The way we were
It doesn’t seem to matter how long I’ve been observing, counselling and coaching couples, I’m regularly struck by how thoroughly we become detached from those cuddly, adoring ‘I’ll-take-a-bullet-for-you’ relationship beginnings. It strikes such a sombre inner chord as I realise that sincere, elegant, flawed, delightful, worn out, hardworking, genuine, ordinary people, in long-term committed relationships, are almost too heartsick and guarded to recall the days of warmer feelings toward their partner… and warmer feelings from their partner.
The often unspoken words that beat a sorrowful rhythm around the walls of the counselling room are ‘unloved’ and ‘unlovable’. The first seems like a cry of accusation from each to the other – “I feel unloved by you”, and the second seems to come from within the self – “because I’m unlovable”. This is the echo of a message of self-rejection, self-loathing and shame that seems to be deeply carved into our core, and yet so close to the surface to be activated by a gesture, a sound, a look from our closest companion. Just a hint of rejection wafting in our direction… and our inner shame bleeds all over the place.
How do wounds so deep become injured so easily – and by the very person we truly believed would protect us from feeling this old injury?
That’s probably a crucial point. Family therapist Terry Real says, “… devilishly enough, we all somehow wind up with a partner who is exquisitely designed to stick the burning spear right into our eyeball” (Italics his). Clinical psychologist and sex therapist David Schnarch indicates, along the same vein, that “once your partner finishes with you, your kids will start”.
I’ve written about this before (and I’ll probably do so again) because I think it’s important to talk about our common painful experiences in case there are those who feel all alone in them, and also because it’s just so unbearably sad. And sadness requires expression. Maybe it can help to have someone put into words how far away we all travel from the I-love-you-just-how-you-are days of our most important relationships.
I’m commenting on just two things that seem to disappear from the space in-between those who once were lovers but can no longer remember what that felt like.
First – Tender Words
There is a certain amount of generosity, kindness and self-containment in the spoken gifts we give each other in early relationship. Expressions such as endearments, encouragement, light-hearted joking, friendly challenges, laughing, and even smiling, can feel so natural that it seems impossible for this river of tender murmurings and compliments to simply dry up. If a partner acts or speaks thoughtlessly, we find it relatively easy to avoid taking it too seriously, quickly see our own capacity for the same well-intentioned thoughtlessness, laugh about it, forgive. That kind of easy generosity feels like cherishing and being cherished. It also feels like we are seeing, and being seen, for who we are rather then the sometimes ridiculous things we say and do.
Once the emotional space between us has developed protective silences, sharp accusations and harsh name calling, it can feel risky and just plain wrong to use some of the old dialect of understanding and cherishing. It feels like we’d be leaving ourselves exposed to whatever nastiness we’re convinced our partner is preparing for us from their stash of weaponry. It’s hard to remember that our partner is just a flawed individual trying to get their needs met… just like we are.
Offering encouragement or kind words to that person becomes too difficult so we go the ‘easier’ route of building an emotional wall, from behind which we can lob the occasional verbal grenade.
These ‘defend and attack’ manoeuvres can become a warped reason for waking up in the morning as well as a reason for never wanting to wake up again.
Second – Tender Touch
It is never, ever (well hardly ever) difficult to develop ways to touch our partners with positive meaning and warm connection during early relationship. The desire to bond through physical touch is elemental and there are many, many ways to engage in demonstrative contact. These automatic and vital touches are eventually withheld with bold indifference to our vows ‘to have and to hold’. We stop touching because it begins to feel too much like pretence… our partner stops touching in return…and we then feel completely justified in withholding touch… and so does our partner. Both feeling unloved and possibly unlovable.
It can seem too hard, or pointless, to think about resuscitating one or both of these relationship basics. We can live for so long without them that they no longer seem like essentials.
Even though they are.
The trick is in taking on-board the idea that you can choose to offer tender words and tender touch to your partner – not because they deserve it or even because you want them to reciprocate, but because you want to be the kind of person who loves and cherishes just like you promised you would – whether your promises were made before witnesses in a ceremony or privately with no witnesses at all. It is difficult and takes determined effort and a lot of thought to decide to still see the well intentioned person inside the skin of your partner. It can be done though… one kind word, one positive touch at a time.