Seeing the other side

A woman sent me an e-mail in response to my last post. It was supportive, but she wanted to give me a different perspective on the lack of open conflict in my marriage. She is also married to a man that does not fight or seem to get angry, and she finds it frustrating at times. I almost put the line "maybe the fact that I don't get angry pisses off my wife" in my last post, but it seemed a little flip. But I don't doubt that it is true.

Though we never really fought, J did come to me occasionally (maybe every year or so) in tears because she was upset about something in our relationship.While she cried, I shouldered the perceived blame and turned inward, letting the shame wash over me. I was torn up inside both by her tears and my failings, but on the outside there were no tears. This is something the e-mailer mentioned frustrates her. When her husband does not show emotion, she interprets it as lack of caring about the subject.

Of course in my case at least, nothing could be farther from the truth. Just because I seemed calm on the surface does not mean I wasn't emotionally connected to the conversation. Part of it is also a male, or maybe human, reflex to be strong while someone else is breaking down. It is a pattern of behavior to be strong in the moment to support the ones you love, only to break down later when the pressure subsides. And in truth, I doubt I was all that good at hiding the shame I was feeling in the moment.

It is no secret shame has distanced me from not only my wife but from my friends as well. I would beat myself up over failures great and small, eventually walling parts of myself off from the view of others. Overcoming this was one of the first things that had to happen to have any hope for personal growth, or the possibility of saving our relationship. I am still my own worst critic, and occasionally slip into the bad habit of berating myself, but I think I have done a better job at keeping the walls down and showing my emotions.

Actually, that is an understatement. I cry like I never had before. In the past, the only thing that would set the tears to falling was emotional triumphs in movies and finish lines. I wouldn't break down and cry for things in my own life, at least until I experienced the death of a friend. My emotions were kept safely behind a wall, but once I started removing the bricks, the stored up torrent was hard to control. I still have moments where the tears well up when I think back on everything, but there is less water pressure of stored emotion.

An interesting observation from my personal therapist early on in our time together - often couples in marriage counseling will switch places. Usually one spouse is more concerned and emotional about the marital problems, and is the one to push for counseling. Once the couple begins counseling, it is not uncommon to have the one who resisted counseling to embrace it, while the one who pushed for it retreats. This is what happened to us. J was the one who suggested/demanded that we go into counseling, but once on the couch, she began distancing herself from both the process and me.

And we also traded places on the amount of emotion we would show. I was now the person to wear his heart on his sleeve, and she seemed to take on the stoic role. I got a taste of what she was going through when she came to me in tears before. And it was not pleasant. On the outside, she now seemed to be completely distant from me and the moment. I know from my own experience that this may not have been true, but it is hard to fight that perception.

I have some indication that she went through her pain long before I did, but I have no honest idea of what she was feeling in the moments we were talking things through in and out of counseling.  I did ask her, but I never got a straight/satisfactory answer. But it was important to keep asking. I now know that silence can easily be misinterpreted, and lack of emotion can be construed as not caring. And when you fill in the gaps for other people's thoughts, instead of asking them straight out, your guess can be far from the truth. And moving forward with bad information can lead to some pretty disastrous results.


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