John was happy, confident and successful when he met the woman he would marry.
She bowled him over. She was vivacious, gregarious, and the life of the party.
It wasn’t until they moved in together that he noticed a shift in her. When they were home alone together, she would confess her suspicions about their acquaintances. Everyone had a flaw. Her job was a joke. She was sick and tired of where they lived. Her friends were idiots.
John felt uncomfortable when she made fun of other people, but he shrugged it off. She just had a different sense of humor than he did. She liked being sarcastic and he didn’t, but that didn’t mean either of them was wrong.
They got married, and John had never been happier. This was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
Yet it was like he was married to two different women: the woman she was in public, whom everyone loved and admired…
And the woman she was in private, who had nothing but bad things to say about other people (and nothing but good things to say about herself and him).
He tried to cheer her up. He loved making her laugh. But at some point he noticed that he was no longer exempt from her sharp wit. She made comments about him, mocking him for being impatient, for not anticipating her needs, for being messy, for forgetting appointments.
She always accompanied her comments with a laugh. “You know I love you!” she sang out gaily. “Don’t get so offended.” Then she’d kiss him, and he’d forget how much the comment stung.
But her comments lingered, so far beneath his conscious awareness that he didn’t realize he was holding onto them. There was something familiar about how he felt with his wife.
If he’d taken the time to think about it, he might have realized that his mother had been critical, too. He’d never felt good enough for her. Growing up, he’d accepted that he deserved everything his mother said about him. He knew he had to work even harder than most to be a good person. The praise he wanted from his mother, more than even her love, never came.
So perhaps it was no surprise when, a year into their marriage, John began feeling like a child around his wife. He tried to please her, but nothing he did was ever good enough. She seemed to take distinct pleasure in shooting him down. He tried to shrug it off. “It’s like she’s an attack dog,” he told his friends. “She sees me, and she can’t help but bite. But there’s no malice in it. It’s just the way she is.”
But there was something else going on.
John was becoming afraid of his wife.
He never knew whether she’d be loving or whether she’d be in attack mode. Sometimes, the attacks came out of nowhere. Like when they were making love, and she prodded his soft belly with a sneer. Or when he’d made her dinner, and she told him she wasn’t really in the mood for his cooking.
So John did what he’d grown up doing: he tried even harder. He did more for his wife. He treated her like a queen. It never occurred to him that, if she was the queen, he should be the king. Instead, he saw himself as a knight, doomed to suffer and sacrifice for the love of his lady.
If you’d have told John that it wasn’t normal to be afraid of your spouse, it wasn’t normal to keep things private in order to avoid giving her ammunition, it wasn’t normal to feel worse around the one you loved, he’d have looked at you blankly. This is what love had always felt like for John. Even as a kid, he never knew any different.
What would you tell John to do?
It’s hard to overcome long-standing patterns like this. Even if John left his wife, chances are good his next relationship would be no different.
What John needed to do was heal himself, starting with his childhood. He needed to remember those things he’d tried for most of his adult life to forget. Instead of taking what his wife told him personally, he needed to start seeing what she said objectively, almost like a scientist would. What did his wife’s behavior tell him about the type of person she was? What did his wife’s behavior tell him about the kind of behavior he’d been conditioned to accept?
That’s how you break the spell. You see the pattern. You recognize that it’s a pattern. You stop reacting from your wounded core and you start choosing a conscious response.
For John, the solution was to memorize one simple phrase: “That hurts.”
Every time his wife put him down, he simply said, “That hurts.” He didn’t explain himself. He didn’t argue with her. He just called attention to the pattern.
John may or may not stay in his marriage, but he sees now that his wife gave him an incredible gift. She gave him the opportunity to heal part of himself that was wounded in childhood. She gave him the opportunity to reassess his boundaries and what he will and will not tolerate in a relationship.
What gift has your spouse given you?