Every marriage or relationship includes two people with emotional baggage, people who will reveal the deepest, most vulnerable parts of themselves to each other…
…and when two people with emotional baggage let down their guard and feel vulnerable and emotionally exposed, there is a greater likelihood that emotional wounding and misunderstandings will occur—despite our most loving intentions, relationship missteps will occur along the way.
When vulnerable, you are more sensitive and reactive to any response by your partner that isn’t in sync with what you need (or what you think you need). And to make matters even more complicated, your emotional blind-spots may be preventing you from giving your partner what s/he needs.
Self-protection Versus Mutual Openness
Meaningful intimacy (emotional and physical intimacy) arises out of our ability and willingness to be emotionally vulnerable with others.
Mutual trust and emotional openness and validation of each other’s core vulnerabilities have the potential to heal the old wounds we carry from our pasts into our marriage/relationship. And, unfortunately, the potential for debilitating misunderstandings and conflict may also become part of the relationship landscape, furthering our disillusionment about relationships. So many people who find their way into individual and couples counseling complain about feeling painfully misunderstood and invalidated by their spouse/partner (or worse, attacked and shamed).
When painful misunderstandings occur, it’s not uncommon to close yourself off emotionally and, at some point, withdraw as a way to protect yourself—the emotional disconnection seen in some marriages/relationships often arises out of a self-protective need because these couples feel too emotionally battered to risk further emotional vulnerability. As one wife shared, “If I don’t let my guard down, he can’t hurt me again.”
Depending on the level of pain couples inflict on one other (whether intentional or not), over time, couples might start to expect the worst from one another. And with these negative expectations come the need for continued self-protection and distance-making maneuvers (avoiding each other, finding things to argue about, focusing on the negative while overlooking neutral or positive experiences).
As our negative expectations begin to shape our perceptions and behaviors, the danger exists that our defensive reactions and behaviors will become so ingrained and unyielding that they blind us to any positive attempts our spouse/partner is trying to make. Chronic defensiveness (which includes a lack of openness) can defeat even the most motivated and determined partner. As a result, these couples remain immune to any reparative and loving gestures offered, blinded by past hurts and mistakes.
Couples are often unaware of the pervasiveness and rigidity of their own and their partner’s self-protective behaviors, and therefore remain stuck in an uncoordinated relationship dance that continues to pull the couple apart.
The goal for couples is to become mindful of how they inadvertently trigger one another’s deepest emotional wounds and vulnerabilities (which means you both have to take responsibility for the misunderstandings that may exist). However, it’s much easier for couples to get caught up in the blame game, pointing fingers at each other for the problems that have infiltrated the relationship. When all you see is how unreasonable and uncaring the other person is, rather than seeing how wounded and emotionally lost you both feel (a mutual wounding that lies just underneath the frustration and anger) the relationship is likely to remain frozen in the muck of negativity.
The Power of Understanding and Forgiveness
When couples make a concerted effort to work to acknowledge and understand the emotional wounding that has occurred between them (without finger-pointing), an important shift can occur in the relationship dance—a shift toward enhanced emotional safety, trust and intimacy. For this to occur, you must truly “see” and “get” the impact you’ve had on each other. In other words, any efforts at understanding must be thoughtful and authentic for meaningful change to take place. Pat phrases, half-hearted/resentful attempts, or a tendency to focus solely on your own pain without genuine attempts to see and understand your spouse’s/partner’s pain will only further a lack of mistrust and forestall the reconnection process.
And just as important as mutual understanding is the ability for couples to stop holding onto past hurts—central to any healing that needs to occur is the ability to learn from the past, then let go of the past. This is the process of forgiveness that all couples will face at some point.
Because of the potential hazards that come with any intimate relationship, forgiveness (for both small and large issues) is a necessary part of maintaining a healthy relationship. But forgiveness (like mutual understanding) will not just magically occur when needed: You and your partner will have to make the decision to bring forgiveness into the relationship (not always an easy task; you have to work toward forgiveness).
And you might find that your ability to make forgiveness a regular part of your relationship occurs more naturally when efforts toward mutual understanding and responsibility are part of the relationship landscape. Forgiveness and understanding feed off of each other.
There is an inherent paradox in all this: Every marriage/relationship has the potential to help each person grow beyond their individual limitations; and every marriage/relationship is a potential minefield dotted with old emotional wounds that can keep couples mired in negative patterns. Making mutual understanding and forgiveness a regular part of your relationship will help tip the scales toward growth and healing.
Marriage and Relationship Workbook
I’ve created a workbook for couples on how to make forgiveness a regular part of your relationship or marriage. Click love and forgiveness for more information about this forgiveness resource.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro