So much of the suffering I witness is due to the difficulty and even impossibility of asking for help. Even at one’s deepest moment of need, asking for help might not enter one’s thoughts. This is a common theme in my work of helping others. Why is this?
We continue to believe that asking for help equates to weakness, being too much for others, or being a burden. Is it about the possibility of rejection? That our needs might seem bottomless? Are we afraid to trust? Or is it intimacy? At what point in our life did we learn it was best to hide what we need? And why is this notion going unquestioned when we need help the most?
To ask for help, we need to accept a certain level of vulnerability, and to be in contact with our needs. But do to messages we gathered from early relationships with caregivers or, more broadly, to western cultural attitudes and unquestioned notions of self-reliance, we’ll try everything we can to avoid even thinking about our needs.
Often, needs are buried beneath years or decades of a successful, largely unconscious, defensive stance. Successful because self-reliance can get us a long way. It may feel good to know we don’t have to count on anyone. Yet so many of us suffer from a confusing and profound sense of aloneness.
Friends, family, work success, may not be enough to resolve the frightening and deadening emptiness resulting from trying to do it all on our own. We arrive at the point in which it’s time to question why we’ve been trying over and over to get away from this feeling.
This moment, however frightening or loathsome, however we might try to push it away, is an opportunity. It’s time to open the gate, even if just for a moment, and face the demon, the demon that grows and maintains power over us as long as we keep the gate shut.
If we can open this gate, we might find that the threat has been an illusion. That what we’ve defended against and feared the most already happened a long time ago. That it’s the fear of it happening again, or even the fear of fear that keeps us stuck.
Asking for help, feeling your need for help, can be your most challenging moment. You may come up against deep internal conflict. That fear voice inside might be screaming, “Don’t do it!” But here’s an opportunity to try something new. Here’s an opportunity to express yourself. Here’s an opportunity to more fully connect with another and, most importantly, with yourself.
When your spouse or partner presents you with something they’re struggling with, and you happen to be part of that struggle, what do you do? When your partner complains or protests or even attacks, s/he is most often saying, “I’m hurt. Pay attention to that.”
If you are like most of us, in the heat of conflict it’s easy to become defensive, argue, or cross complain. And then, of course, it’s “on.” Deep feelings become triggered, and no matter how small the initial complaint, things get too hot, too fast. You’ve taken it personally. You’ve let your partner’s complaint stand as a comment against who you are, and why should you tolerate that? You fight back, because this is what our brain is wired to do–it’s a survival mechanism, serving to keep us alive. But in this case it’s overkill.
After many of these dramas, it seems as if the two of you can’t stop yourselves from fighting about small stuff; sometimes, you can’t even remember what it was all about. All you know is that it hurt, for both of you, and you feel stuck.
What if you could remain grounded, listen calmly, and simply get curious without owning your partner’s problem? What if it were not yours to solve? What if you could feel empathy for your partner rather than resentment? Now, even though your partner has a right to self-expression, I’m not saying to sit back and pretend you’re a punching bag. And I’m not suggesting you take any form of abuse. It’s fair enough to say, “I’d like to listen to you, but right now your anger is making it impossible for me to be present with you.”
To handle your feelings while remaining open to those of your partner requires strength, compassion, dedication, and patience. It is not easy, and does not come naturally for most of us. Even the most dedicated of my couples have struggled to remain on this path.
When we get close enough to another person to commit to an intimate relationship, we are offering our hearts to each other, in varying degrees of vulnerability. The more open we are, the richer the possibilities for the healing power of love to reach us, and the easier it is to get hurt, missed, overlooked, or rejected.
We tend to seek out a partner who will stir up in us just enough of the old wounding so that we have another opportunity to understand the wound, to re-enact it, and possibly to heal it. If you have lasted together beyond the initial phase of blissful infatuation, consider that you have come to each other with a deep purpose.
When your partner becomes triggered by something you said or did and comes to you in pain and defensiveness, try this: Listen to them, but also tune into yourself. What’s happening inside? Are you leaning forward in preparation to fight back? Are you ready to retreat? Are you closing up the gates? Ask yourself: Am I ready to listen to my partner? Can I manage my feelings right now? Can I be present and not look for solutions? As I feel myself getting tight, can I increase my breath by thirty percent? Can I feel into my partner’s pain enough to realize that I am probably not the original offender? Can I get to the point of asking questions?
If you can do even some of these things, you are offering your partner the opportunity to come forward safely, you open yourself to knowing your partner more deeply, and you’re giving yourself a break from the stress of being or trying to fix the problem. You are establishing the foundation for increased safety, and therefore a deeper level of intimacy.
What will it take to get your partner to see things your way? When will she or he begin to change?
If you’ve been waiting for them to see things your way, if only s/he would simply stop doing this or start doing that, if only they would fulfill the potential you see or once saw in them…. You probably know where I’m going: this is a fantasy.
While you complain, blame, rage, or quietly simmer with resentment, you’ve put yourself and your relationship on hold. The longer you wait or quietly hope for your partner to do the work, the more you invite feelings of powerlessness, passivity, despair, even rage. Your partner feels this, and you polarize. You are in a loop.
Before you approach your partner with your issue, ask yourself: Is my partner ready to hear this? Is this the right time? Can I stick to one issue without unleashing the litany of disappointments I’ve chosen to store up to this point? Ask your partner, “Is this a good time to talk?”
Do not do this while driving, or eating, or watching TV. And try not to bring up your issue while things are hot. Instead, wait until things are cool, while things are either going well or at least the environment feels neutral. This may sound contradictory: why ruin a good vibe?
The right time to bring something up is when both of you are open and ready, in a place of non-defensiveness. This does not mean your partner can put you off indefinitely. So if not now, when? Set a time, and stick to it.
Once you are both ready, it is time to reveal yourself. This does not mean telling your partner that s/he is driving you crazy; it does not involve name-calling, and does not involve blaming. When you blame, you play the victim card, and it’s a throwaway. Instead, get clear on your issue and the way it affects you emotionally.
You have the opportunity to reveal yourself in a new way, to share a new aspect of yourself with your partner so that s/he may, or may not, understand this part of you, get closer to you, trust you more, empathize with you, or check into their behavior as it affects you. Go as deeply into the nuances of your experience as you can. Go into it with courage and without expectation. At the very least you end up speaking your truth, creating much needed space within yourself.
It’s easy to acknowledge that we are different from our partners. The next dimension is to tolerate the open and truthful expression of our differences. This can be anxiety-provoking. It’s normal to feel this, even better to name it. What is your worst fear? Often we fear that if we reveal ourselves fully, we are open to being rejected, or abandoned. We fear this for good reason, because in a variety of forms it has already happened at some early point in our life history.
Get to know yourself emotionally, cultivate a relationship to your hurt parts. The healthier and stronger you are as an individual, and the more tuned into your wounds and the impact on you of your family history; and beyond this: the more respect and compassion you have for your own suffering, the better prepared you are to hold onto yourself as you take the risk of strengthening your relationship by declaring your unique needs as an individual.
Whether or not your partner or anyone else can meet your needs is a different question. The important thing here is to own them. From there you are on the path to taking care of yourself and, in the process, your relationship.
I had dinner with a group of friends and acquaintances recently. The woman of one of the couples described her experience with her EAP (Employee Assistance Program) counselor, which was not good. Typically, an employer will approve an employee for up to six visits, from within their selected pool, with a licensed clinician. It’s a wise move on the employer’s part: unhappy people make for unproductive employees. But there are limitations.
The woman told me that this therapist fell asleep on her. This therapist makes frequent mention of other clients, though not directly by name (yet since her workplace is small, this woman was able to discern who her fellow clients were). She mentioned a number of things her therapist said that spoke of poor boundaries. Being new to therapy, she wondered if this was normal behavior from a therapist.
As much as I like to allow people to make their own informed, empowered decisions, I was struggling to remain in my seat. This therapist’s behavior was unprofessional, inappropriate, and unethical, for starters. I was sorry this had been her introduction to therapy, and promised her it could, and should, be something entirely different.
The conversation led to this couple considering couples therapy. I explained that many therapists provide couples counseling, though most therapists have not had adequate training working with couples. As a consequence, the therapy does not work. I explained what good couples therapy looked like, then gave them some referrals to people I work with, trust, and admire.
The next day I got an email from them with a list of therapists covered by his wife’s insurance; did I know any of them? They still wanted to cut corners and save money. This is normal, and I liked that they were open to exploring options. But they were also planning a month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand. Why wouldn't they invest in the health of their relationship? Where was the disconnect? Why would they, and so many others, leave the care of their relationship to chance?
Psychotherapy was built on a medical model. It can be expensive. The insurance industry suggests to us that if it isn't covered, it isn't important. Yet couples therapy is a very subjective discipline, with skill levels of therapists varying widely.
The best way to connect with a good couples therapist is through a direct referral, not through a list. And the best way to know if a therapist will work for the both of you is to go for a session or two and assess how you feel, both individually and as a couple, about the therapy. If the therapist is competent, s/he will openly and honestly help guide your decision.
Ask the prospective therapist if s/he has had had specific training for couples work. How much? How is the therapists work with couples different than with individuals (there is a big difference)?
Couples therapy can be a sound investment, and it’s going to cost money. However, the money you spend on a good couples therapist could offset the draining cost of maintaining a stale, conflict-ridden, emotionally taxing relationship. Why wouldn’t you want to get back on track with your partner, increase the quality of your connection to each other, improve your sex life, and trust each other more?
Try a trusted referral, or someone who you know places an emphasis on couples therapy, and if you feel chemistry with the therapist, give the therapy at least three month evaluation period. I find it sometimes takes this long just to discover what the questions are, let alone how to begin answering them.
Within this time, you should look for a reduction in harmful conflict; be learning new ways to express needs; reduce blaming; and increase connectedness. The therapist should be empathic and directive, a confidante and a coach, come from a place of authority, yet remain flexible and open. From there it is up to you to decide how deep you want to go. Your intimate relationship can be a spiritual journey, and a practice. Treat it with care, respect, and sensitivity, make it a priority, and let each other back in.
Many men I know, both socially and in therapy, are in some way enduring the result of a problematic relationship with their mother. This manifests in adult relationships with women, and I see a lot of this in couples therapy. Although a man may function highly in many areas of his life (financially, socially, intellectually, etc.) emotionally and relationally he may be shut down, cut off, angry without awareness, rageful, or depressed. He may mistrust women (unless they are friends and therefore do not pose a threat to his wounding), subtly objectify them, or feel inadequate in their presence. Many men I see are not fully committed to their intimate relationships, yet the one relationship they feel is a constant in their lives is their relationship to their mother.
When a mother within the family system fails to take active steps with her partner to address their problematic relationship, and instead goes through the motions with her partner either hoping for change or accepting a baseline of unhappiness, she commonly and unconsciously turns to her child for her needs. Bereft of the closeness she desires with her partner, she begins to turn to her son for companionship, connection, confidence, support, and friendship. Boundaries blur. The son learns that the best, and perhaps only, way to connect to his mother or to achieve emotional closeness is to attune to her needs. But a child cannot possibly anticipate or provide what his mother is calling for, and comes to believe that he has failed in some way, that he is not enough. Later in life, the son may feel irritated by her narcissistic presence or phone calls, yet not know why. He feels guilty for avoiding her, and maintains a complex allegiance to her.
This allegiance involves showing up for her, trying to give her what she needs, while hiding his adult self from her. On some level he may know he cannot and does not want to give to her any more, but cannot say so. What he sensed long ago remains, on a real or perceived level, true: to create a boundary would be to risk loss of connection. The son learns that he must be one thing in the world (a man), and another with his mother (her child). He runs a cover, a dual existence which robs him of vitality, creativity, and the energy he needs for his adult relationships. He has never been able to give his mother what she truly needs, so he feels deeply inadequate. Confused from a childhood he began as caretaker to someone whose needs he could not meet, he feels at a loss when it comes to taking care of or pleasing the women he has actually chosen.
Over time a man may reach a dead end: he wants connection with a woman, but to show up as man with his own needs is to risk losing it all. The need to hide, to give minimally and then to escape, to seek freedom and avoid suffocation; so often this behavior manifests in a man’s intimate relationships. He will project his mother’s expectations onto his partner. He will project his fear of engulfment onto his partner. He will project his feelings of inadequacy onto his partner. He will feel that closeness comes at too large a cost, and therefore takes refuge in work, friendships with men, distractions, addictions, and relationships with women who are drawn to men who cannot give them what they need.
How does one create space enough to alter this pattern? Men grow up thinking they should feel a certain way towards their mother. Perhaps he believes she has sacrificed herself for him, and therefore he owes her, as if he asked her to bring him into the world. A man needs to question this, and to become conscious of his actual feelings towards her. Is his relationship to her clouding his intimate relationships? Is mother-son energy leaking into his relationships with women? Can he say “no” to his mother and feel solid about it?
An intimate relationship can be one of the best ways to test what is real, and what is perceived. Talk to your partner about your feelings towards your mother. Check out what you think your partner needs, and what she actually calls for from you. Awareness, openness to challenge, the courage to risk loss by honoring oneself and leading an authentic life–this is a start. Every day presents us with an opportunity to choose what we want and what we need. Every relationship we are in represents a choice.