Several weeks ago I watched a delightful movie, An Ideal Husband, which was a screen adaptation of an Oscar Wilde play. As I reflected on what made it more meaningful beyond the witty dialogue and light suspense, I realized that the major characters became more than stereotypes. Each of them stepped out of their predictable roles and identities and acknowledged what we may call the shadow side of their personalities, aspects of themselves that are often vehemently denied, judged, and even projected onto others.
A recent session with a couple I’ll call Joe and Sandy provides a real life and not-so-funny example of how holding onto an identity that served you well early in life can undermine your intimate relationships as an adult. They sought my help to see if their marriage could be saved after Sandy uncovered evidence of Joe’s year-long affair. As we explored what was happening in their relationship prior to the affair, what came to light was that Joe never spoke to Sandy about how he was feeling before he got involved with the other woman. He was raised by his grandparents, who had modeled to him that, above all, you don’t say things that could be upsetting to someone else. So he learned to always be the “nice guy,” avoiding conflict at all costs, burying the anger that grew into resentment toward his mystified wife. Sandy sensed his increased detachment, but when she questioned him, he didn’t tell her the truth. The more Joe didn’t talk to her, the more distant he became, and the more he sought comfort from this affair partner. Meanwhile Sandy, who readily lets her feelings out, expressed her anxiety about the rift between them, often angrily, which Joe used as further justification to seek comfort elsewhere.As I coached them in telling the truth to one another in non-attacking and non-defensive ways, they visibly softened with one another. Sandy’s task is to tell her emotional truth in a responsible way–to talk about how it is for her and not let her hurt and anger devolve into attacking and name-calling. Meanwhile Joe’s task is to listen without letting his guilt and anxiety run him by either walking away or shutting down. As both break old patterns of dealing with painful emotions by practicing emotional truthfulness, they will begin breaking down those identities that had held them hostage and give their marriage the chance for a deep and lasting resurrection.
All of us develop identities that serve us in getting our needs for approval and for avoiding disapproval early in life based on the reactions from our caretakers and the modeling they provide. Our survival strategies will reflect our inborn personality patterns, so that a Joe becomes the nice guy, whereas someone else becomes a rebel, and another the class clown, and so on. The problem arises, as it did with Joe, when you don’t know how to be anything but that. In other words, identities allow certain emotions to surface and require burying others. For example, the rebel can be angry but not afraid, and the clown suppresses painful feelings by joking and “clowning around.”
Being “real” and having genuine connection with others means being able to acknowledge who you are, even when it can be uncomfortable for someone else to hear. I believe, as in the movie and as Joe and Sandy are learning, that being honest and vulnerable, as scary as that can be, is the best prescription for a genuine, deeply connected relationship.