Nick and Nan had been married 14 years when they came to us for counseling. It seemed they kept getting stuck in their attempts to connect with each other on a deep level. Their careers were developing well. Parenting their two children wasn't a problem. They felt okay about their social life.
But when they tried to talk about their personal needs or hurts they hit defensive walls. Sometimes they'd try to overcome the barriers, but lately they'd just close off and separate.
After we listened to their story, we asked them a deep-seated question: "Who do you think you are?" We gave them a homework assignment: Figure out how you would honestly answer that question, then make a list of your responses.
As we've counseled hundreds of couples, we've found many individuals don't have a clear picture of themselves. While they may have ideas about who they are, more often than not, they need some reality checks.
Throughout childhood, we all received millions of messages from Mom, Pop, brothers, sisters, teachers, classmates, and kids next door that told us who we "are." As children we tend to believe them, and then as adults we allow them to affect how we interpret life events and other people.
Since marriage requires a blending and bonding of two distinct individuals, it's important to identify the internal messages each of us hears. For healthy bonding to occur each partner needs to bring a realistic self-concept together with a clear picture of his or her spouse.
When a distorted notion of self attempts to connect with a fantasized mate, neither person is likely to find satisfaction. Intimacy becomes blocked by those imaginary individuals who have invaded the relationship. If I (Louis) keep relating to Melissa as though she were some cross between Jennifer Garner and Betty Crocker, she doesn't have a chance, and I miss out on the delights she has to offer. (See "Distorted Messages We Believe" on page 44 for a list of statements you may have heard and believed.)
If you find yourself repeating ineffective patterns in your marriage, it may be because of ingrained beliefs you received during childhood. Try these steps of discovery and change.
Write a personal history. List the ideas you have about who you are—the positive, negative, and neutral messages. Share them with your spouse and together try to identify where the ideas originated. Probably your family of origin contributed the most. Finally, identify how those beliefs about yourself have affected your perceptions of the world, and how you've coped with life experiences as interpreted through those filters.
As Nan worked on her list she realized her family had repeatedly rejected her. Her brothers had often told her, "You can't come, you'll just be in the way," or "Get lost, pest." Her parents rarely showed affection or offered affirmation. Eventually, Nan began to believe that, "I'm not loved, and sooner or later I'll be rejected."
Review the history of your marriage. Share your individual recollections with the goal of understanding how your self-concepts have influenced your behaviors. This may be difficult and painful, so make it your goal to achieve a deeper understanding and acceptance of yourself and your mate. What events have made a lasting impression for good or ill? How did they affect your responses to each other?
As Nan and Nick talked about how her childhood affected her as an adult, she pinpointed ways she'd provoked the expected rejection. She would be aloof and sullen, and at times cruel in her caustic attacks of Nick. The expected rejection was sure to follow.
Forgive each other for the behaviors your negative self-concepts may have caused. We sometimes call this "getting rid of the baggage." Forgive yourself for the ways you've misunderstood and hurt your lover. Say the words, "I was wrong. Please forgive me." And give that healing reply, "I do forgive you."
Reprogram your thinking about who you are and eliminate the misperceptions. As you delete the untruths, replace them with the truth. Find Scripture verses that tell you what God thinks about you, write them out, memorize them, recite them several times a day. Recognize that your worth isn't dependent on your performance, appearance, or pedigree. You're valuable because you were created and loved by God.
Distorted Messages We Believe
As you work through your lists and discuss them with your mate, you may discover three remarkable things:
1. An understanding of the differences in your perceptions. A common expression we heard from Nick and Nan was, "I didn't know you thought that way." For instance, Nan had always seen Nick as self-assured. She was surprised when he reported that he felt fearful about his ability to relate to a wife. His mother had been a strong, dominating person and his father passive and withdrawn. Lacking a model for how a man could comfortably approach a woman, Nick's fear of being dominated often controlled him.
Nan's self-concept included a belief that her desires for closeness were too strong, and that expressing her needs or hurts would lead to rejection.
Quite naturally Nick and Nan had interpreted their mate's fears as rejection. Each had their self-doubts reinforced when the other backed away as certain feelings emerged. If Nick sensed Nan's unhappiness about his lack of openness, his insecurity grew.ß He'd retreat from the possibility of being rejected, reinforcing his belief of inadequacy.
Nan began to listen to her old worries about being too needy when Nick withdrew. Neither of them was willing to risk confessing the fear. Distancing seemed safer.
Sifting through the difficult times in their relationship, Nan and Nick began to see how mistaken beliefs about themselves had distorted their interpretations of events.
One memory that popped into Nick's mind was actually from their honeymoon. Nick had planned to stop at a resort only minutes from the wedding reception. Nan had disagreed assertively, preferring to drive several hours to a romantic lakeside hotel. With his fear of a woman's control coloring his perception, he became sullen, but passively gave in.
Looking at the same event, Nan's desire at the time was to be sure they were safely away from their rowdy groomsmen. Privacy was her main concern.
As they discussed what happened all those years ago, they were surprised at how differently they'd interpreted their first "disagreement." To Nan it was a vague recollection at best, overshadowed by their first night together. For Nick it had been a confirmation of his worst fear: being dominated by his wife.
Nick could hardly believe Nan's version, and Nan was astounded that he'd been so deeply impacted. They'd each made broad assumptions about the other's motivation and perception.
2. Compassion replaces condemnation. Nick and Nan began to see that their response pattern was driven by their fear of "being inadequate." They'd battled through the hurt of rejection to anger. In their hearts they blamed each other for the loneliness that had followed.
These new insights into the dynamics of their disconnect gave them relief from the blame game. They could more readily forgive and risk exposing their feelings.
We'll never forget one of our last counseling sessions with them. They seemed nervous and distressed when they arrived. Nick confessed, "Well, we just went back to square one."
"What happened?" we asked.
"Last night I was looking forward to celebrating our progress," Nick said. "I hired a babysitter so we could go to dinner at a new steak house in town. When I told Nan where I was taking her, I sensed her withdrawing. I could feel my old knee-jerk response kick in and I thought, Here we go again. Same old story. I'm never able to please her!"
Nan broke in, "When I heard where we were going, I thought, That place is too expensive and I'm not dressed right. I was listening to my old worries of being unworthy."
Suddenly, they broke into wide grins.
"Why the smiles?" we asked.
"We realized what we were doing," said Nick. "Rather than getting stuck in our old dance of hurt, anger, and withdrawal, we started to laugh and hug. Then we went out to dinner. We ignored the old self talk and had a great night together."
"We could hardly wait to tell you!" Nan said. "You said we'd begin to see the old stuff coming into play, and that was the first time it happened. Thanks!"
At first, they felt awkward as they identified the fear that kept them from being honest. Saying, "I'm afraid, but I want to feel heard and accepted" was difficult. But the new experience of emotional togetherness made it worth risking failure.
3. Those mental messages are being reprogrammed. It was fun to watch Nick and Nan relax and enjoy their relationship. They'd report new discoveries of old messages that had controlled them. Nick remembered his dad's warning that "women are impossible to understand and are satisfied only when they're in total control." Another day Nan remembered her dad's prediction, "You're never going to find a guy who'll put up with your selfishness."
Those two messages had become truths in their minds. Other similar beliefs that had affected their feelings about themselves began to come into conscious awareness and focus. They began to identify the lies, then consciously clicked on "delete" to become free from their power.
The next step was to replace the lies with the truth about who they really were—a normal husband and wife with needs for closeness.
When you can accurately answer "who do I think I am?" your relationship will take on a different dimension. You'll have no reason to "get a big head," because there's nothing you've done to achieve worth. On the other hand there's no reason to hang your head in despair or defeat, since you've always been worth the death of the Creator of the universe. Knowing that truth frees you to love and serve your spouse as never before.
Melissa and Louis McBurney, M.D., MP columnists and marriage therapists, are authors of Real Questions, Real Answers About Sex (Zondervan).
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.