Many people find it difficult to understand why in the world you have to look at yourself before you can effectively deal with your problems. Their notion is why dig up old dirt? That’s history. It’s only what’s going on today that really matters.
Most of these individuals come to therapy reluctantly. Their spouse threatened to leave, or cried, or got so angry that they agreed but in their minds, they thought , “I don’t have a problem, he/she does. So, if they really think it’s necessary, they should go.”
The truth is, however, if you married someone with problems, it’s usually an indication that you have a similar problem, but you may be totally unaware of it. Consequently, it doesn’t bother you. Nevertheless, even if you’re unaware you have problems because you deny them, they’re still there and generally have a more significant influence on your behavior than you realize. The rule of thumb is, people without problems (i.e., who are healthy), never marry people who aren’t.
Let me share one example that can demonstrate why dealing with your own problems first will enable you to better deal with the conflicts that arise between you and others, particularly your spouse.
Years ago, I saw a couple in therapy. She was a legal secretary, he was a carpenter who did stud work for new construction. He, however, never felt satisfied with the level of success he had achieved. He constantly griped about the fact that he and his crew, when the weather was sufficiently inclement, couldn’t work. His goal, which he constantly reminded others of, was to become a home builder in his own right. But, over the 6 months I saw the couple, he never made one move in that direction. She supported him, but also criticized his lack of effort toward that goal. His argument was, “We’re over our heads in debt. I can’t be there, putting up studs to pay our bills and at the same time, knocking on doors, looking for someone to hire me to build their home. “
Then, as is usual, Houston experienced five consecutive days of rain. During that period, Ted’s wife, Ann, did her best to encourage him to use the time to contact builders. Finally, she pushed so hard that he screamed, “I can’t go out and look for a job. I have one decent pair of pants, but I don’t even have a jacket. How can I go in and claim I’m a contractor?” By noon, she brought a sport jacket home for him. He looked at her incredulously and said, “Great going, Houdini. But I don’t have shoes, either, unless I can wear work boots with this outfit.” Several hours later, she reappeared with a pair of dress shoes, a white shirt and a tie. At this point, he was totally flustered and yelled , “How in the world can I walk into somebody’s office without calling cards.” She trudged off and, within an hour, returned with 50 business cards.
She thought, “I’m helping him to take advantage of the weather and override his concerns regarding his appearance. Even more, she assured him of her confidence in him and her certainty that he’d do well. All of which resulted in him physically beating her to the point that she was almost unconscious.
She rushed to a hospital and was advised to contact the police, take pictures of her bruises and made an appointment with me. She said, “How can I ever stay with someone who could beat me? What more could I have done to help him?” My statement was, “I’m not sure that you helped him. What you did was take away his excuses. You forced him to be emotionally naked and to recognize that he was frightened to death to go out and start his own business. His reaction was a knee-jerk one, to push you away and to prove he was strong. That doesn’t justify his behavior, it only explains it. There is no justification for physical abuse.”
It took several moments for her to comprehend exactly what I was saying. Then she said, “I was only trying to support him. But maybe I was as blind to his feelings as he was. I guess neither of us ever look at our feelings.” That’s the understanding of self she desperately needed to acquire. She had never before recognized that, although her behavior stemmed from her heart, she only dealt with things superficially. She tried to fix them, rather than understand them. Once she could see that, she could deal with him more meaningfully.
That means that someday, she’ll be able to say, “I know how much you want to start your own business. But, it’s scary and if you’re not ready, I understand. If I weren’t afraid, I’d go back and finish college and get a better job. So, please know you’re not alone. I love you just the way you are. If you decide to take the chance, I won’t love you more, but I’ll be there, win or lose.”
He might not immediately respond but after mulling it over, he might thank her for understanding. If he can’t say the words, he might do something uncharacteristic of him, to indicate his appreciation. If he doesn’t, it won’t necessarily mean he doesn’t recognize her efforts. It’ll be because he couldn’t acknowledge, “I’m frightened, and even though you reassure me, I doubt you’ll love me because I don’t love myself for being weak.” She’ll still feel the better for it in her heart, because she’ll know that the effort she put out and the understanding she displayed put both of them on the same wavelength. And isn’t that where you all truly want to be?