“So how have things gone for the two of you since our last session?” I asked. Two weeks ago Shelly had complained about how much her husband Tom gets quiet, which she interprets as his being upset with her. I had suggested that she ask Tom what’s going on. For example, “You seem awfully quiet. Is something wrong?” Or simply, “You’re so quiet. What’s going on?”
After glancing at Tom, Shelly looked at me and said, “I did what you said, and he just got mad.” Tom turned to her, after glancing in my direction, and stated, “You said, ‘What’s wrong with you!’” Shelly’s expression indicated that it hadn’t occurred to her that the way she addressed Tom could be off-putting.
I suppressed a smile, and asked Tom how he felt when she said what she did. “Like she’s saying something’s wrong with me!” He said, stating the obvious.
I gave Shelly credit for trying to reach out, but suggested that a tone of concerned curiosity could be more effective in getting Tom, who admittedly has difficulty talking about what he’s feeling, to open up to her. When Tom is quiet, Shelly assumes he’s angry. She responds by pulling away from him and not speaking either. This inevitably leads to both of them projecting negatively on the other and seeing the other as angry and critical. A minor frustration or misunderstanding following their silent stand-off will often trigger an angry outburst, usually by Tom, given the build-up of tension, and their suspicions are confirmed—I knew you were mad at me!
For years, each of them has chosen self-protection by closing down to one another, thereby losing any sense of being connected. Tom modeled this behavior from his father, who handled any disagreement with his mother by going out to the barn. Believing he couldn’t hold his own verbally with his more educated wife, Tom’s father retreated to work, where he had a sense of control and security. In Shelly’s case, she played the good girl growing up, avoiding conflict and aiming to please. Expressing anger was, at least for females in her family, against the unspoken rules.
Both Tom and Shelly have attracted a relationship that challenges them to break the patterns they grew up with. If they continue to do what they’ve done and model what they saw as children, they will mirror their parents’ relationships– instead of resolving disagreements, burying their hurts and creating a stockpile of resentment that feels insurmountable.
The message they’ve been sending is I don’t trust you. Seeing one another as a threat, albeit from an emotionally vulnerable standpoint, has caused them to repeatedly sabotage closeness and compassionate understanding. They function well as co-parents and managing their household, but they both long to feel more wanted and loved.
This is a common and core challenge for so many of the couples I see—to choose emotional honesty and vulnerability over self-protection through either verbal aggressiveness or withdrawal. Unless they are willing to shed the armor around their hearts, trusting that they can handle the other’s reaction if it is less than ideal, their relationships will continue to reflect co-functioning without the connection they crave.
We want to be known, accepted, and loved for who we are, but we hide instead, choosing “safety” over transparency. The assumption is You can’t really hurt me if you don’t know me.
There are, unfortunately, those relationships that are mired in distrust and jockeying for power, and there’s no room for emotional honesty and vulnerability in those situations. However, as is the case with Shelly and Tom, wanting more connection trumps the desire to find “safety” through dominance. As we continue to work together, they are using our sessions to venture into more vulnerable self-expression. My hope is that as their confidence in communicating more intimately grows, their marriage will feel like the emotional sanctuary for which they have longed.