John is a man of few words. He sits back and listens. He hears everything, but, outwardly, that would be difficult to discern. In fact, if you were married to him, you would probably accuse him of tuning everyone out, living in his own world, and being unemotional. At least those are the words that his wife, Joyce, uses when describing him.
In contrast, Joyce wears her feelings on her sleeve. She is quick to anger, easily hurt or offended, and too often interprets the actions and words of others as depreciatory and critical. On the surface, it would seem that these individuals are totally opposite. Their behavior certainly testifies to that fact. But, in truth, they are emotionally exactly the same.
They are both needy individuals who are constantly on guard emotionally. John by being invisible with regard to his feelings and thoughts, and Joyce by pushing people away in order to protect herself from being seen, and to avoid caring and later being disappointed or let down. As you might conclude, they live together similar to two porcupines: very carefully. About the only thing they agree on is that their spouse doesn’t love or appreciate them. Let me recount a portion of their last therapy session together.
“I’m going home”, she said, “but I’m not asking him to go. I’ve learned that, if I ask, he won’t. That’s why I’ll never ask him to go anywhere with me again.”
“She’s right. The only way I’ll go to her home again is in a straightjacket.”
“I’m not going to address that statement. Isn’t that how you want me to act, Dr. Ed?”
“No”, I said. “The problem is, you hear him through different ears than I do. Consequently, you’re quick to interpret his words as critical, because you hear what you fear; that something must be wrong with you. But he’s neither your mother nor your father. What I hope is that you eventually realize that their lack of involvement and their criticism of you only reflected their poor parenting skills.”
“That doesn’t change anything. If he loved me, he’d go with me.”
“The last time I went home with you, you said we were only going to be with your family for one day. But then we had to stay there and have every meal with them. I don’t understand it. They always hurt you, and yet you’re still begging for their love.”
“There he is, criticizing me.”
“Once again, that isn’t what I hear him saying. I heard ‘You care more for people who hurt you than you do me.’ I also heard, ‘I never mattered. My father left when I was born, and my mother blamed me. When we married, I thought you cared and I would have gone anywhere with you, if it was just you and me.’”
“I must be deaf, dumb and blind, because I don’t hear that.”
Then I turned and said, “John, you’ve got to speak up for yourself. At least indicate whether or not what I said was accurate.”
“Well, you were doing a pretty good job, so I didn’t have to say anything”, he replied.
“You’re right, Dr. Ed. I never know what he’s thinking.”
“I don’t say anything, because, no matter what I say, you still want me to visit your folks. If I do, I’ll lose the last of me.”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
After several minutes, I said, “Joyce, this is the last time I’m going to speak for him. What he’s saying is, if he openly admitted he loves you and you didn’t respond positively, he’d lose the little bit of him he has left, because most of him was lost as a child. (Possibly, it’s the same reason you can’t allow yourself to believe that he cares for you.”)
Her response was to throw her hands up in exasperation and slink back in her chair.
“I have something I’d like to say. I’m watching each of you live in an emotionally frightened state and lose yourselves. Nothing is pathologically wrong with either of you. You’re just scared individuals. Neither of you know very much about loving, or being vulnerable, because the role models you had were, to say the least, dysfunctional. You learned early in life that whenever you expose your feelings, you get hurt. So, today, you both protect yourselves emotionally. I suspect that more people than not do exactly the same thing. There’s a song in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ called ‘Do You Love Me?’I’d like you to listen to some of the the words:
Tevye asks his wife, Golda, “Do you love me?”
“You're a fool.”
But do you love me?”
“Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I've lived with him,
Fought with him, starved with him.
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?”
“Then you love me?”
“I suppose I do.”
“And I suppose I love you too.”
“Do you love me?” is a question many of you have probably verbalized, or thought to yourselves. Too often, however, it’s asked in a negative way, i.e., “you don’t love me, you don’t care for me.” And even as you utter the words, you’re hoping, praying that the other person will say, “that’s not so. I do love you. You do matter to me.” But, being open and asking your partner directly is the exception, rather than the rule. Vulnerability and transparency has, sadly, become synonymous with weakness and dependency, because, as John said, “you risk losing the last part of you that you can ill afford to part with.”
I believe, however, that being able to openly express love, to be vulnerable, and to risk being hurt doesn’t have to lead to you losing yourself. How you view you determines whether loving affects you negatively and causes you to hide, or positively and allows you to feel that you have the right to love anyone. That loving isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It declares that you feel valuable and worthwhile, and want to share with another person. And if they don’t appreciate or value you, you needn’t hang your head in shame. Instead, you can say, “You can’t stop me from loving you. You may not respond, you may not feel the same way, and that’s alright. But I’m not going to feel rejected or unlovable, or play the victim, because there’s enough of me that’s worthwhile, at least in my mind, that’s still available to someone else who wants to share it.”
The adage is: Be open, be transparent, recognize your fears but, in spite of them, risk being vulnerable. See the good that’s in you and give others the opportunity to love you by acting and responding out of your hopes and dreams, as opposed to your fears. When you’re able to live according to those words, I promise, you won’t lose you, you’ll find you.”