you further? Is there something (drugs, alcohol, self-destructive behaviors) that you used or engaged in, or some place - healthy or unhealthy - that you frequented in order to escape. Again, this part of the exercise can be difficult. Breathe and take breaks when needed. Return to it when you are ready.

Tell your truths.
Claim them.
Honor them and you. 

  * Note - There are individuals who do not fall into the range of healthy functionality that I am discussing here. Because of numerous factors (some of which are mentioned), the degree of mental illness or psychosis far exceeds the intrusive nature of maladaptive life messages and should be treated with more serious professionally guided interventions.

Next time, Couple Trouble #3:  Rediscover and Reconnect!

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