Viv, a composite of several clients, has been married for 25 years. For the past 10 years, she and her husband Alan have experienced intense conflict and emotional turbulence. Neither partner, however, has been willing to leave the marriage, and there are increasing signs that the relationship may indeed find its way back to goodness and peace.
And yet, despite glimmers of hope and movement in the direction of happiness, Alan continues to repeat certain comments to Viv. Specifically, “This marriage is a failure,” “I’ve totally failed at marriage,” or “I haven’t even been able to succeed at anything, including marriage.”
When Alan first started uttering these statements, Viv became defensive and angry. She felt hurt and back-handedly insulted; his words felt like aggressions against her and the marriage. She would then defend the marriage or blame her husband for destroying it and them. Alan would react and accuse Viv of being the one who was impossible to have a relationship with. One hundred percent of the time, when Viv reacted defensively or with aggression, the conversation went south and left the couple more disconnected and in more pain.
After years of defending herself and the marriage, and blaming Alan for ruining things, or trying unsuccessfully to get him to see the marriage in a different way, Viv adopted a new strategy. She began pretending she didn’t notice her husband’s comments; she behaved as if he hadn’t said it or it hadn’t hurt her. It was an attempt to stave off her shame at being wounded and show him (falsely) that his efforts to cause her harm were useless. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work either, because, underneath the nonchalance, she felt enraged and deeply hurt.
This false front made her feel like she was tucking away and even betraying her true self, feelings that brought her deep resentment and confusion.
Most recently, the work Viv’s and I do together has been focused on letting go of (or loosening) the controller in her—the part of her that feels it has to change or manage her husband’s behavior. When Viv is able to allow her husband to be the way he is and let go of the idea that it’s her responsibility to change him, she feels liberated and, unexpectedly, not resentful.
She’s realized that there are a lot of things about her husband’s behavior that she doesn’t like, and that’s OK. When she’s not failing at getting him to be the way she wants him to be, and he’s not failing her by not being how she wants him to be, she can actually relax. She can hear his comments and not have to do anything with or about them. She can accept the situation as it is.
Viv has been learning to watch what happens when she lets everything be just exactly as it is, which may be the most important lesson we ever learn.
When Viv lets go of the need to control or change her husband, she feels more separate from him, but also more aware of who he and she actually are. Paradoxically, she also feels like she’s in more of a relationship with him, rather than in a relationship with the idea of the man she wants him to be. This doesn’t mean that she stops telling him when he says things that hurt her, but she no longer sees him as a piece of clay she has to mold. Alan transformed from being an object in her psyche that possessed the potential to make her happy, into a separate human being with pleasing and not-pleasing parts.
There was a surrender that occurred within Viv when she gave up her 25-year effort to make Alan different so that she could be happy. As a result, she was left with reality. Reality had always been there, but she had been in a battle with it, rejecting it and living in a state of chronic dissatisfaction and frustration.
The process of letting go is immensely liberating, but it also includes grief. When we surrender control, we surrender the hope that we will get to have the partner we wish we could have and the happiness we imagined our partner could bring us. We may discover a totally different kind of happiness, but our idea of how it was going to happen, and who our partner was going to become, must die.
When we stop betting our happiness on our partner changing, we discover a different kind of partnership, a bond without shackles—a union that’s both separate and together. When we step out of the role of manager, we start to see who our partner actually is rather than who they’re not, and hopefully, we can do all this with a bit of compassion.
This process, while painful, is spiritual evolution. Our purpose is no longer to fix our partner. It’s a relationship without the hope of having exactly what we want, but with a new and undiscovered hope of seeing what we actually have, the partner who we are in a relationship with.
And remarkably, when we change our responses to our partner’s behavior, our partner’s behavior also changes. It has to, as we’re feeding our relationship different food. When we change, the people around us change, either through their own behavior or simply through how we see them.
Most recently, yet another shift has occurred; Viv has found new wisdom that’s not about Alan or the marriage. Viv has discovered an authentic desire to move away from negativity and move towards love and kindness, towards friends and family who have a positive experience of their relationship with her. These people do not view their relationship with her as a failure.
This desire in Viv stems from self-love and letting things be as they are. This allows her to disengage from her husband’s comments in the interest of her own well-being.
While she still finds Alan’s words hurtful, Viv has developed the wisdom to let go and act in service of her greater happiness. Or, as the wonderful Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron puts it, to not bite the hook that’s dangling. Not responding is not just another response tactic, but rather a true act of self-love and a most powerful tool.
A caveat: When abuse is present, we remove ourselves from the situation. This article is not applicable in cases of abuse.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader and author of The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World. For more information, visit NancyColier.com