Why wait for relationship happiness when you can jump-start the process?
In the exercises from our past few posts, you’ve tuned into the deepest parts of yourself. Perhaps you discovered new aspects of your personality and behavior. Maybe you took a closer look at certain traits you’ve spent your life trying to ignore. You might have realized that at times you’ve been cruel to someone, unfeeling, or unforgiving.
Through noticing your own thoughts, emotions, and behavior, you’re getting to know yourself in a deeper way. You are gaining access to the full spectrum of your emotions — your joy and sadness, anger and fear, love and hate. You may be noticing conflicting impulses to be generous/petty, kind/cruel, loving/angry, and peaceful/anxious. These contradictory forces can cause inner tension, which drains your energy and lead to anxiety or depression.
Self-knowledge is power. As you increase your understanding of your inner landscape, you can begin to make conscious choices about your feelings and reactions. Instead of acting on impulse, you can slow down the action and exert control. You can reflect on a thought or feeling, and, before you react, ask yourself: What is going on here? You might decide not to react to a given situation. With practice, the skills of self-focus and reflection will be woven into your everyday experience.
Let’s look in on Bella and Ed to see the impact exerting control on your emotions can have in your relationship:
Bella cried during our first session as she told me about her marriage. She described the relationship as a mixture of sadness, frustration, and regret. She told me that Ed was demanding and emotionally needy.
Ed had just ended a painful relationship when they met, and initially Bella was very sympathetic. She made extra efforts to help Ed feel loved and cared for, a habit that continued even when she was feeling overwhelmed herself. After six years, Bella grew tired of taking care of Ed. His victimhood repulsed her. She felt she couldn’t turn to him for comfort when she needed it. Bella spent our session railing about her husband’s words, actions, and accusations. When I asked her about her role in Ed’s problems, she stared at me blankly. It was apparent that she was far more aware of Ed’s needs and wants than her own.
Initially, I encouraged Bella to shift her focus away from her husband and to herself — no easy task. We spent several sessions identifying what she wanted and needed for herself. In the process, Bella realized that she no longer wanted to play the role of Ed’s mother. She recognized her need for an adult relationship with more mutuality. Bella understood that her need to rescue Ed was a compensation for her fear that she was not a nurturing person. As a child her mother had told her repeatedly that she cared only about herself and that she was selfish.
In our sessions, we talked about how long-term relationships go through different stages, and how a person’s needs and wants change over time. Bella recognized that at this point in her life she occasionally wanted someone to take care of her. She wanted the security of knowing that she could rely on Ed to take charge sometimes. Bella was relieved when she realized that she was no longer compelled to prove she was generous and caring.
Bella and I decided that it would be helpful to include Ed for a few sessions, so that the three of us would have an opportunity to integrate Bella’s realizations into their relationship. Ed was shy and soft-spoken. He had been adopted as a child and no longer maintained consistent contact with his foster parents. Bella was his only real family and the only person in the world he really cared about.
As Bella calmly spoke about her sadness and her desire to have Ed take the lead in some parts of their life, he listened attentively to her. Ed recognized that he had been leaning on Bella for emotional support. He agreed that their relationship was not going well, and he felt motivated to save it.
Bella’s willingness to take responsibility for her own part in their relationship problems made it easier for Ed to open up and accept his role in the breakdown. This gave them both the space they needed to shift perspective and begin working together to heal their marriage.