Our almost seven-year-old, five-year-old, and three-year-old just got settled in front of the TV, and I just took my first deep breath this morning. They’re watching PBS Kids, which feels better than letting them binge on the kid section of our Netflix account. I’m not sure why, but it does.
I can hear my wife’s yoga class going in the next room, and I just sat down at the computer. We agreed to a 30-minute hiatus before we trying to re-engage with each other. That should be enough time for our triggers to quiet down enough to start to see each other again.
I’m genuinely starting to trust that we will see and reconnect with each other today; that the excruciating work we’ve done over the last year has taken root and will carry us through disconnections like this. Trust has been slow to build in me because for much of our eight-year marriage I was convinced that I was disposable.
Last April, Jessica and I were on the verge of divorce and were deciding to attend a week-long marriage intensive before calling it quits. Even our decision to attend the intensive came as a surprise to both of us. We had been separated the previous five months, and it seemed like our marriage was simply too broken to fix.
It was a messy, brutal, season, filled with pain and trauma. I started writing as it was happening, which seems insane as I think about it. I was living my worst nightmare, and that was when I decided to open my life up to the world. A little backward, isn’t it? I found it therapeutic to write about what I was experiencing and found that what I said seemed to resonate with people. It was a way to let people in, and I’m glad I did. Even though I grimace a little when I think about those posts, I am choosing to embrace them as a necessary part of my growth and healing.
Since I left off writing in February of last year on a bit of a cliff-hanger, I am going walk through what has happened since then, where we are now, and where we are going.
Finding our way back
In my last post, titled “Do Not Be Afraid” (Feb 2019), I was coming to terms with the fact that I would be okay if our marriage ended. I starting to accept the death of the relationship and was expecting to receive paperwork at any moment. But it didn’t come. A small seed in Jessica and I grew enough to accept the invitation to attend a marriage intensive together in mid-April.
We drove to Branson, MO (separately) for a Hope Restored marriage intensive, a group-oriented program. There were couples from all walks of life in various states of crisis. I immediately began to see myself in other couples, and a feeling of love and empathy grew out of the vulnerable atmosphere.
To be completely honest, I came to the intensive expecting and wanting the counselors to come down hard on Jessica, to shake her by the shoulders and wake her up. I smugly thought the villain was clear in our relationship and was shocked when the clinicians met her deeply with empathy, gentleness, and truth-filled nudges. In the meantime, one of the things they were teaching was lodging its way into my heart.
“My heart is my job”
It’s a simple statement, but as that concept was unpacked and hammered into our heads, it started to open up language for me to name something deeply problematic about the way I interact with my world. It directly confronted elusive but central beliefs that I held about relational intimacy. I expect Jessica and other core relationships to care for my heart, meet my needs, and provide my value. I took little to no responsibility for my own well-being. This makes sense because I grew up in a safe place where that worked. We all played by the rules for the sake of intimacy and created an amazing bubble of safety and refuge. But when I was outside of that environment, I floundered.
Even as I write that, I get mixed up a bit. Shouldn’t it be okay to expect care and love from core relationships? Absolutely. It is vital for healthy relationships. But I had gotten on a messed up path where I made it a pattern to dangle my heart in vulnerable and dangerous places. Here’s what that looked like:
- I vowed to take up zero space. I tried to mold myself around Jessica because she is exciting and powerful and compelling. I made myself a stowaway in her story and hoped that she would see me and love me. I’m coming out of this one, but often feel like I’m being an asshole.
- I defaulted to listening. I felt and still fall back to feeling that the only safe place for me in my marriage is my own private inner world. I was determined to never need my wife. I hid behind listening, trying to keep the lid on the growing pressure inside me. I made myself bear anything she needed to process out loud, which was awful. She’s a verbal processor and a fierce woman, so I often felt like an emotional punching bag.
- I rescued. Jessica deals with intense battles that I don’t have to face, so I trained both of us to rely on me for stability. I became an extension of Jessica or a resource to be used. I still struggle with this every day.
- I became a victim and made her the villain. As I tried to disappear it was easier and easier to place all of the blame for my inner torment on her. She was the bad guy and I was the martyr. Yep, still a trigger in our day-to-day life.
- Last, but not least, I got smug. That shouldn’t be past tense. I get smug. It’s a nasty one, but a common tool in my nice guy toolkit. I communicate to Jessica that ultimately I am right and that her feelings are invalid. The sinister part of this type of pride is that I deny responsibility for judging or silencing her.
I’m glad it’s easy to remember because the phrase “my heart my job” is something I need to hear every. single. day. But I’m learning and practicing. It is mostly through my head that if I am going to have my needs met, I need to lead the charge and give others windows into my interior world. A year ago that would have been heartbreaking to write. I would have had to grieve the fact that my wife isn’t going to create a bubble for me, an idea that contradicts the rules of intimacy that I learned from my family of origin. But today those words feel empowering.
Starting to rebuild
Something in us shifted just enough in Branson set us moving toward one another when we returned home. We both felt extremely fragile but started to reconnect little by little. I remember trying to own my longings and emotions more honestly and felt energized and unlocked in ways that I had never felt before. My mindset began to shift away from expecting her to heal my wounds and fill my empty places to owning these things myself. Triggers still came up, but we had new tools to face our disconnections and stop vicious cycles before they spiraled out of control. We also were careful to avoid walking through the trauma surrounding the separation until we could begin to see a new couple’s therapist.
In June we moved Jessica back into the house and continued to ease back into relationship with each other. We knew we had a long road ahead of us trying to rebuild from the ground up. I needed to know that I wasn’t going to be abandoned, that she was going to commit to showing up consistently. And she needed me to stop villainizing her and hear her. Our individual work in therapy was critical to keep us moving in this new direction and not fall back into our old, vicious patterns. I remember we felt the need to replace our patterns with new patterns, which was hard and painful. We had those patterns for a reason. They kept us safe.
What emerged in my heart over the summer months was the desire to allow myself to be seen by Jessica, and to need her. This felt like trying to walk on a frozen lake during the spring thaw. I had many strategies in place to avoid trusting the ice under my feet. But that’s where I felt called to go. My old ways had led down the path of destruction, and I was called to trust the work that Jessica was doing to show up, be consistent, and risk being misunderstood. We were both stumbling in the general direction of facing our fears, and that brought us closer and closer together.
Strengthening our foundation
We re-entered couples therapy in October with a very experienced therapist, where we started the grim task of walking through trauma surrounding the separation. We needed to start to name and mend that part of our story, and we knew we needed another person to guide us through it. The sessions directed themselves as we flowed between examining and normalizing our disconnections, processing through our pain, celebrating growth, and finding compassion for each other.
Somewhere along the way Jessica and I deepened our relationship well past where it was before. We are daily working to trust each other, own our part of the mess, and see each other in the context of our unique stories.
One of our weekly couples therapy sessions especially stands out. We pulled back a deep layer of our relationship and Jessica saw my commitment and love for her in a new and powerful way. She said it felt like a tangible taste of how beloved she is by God. Our security with one another expanded and a context was created for us to trust and access each other’s hearts in more profound ways. It was a satisfying and rewarding breakthrough for us.
No time for a breather
We had one or two truly good weeks in January 2020 when we were hit by a huge curveball surrounding my work. All the trust we had been building together was immediately put to the test. We have been relying on each other and leaning on each other in a beautiful way. And that is roughly where we find ourselves right now. Each day is challenging and rewarding and often messy. We can become adversaries again in a split-second. But we feel good about the direction we are headed. We are getting there by owning our stories and sticking to the work laid out before us as individuals and as a couple.