I was reminded of this recently while sipping coffee in my girlfriend Carolyn’s sunlit kitchen. Being the multi-tasker that she is, Carolyn was whipping up a batch of mango salsa as we chatted, while I took on the job of taste-tester – a perfect match for my culinary skills. As she peeled the fruit, I asked about the latest drama between her and her boyfriend Barry. Theirs was a rocky two-year affair fraught with more near-miss collisions than a California freeway.
Carolyn sighed deeply in response, as if to say, OK, here we go again.
“Barry is still reading meanings into what I say that have nothing to do with me,” she said. “He sees attacks where there are none.” Her eyes turned misty. “I told him I couldn’t take it anymore. If this keeps up. . .well . . .I’m outah here.” Carolyn began hacking up mangoes with such fierceness that I was afraid the slippery chunks of orange flesh were about to go flying across the kitchen.
“The other night, while we were watching TV together, I asked Barry if he had finished the report he was supposed to turn in the next day. I was worried that he was ignoring a deadline just to hang out with me, and I felt a little guilty.” Carolyn was miraculously keeping the mangoes under control, along with her brimming emotions.
She haltingly described how Barry had grown sullen and distant, but wouldn’t talk about what was bothering him no matter how hard she prodded. They went to bed barely speaking. The next evening they had an appointment with their new couples’ therapist – a “make it or break it” move to address their mounting problems. The minute they sat down in his office, Barry blurted out his version of the incident: “Carolyn thinks I didn’t do what I was supposed to do because I’m a big screw-up!”
“I was slammed by that,” Carolyn said. “It was so totally off base. He even said that I don’t care as much as he does about our relationship or I’d learn how to talk to him so he doesn’t feel put down. He thought I should have said: Darling, baby, snookums . . .I’m afraid that I’m distracting you . . .so if you have work to do, please don’t worry about keeping me company, honey pie.”
I couldn’t help laughing at Carolyn’s fawning tone, completely uncharacteristic of her direct, no-nonsense style.
“He wants me to censor every damn sentence that comes out of my mouth! So I told him I couldn’t stay in the relationship if he was going to keep painting me as a shrew like his mother, when that’s not who I am at all!”
I thought about how many zillions of times I’d heard this sort of thing in sessions with my own clients. I knew what I would have done in her therapist’s shoes . . .
“So, what did your therapist say?” I was dying to know.
“He did a very cool thing.” She seemed a little calmer as she scooped up the mango chunks and plopped them into a bowl. “He told Barry: It’s not Carolyn’s job to keep you from feeling your own anxiety. That’s for you to deal with.”
I was so relieved. Too many therapists try to mediate language rather than help people grow up.
Carolyn launched in to a play by play of the rest of the session. It went something like this:
Therapist to Barry: I wonder what would happen if, instead of assuming the worst, you concluded that whatever Carolyn says comes from a loving place in her heart. If you did that, and didn’t react to what you imagine she’s thinking, you’d get to see exactly what she’s really made of, wouldn’t you?
Barry: (grumpily) I suppose. But I don’t see why I can’t at least ask Carolyn to explain what she means, or try to say things nicer?”
Therapist: Because you have to start handling your own anxiety, Barry. It’s your work to get a grip on the self-derision. You won’t need a translation from Carolyn if you assume that unless Carolyn’s actions prove otherwise, NOTHING she says is meant to hurt you.
Shut up and grow up was the real message – in the nicest way possible. Still, that’s a heavy-duty prescription to give someone who has spent a lifetime expecting all women to behave like his (genuinely critical) mother. Yet, it was the best – maybe even the only – way to finally cut through Barry’s destructive pattern.
The conversation with Carolyn brought back memories of a choppy-seas relationship I had about ten years ago with a man who swore he loved me more than life itself. Only problem was, he didn’t love himself enough to accept love from me. Like Carolyn’s boyfriend Barry, he saw accusations of inadequacy where none were intended. He so firmly anticipated hurt, disapproval and abandonment, that he found evidence of doom in even my most innocuous remarks or facial expressions. Not only did that cause him unnecessary grief, but it left me – the “real” me – feeling invisible, unheard, and angry. In time, those feelings turned into – guess what? – the very rejection my ex feared the most.
In any close relationship, partners will critique some things, some of the time. After all, we’re different people, with different ways of living our lives. But when someone has been pummeled since childhood with the blunt instrument of criticism, the ordinary differences of living and loving can take on exaggerated significance. Like the first few scattered fleas on a dog, the little pests multiply rapidly, biting at the poor animal until it’s left tearing at its own skin.
Since we all carry some miseries forward from our early years, what keeps any of us from dredging them up to curse our every love relationship? Not much, actually. . . unless we devote ourselves to erecting and maintaining a fully rendered, stable concept of ourselves that holds steady despite our histories. With a balanced sense of self, we don’t panic over the hidden meaning to be wrung from our lover’s every vocal inflection or sidelong glance, because we know who we are.
To the extent that your self-image is beholden to your sweetheart’s behavior, she or he is little more than a holographic projection of your childhood pain-givers. Without your own confident, clear, and separate identity, you will invariably feel compelled to change others, to control them, in order to soothe your anxieties. Your mandate to your partner becomes: “Don’t do anything that stirs up my insides. It’s your job to spare me from myself.” Yet, this is a mantra guaranteed to keep you childlike forever. Worse, it prevents you from taking in the love that is offered to you, to feel the deep warmth of it. When you cannot take love in, it is impossible – yes impossible – to truly love another.
I believe that a full 50% of giving love is taking love back and allowing yourself to be nourished by the love that your partner brings to the relationship. Refusing it, rejecting it, is demeaning to them. When you can’t or won’t believe in your partner’s love and allow that love to enfold you, than you are only half-loving them. No matter how deeply etched you think your passion may be, no matter how much love you believe you are showering upon your darling, your love will lack authenticity, like a smile beneath cold eyes.
The real challenge of adulthood – the one that both Barry and Carolyn have yet to achieve – isn’t about clawing your way up the career ladder or about succeeding at the difficult task of raising healthy kids. Your biggest job is acquiring a well-grounded sense of self-respect and identity; it’s the work of coping with your own anxieties, doubts and confusions without making them your partner’s fault. That’s the only way to clear a space inside yourself big enough for love to lodge and thrive.