I hate it when my wife gets angry at me. In fact, for over 15 years, my head told me that every time she became angry with me, we were headed for divorce. Today, we are nearly 20 years in and so far we have weathered a lot of storms.
Growing up, my family lived in a stormy climate. Sure, I grew up in Northern Canada, in Calgary. It gets very cold in the winters, but I’m not really talking about the outside climate. My father’s alcoholism created a climate of unpredictability. It felt normal for moods to go from calm to angry in about two seconds. I never knew what to expect from him from one day to the next.
Some days he was lost in his own world, likely dealing with his own demons. Other days he was sociable and would sing Elvis songs and hum tunes. On these days, he could be a pleasant companion and almost be easy to get along with. But then he had his days. The clouds seemed to roll in and he could become angry over anything that my mother or my brother and I would say or do. And through it all, he would drink his whiskey or beer.
The home was chaotic, but it felt normal. In fact, I even stayed at home past high school. I felt loved by my parents, despite the crazy drunken unexpected ghost-man that lived with us. But then I eventually moved out, went to college and began my career. I went to workshops, read books, did therapy and talked about my demons so that when I eventually got married, I would be ready.
At least I thought I was getting ready for marriage.
Turns out, nothing that I did after I left home prepared me for the challenges of marriage. Nothing really can prepare you for it. Living with someone you love can bring out your best, and sometimes it brings out your worst. It’s because you can’t pretend anymore.
To not know how to be loved wounds a person. Maria Popova
It’s uncomfortable to admit, but there have been times that I have wounded my wife because of my emotional unavailability. And it was so normal that I didn’t see it, I couldn’t see it. I thought that all of the books that I read, the personal growth that I had done had changed me. But it did not.
I was a little like a “dry drunk.” Someone who does not use alcohol or drugs, but still acts like they are an addict. Unhappy, irritable, distant and unavailable. I was in denial and unhealthy.
We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care.
My solution was to do more of the same: read more books, journal more, and try and fix myself. But none of it worked. I was unconsciously recreating patterns of familiarity in my marriage. And honestly, so was my wife. All of us do that in our relationships. We replay old patterns because the are familiar, and familiarity sometimes feels better than emotional unknowns.
What to do when you realize that YOU are one who is driving you mad?
I can’t say that I’m over it all, better, or cured. I don’t think that we ever completely leave behind old patterns, or old messages. Our minds can do that. They can tells us stories about our unworthiness and when we try and change, the messages end up going underground. We can create new messages of worthiness that become more confident, more helpful and eventually more persistent than the unhelpful things that our minds can say to us.
One of the messages I wrongly believed that growth can happen in isolation. It fit me and it worked for a while. But marriages and families don’t work when you live in isolation. I’ve been there and sometimes I still retreat to the familiarity of isolation.
I have learned that you may long for love to look a certain way, but often what you need is different than what you long for. Fairytale love is not real. Nor is love that is strong and impenetrable. Nor is love that rescues you and saves you from your unhappiness, your boredom, or your unfulfillment. For me, the love that I have is the the love that I need. And for a long time, I was looking for love that I wanted rather than the love that I already had.
For me, good old fashioned acceptance has helped me to move forward. My tendency might be to isolate, but despite that I need my family. So I welcome the discomfort of relationships.
Taking time to listen to my wife has changed me. Rather than assuming that she is rejecting me, I have grown to realize that her anger is a desire to connect, not push me away. She may not always have the best delivery, but the heart of her message is good.
It is damned scary to have someone really see you for who you are. Or rather, see through you for who you are… especially when you don’t really like what you see in yourself.
The myth of “maturity”
Some days, I just have to be compassionate with myself and accept that I am in the throes of childhood patterns. Sure, I can be immature at times, and even my kids refer to me as the third kid in the relationship. That hurts and I am trying to grow up. But you and I also have to be kind and acknowledge that each of us can be immature now and then.
We each tend to be attracted to partners, and to friendships, who echo the failings of our early family environment. It can feel like you are living with the enemy sometimes, but what helps is when you admit that you are causing at least some of the dynamics. “The failings we are most attracted to are those that we are the least set up to deal with.”
I have also found it helpful to engage the help of a therapist. Some days the work is deep and intense, other days mundane. What it is really doing is helping me to tell my old familiar stories out loud. Then I get to examine them and re-examine them. Over time, the anxiety and emotional power of the childhood stories seems to lessen.
You may want to check out this video and see what it has to say. You may learn a few things. If you want to take a genuine risk, watch it with your partner. Love can sometimes be messy, but that is the love that we usually need the most.
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Keep it Real
Photo by Dima Bushkov