Take Responsibility for Your Feelings

girl-in-grassBefore I received training in marriage and family therapy, I was extremely blaming and critical of my husband.  I truly believed everything that I felt was all his fault.

Through my schooling, I learned that I needed to take a look at what was being triggered in me when he did certain things. So if he went golfing and surfing for a few hours on the weekend, all I could see was how he was depriving me of attention and his time, and not how enjoyable and nourishing these activities were for him. And I certainly didn’t see that maybe I needed to get some outside activities of my own!

And since I was completely CERTAIN that he shouldn’t be depriving me of his time and attention like that, I felt very justified in saying such things as, “You never want to spend time with me,” or “You care about your hobbies more than me,” or “You are a huge jerk!”  I had no idea that this sort of blaming and attacking only triggered him to feel like a bad husband and made him shut down.  So when he got quiet or defensive or needed to get away from me, that just confirmed what I already thought I knew, which was that he just didn’t really care about me.

I finally realized that I needed to look at myself and why I immediately jumped to the conclusion that he didn’t care just because he had some hobbies that didn’t include me.  I was finally able to see that what was being triggered in me was a deep down, unconscious fear that I wasn’t really loved by my husband, and perhaps that I wasn’t loveable.  On a conscious level, I did not know that this was a fear that I had. If anyone asked me, I would have insisted that I felt just fine about my lovability, thank you very much. It’s hard to know what is lurking below the surface of our consciousness.

Every time he inadvertently triggered that fear in me, my anxiety went up, I became insecure about our relationship, and I literally went into flight or fight mode.  I saw his hobbies as a huge threat to our relationship, and hence to my ultimate survival, so my options were to fight it out or get the heck out of there. I chose to fight which led me to attack him and let him know in all sorts of ways exactly how he was failing me as a partner. This sent him into fight or flight also, but he usually chose to flee. And as I mentioned before, as he became distant, I took this as further confirmation that he didn’t love me, instead of looking at how my attack was affecting him.

Once I learned that I needed to take responsibility for how I was being triggered, I realized that it was also my job to get a hold of myself and let him in on my experience.  I found it EXTREMELY difficult to confide that I felt unlovable and that his extracurricular activities seemed to confirm that I was not cared about.  So I started off slowly.  I told him I learned in school that when I was angry and critical, even though he experienced me as scary and could only see my anger, I was probably actually feeling hurt.  Not wanting to be vulnerable, I found it much more protective to get angry than to expose hurt.  But since this was damaging my relationship, I decided that I had to be brave, and trust my husband to help me with my fears, and try to confide what was happening for me, instead of blaming. He was much better able to handle a sad wife, than a scary, threatening one!

I asked him to help me confide in him.  We made a deal that when I began to get angry, he would ask me if I had my feelings hurt in some way. When he remembered to do this, I saw that he was open to listening, which made me feel cared about.  This helped me with my responsibility to let him know how I had been triggered or to tell him about any other resentments I might be holding onto that I hadn’t yet confided.

With some practice, I became able to confide in him my insecurities and hurts, and he helped me deal with them by validating my fears and letting me know that I was loved and cared about.  We have become so good at this that we can usually skip the step of my anger, and go right into confiding.

Today, there is absolutely no blame or criticism in our relationship.  He rarely triggers me, even though he is still a golf and surfing fanatic.  And I rarely scare him anymore with my angry rants.  I really believed, as I think many women do, that he really didn’t care.  Because my husband seemed so stoic at times, and because he tended to shut down when attacked in a blaming and critical way, he seemed really unaffected by everything.  I didn’t realize how demoralized he was becoming by my criticism and how scary my anger was to him.

On his end, he chose not to confide in me about how my behavior was affecting him.  He took the avoiding route.  He pretended that everything was fine on his end when it wasn’t.  So I assumed he was happy with the relationship, and had no complaints.  Instead, he was too scared of me to let me in on his own struggles!  He essentially turned me into a stranger and his needs were unknown to me.  Therefore, they weren’t getting met and he was building up some resentment and I had no idea.  I thought I was perfect in the relationship!

I have made it my personal mission to help couples have more confiding conversations and less blaming and avoiding ones.  I know from personal experience that it’s difficult to look at ourselves and our stuff and to accept that it’s our job to take responsibility for our feelings. It’s easier to lash out with anger and blame or to shut down.  But if we don’t figure out how to do this, we will destroy our relationships.  The resentment builds until you feel like you don’t even like each other anymore.  Rarely do people understand that it’s not that they are with the wrong person or that they just woke up one day and realized they don’t like each other all of a sudden. More often, it’s that they have let so much resentment build up that they have become so contemptful of each other that having a loving, secure relationship is virtually impossible.

The best thing we can do is to not let resentment build.  As adults, we need to take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, experience, needs, and fears and let our partners in on them by confiding them as they come up (not a week, or month or years later). If we try to blame our partner for them, we turn him/her into our enemy and make it less emotionally safe in the relationship.  If we try to avoid them, we become strangers to each other and have no intimacy.  The sense of being unknown by the person who is supposed to love you the most is very demoralizing.

When we don’t know what we are doing in relationships–and let’s face it–most of us don’t, we set ourselves up to be rewounded by our childhood stuff, instead of being healed, which ideally relationships can do.  When we don’t know that we are becoming angry or scared because our partner is brushing up against a raw spot from a past experience, we really believe they are to blame for our hurt feelings or our rage.  We need to understand that we all have raw spots from past relationships, we all have relational wounds and triggers, and if we don’t give our relationship the opportunity to help these wounds heal, we will set ourselves up to continually feel just like we did when we were 5, or 10, or 16, or 25 when we didn’t get everything that we needed in relationships. When that happens, we will feel as powerless as we did back then. We need to take our power back by taking responsibility for our authentic thoughts and feelings and needs.

So remember, it really IS difficult for most of us to say, “Hey, I feel hurt and lonely and unsure of how much I am loved in this relationship.”  That is confiding.  Your partner will likely be open to talking to you about this and helping you deal with it.  You will turn your partner into your ally in your struggle and increase the intimacy between the two of you.

It’s easier to say, “You don’t care about me, you only care about yourself and your hobbies” (or friends, work etc).  That is blaming and mindreading and jumping to conclusions. It’s likely your partner may feel attacked and become defensive.  Then you will not be heard or validated and you really will feel unloved and uncared about.

It’s even easier to say, “You are a real jerk!” (or worse).  This is a full on attack of your partner’s character and completely off the topic of their behavior (spending lots of time on hobbies).  In this case, your partner will most certainly feel attacked and will either fight back or shut down (again, this is basic fight or flight). An alternative is to strike a deal like I did with my husband, where your partner understands that you somehow got triggered and are feeling unloved or not important, and he/she can help soothe you.

So don’t take the easy way out.  Make your relationship more important than your resentment.  Make your relationship more important than your fear of your insecurities being exposed.  Take a risk, but ask your partner for their help.  If you let your partner know that when you get angry, you might actually be really sad underneath that, and he/she doesn’t know how to make it safe for you to risk exposing your deepest insecurities, you may want to see a marriage and family therapist who can help you both with this. It is difficult to do at first, but with some practice, your relationship will become the safe haven that it is meant to be and not a place of rewounding.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

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