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Keep Your Guard Up - 3/14/2014

“Keep your guard up” is a cardinal rule in the sport of boxing. It makes very good sense. If you keep your guard up when your opponent swings at you, you can block it.

Sadly, however, we human beings have unconsciously learned to apply that rule of thumb to far too many walks of our lives. The area I’m most concerned with, however, is loving and living with a partner.  In most instances, it’s the one behavior that contributes the most to the non-constructive interactions that occur between people who, at one time, so loved one another that they declared their feelings openly to their  families, friends and  God in the house of worship of their choice. You have to wonder how their initial positive feelings and good intentions could transform themselves into the hurtful behaviors that years later turned those lovers into enemies. The answer is, the more they loved and felt vulnerable with each other, the more they put their guard up. Why? Because “the more people emotionally feel, the more they fear”, and, ironically, the more adept they became at keeping their guard up, the more disappointment and hurt they both experienced.

Let me give you an example. Josh and Alexis met, fell in love and decided to marry. They were viewed by everyone as the golden couple. However, emotionally, they both had their own issues. Although in her late forties, Alexis had never married before. Josh, on the other hand, had two failed marriages. Both of which ended when his wives left him for other men. After their wedding, Josh discovered that Alexis had come into their relationship thousands of dollars in debt, which she was consciously attempting to pay off out of her own salary. She stated she was too frightened to tell him about it, because she feared he wouldn’t marry her. He saw her actions as a betrayal of his trust. It’s no wonder they both unconsciously felt the need to keep their guard up.

Their issue is very apparent, but that isn’t always the case. For example, take Donald and Angie, who have been married for fourteen years. It is a second marriage for both. Neither of their first marriages lasted very long. They attributed it to growing older, losing interest in their partners and having married too early. All of which may have been true, but the sad fact is, they learned nothing from their first relationships. Instead, they accepted rather superficial reasons for why their relationships ended in divorce, and took little responsibility for the problems they experienced. Worst of all, they had no awareness of the reasons they chose their previous partners in the first place. Now, fourteen years later, they find themselves unhappy, feeling horribly hurt by each other, and interacting in an extremely vindictive manner. They have settled into a relationship that brings neither of them joy, excitement, or happiness. They are immersed in behavioral routines, which primarily consist of protecting themselves from one another, but do nothing to improve their marital relationship, which is weak in substance and only superficially acceptable on the surface.  

Both Donald and Angie are individuals who came from extremely dysfunctional homes. Donald’s mother was married three times and each stepfather was worse than the one before. Mother barely held things together, had little time for her son, and was constantly hysterical regarding the destructive, hurtful relationships she had with these men. Donald’s sole preoccupation throughout childhood focused on leaving school, being on his own, and escaping the toxic environment he grew up in. To emotionally survive, Donald developed a coping mechanism consisting of not needing or trusting anyone, and making it on his own by keeping his feelings to himself. His mantra was “Whatever life throws at me, I’ll deal with by restricting emotional displays and accepting it.”

Angie came from an equally dysfunctional home. Mother was a depressed, angry individual. She hated the marriage she felt trapped in, and blamed her husband for all her problems, but did nothing about it.  Throughout Angie’s childhood, she received little attention from her father, a traveling salesman who was rarely home and was, therefore, blind to the critical, hostile behavior mother directed toward her. Angie coped by living in a fantasy world,  dreaming of perfect relationships, beautiful love, and a marriage to someone who would be her savior. But inside, she perceived herself as inadequate, insufficient, and unlovable, all of which she compensated for by her dreams of perfection. There was no way Donald could live up to her unrealistic expectations. As a result, she was disappointed in all her interactions with others. In contrast to Donald, she wore her emotions on her sleeve and guarded herself by criticizing others, or finding fault with them before they could find fault with, or reject  her.

Try to imagine these two people living together. On the one hand, the little girl in Angie constantly pointed out her husband’s deficiencies. She initiated her every request by first blaming or putting him down. Thus, she’d say, “You never take me out to a movie or a date night”, or “If you weren’t so lazy, you’d take the garbage out like every other man in our subdivision.” On the other hand, when Donald felt attacked, he would totally withdraw emotionally in order to protect himself.  Over the years, the more he withdrew, the more she was convinced that he didn’t care, and that her mother’s rejection was deserved. Thus the more she found fault, which caused Donald to become even more insulated emotionally. Their coping techniques, i.e., their means of keeping their guard up, though, seemingly, protective, only served to increase the hurt, disappointment and feelings of inadequacy that both harbored inside. They fit each other, but in a negative manner that reinforced their notion that the world is a threatening place, and justified their clinging to old protective but self-destructive behaviors.

If either of them could ever distance themself from their own fears, it would become evident to them that looking at and finding fault with your partner never promotes positive change or improvement in yourself or your relationship. Conversely, looking inward and changing what you honestly feel needs changing in you, will at least ensure that your side of your relationship is positive, constructive, and contributes to an environment where change in your partner is at least more likely to occur. The first step in this process is to let your guard down.

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