Making a Marriage Even When You’re Not Feeling the Love

There is a great paradox that exists within the complexities of repairing hurt in a relationship.  This paradox creates a great deal of confusion and can even make it seem as though healing wounds is impossible.  It goes something like this…  When we are feeling harmed in some way by another our natural tendency is to push away from that person.  We may have hurt them just as badly, but our own hurt feelings keep us from fully absorbing that fact.  The other person may even apologize to us, yet our hard feelings remain.  The apology we received does not change the fact that we were hurt.  Because those hard feelings are still there, we continue to remain distant and cold.  While we are being distant and cold, we recognize that we don’t like it out here by ourselves.  We want to feel closer, but how can we feel closer when we are so hurt- apology or not?  Despite the others efforts, we certainly don’t feel like doing anything loving toward the other, feeling the way we do.  Apologies may not take that away. 

This is where the great paradox comes into play: we pull away because of the hurt we feel, but the hurt we feel also keeps us from doing anything that will bring us closer together, even when our spouse might be making efforts to draw us in.  It is the feelings of love and closeness that motivate us to act lovingly, so we wait for those feelings to return before we do so. 

This scenario reminds me of an experience I had while on a camping trip with a group of boy scouts.  It was in the middle of winter and we decided to be adventurous and camp without tents.  Instead, we brought a role of painters plastic and fashioned a meager shelter in the wake of a large ditch…  We absolutely froze!  I probably slept all of twenty minutes the entire night.  My sleeping bag was frozen to the ground and my body was so cold it literally felt as though I was frozen in place!  The only movement I could muster was forced upon me by my convulsive shivers!  It was an absolutely miserable experience (one of those we call “character building”). 

As I laid in my sleeping bag, it became very obvious to me that I was not going to get any warmer.  I needed to build a fire.  The problem was, the thought of having to get out of my sleeping bag and brave the outside air caused me to shiver even more.  I kept thinking to myself, “I just want to warm up a little bit before I go build the fire.”  I continued to say this to myself for several hours, but never managed to warm up any more.  In reality, I probably only got colder as the the frigid temperatures penetrated more and more into my bones.  Finally, after realizing my hopes of warming up without a fire would never be met, I peeled myself out of my sleeping bag and had a nice hot fire roaring within five minutes (with the help of a scout’s best friend- lighter fluid).  It still took a bit of time for the flames to chase the cold completely out of my body, but just to be warming up at all felt like heaven.

No matter how badly we want the heat of love to return to our relationship before we build the flames, all we’ll ever actually get are the shivers.  If we want the heat, we have to build the fire- no matter how cold we feel.  The efforts of others might keep us protected from the frigid outside temperatures, as my sleeping bag did in this story, but we cannot warm up completely until we make our own efforts to stoke the relationship.

It is very empowering to me to think that I don’t have to wait to warm up before I can build the fire and feel the flames.  This is empowering to me because I know that I have the ability to influence my relationship in a way that will bring me closer to my wife, even if I don’t feel particularly close in that moment. 

Some people might say that to act lovingly when you don’t feel that way is “fake.”  That we are not living “true to our feelings.”  As far as being fake goes, last time I checked nobody wins extra points in heaven for treating another like dirt because they don’t have the best feelings towards them at the time.  On the same note, I do seem to remember something about loving our enemies and doing good to those who persecute us.  Acting lovingly isn’t being fake, it’s just being a good person. 

As for “living true to your feelings,” I can say from personal experience that many times our feelings are flat out idiotic.  Idiotic in the sense that, when they are negative, they tell us to do things that won’t do anything but hurt us and others.  One very popular message our feelings may send us goes something like, “You should really tell her off right now!  Wouldn’t that feel good?!”  Yup, our negative feelings give us GREAT advice (yes, I do hope you hear the sarcasm dripping from my words)!  I don’t believe I have ever encountered any situation where telling someone off ultimately did any true good for anyone.  Basing our actions on what our feelings tell us to do is like always betting on the weather man to be right; we’re betting on a pretty unreliable standard. 

So now that we’ve established that following our feelings isn’t necessarily the most productive path to a good relationship, how do we actually get ourselves to act in a way that seems to be contrary to our feelings?  Ultimately, it really comes down to a question of what our goals are.  Is our greatest purpose to act according to how we feel, or is it to have the love and closeness in our relationships that we always wanted.  This may seem an easy question to answer, but I know that my actions have not always shown my goals to be what I believed they were.  We may swear up and down that our goal is to have an amazing marriage, yet when we distance ourselves due to hurt feelings or a lack of love, we are really showing that our greatest priority is self-preservation and maybe even selfishness.  That is exactly why considering our goals is the ultimate question…  By comparing our actions to what our stated goal is, it allows us to see very clearly how well, or how miserably we are actually working toward it.  If we make the decision to manage our actions based on what our goals are, our actions will inevitably lead us in that direction.  It will certainly feel as though we are working against what feels natural at times, but the feeling of discomfort is also the first sign of growth.

No relationship can bring the feelings of security, peace, and love that a marriage can.  But these feelings only come when the fire is constantly stoked, regardless of how cold it may be outside.  So, before you decide that you will not return your spouses love until you feel love, ask yourself the question, “How long do I want to be freezing out in the cold before I will build the fire?”  The warmth may not be as far away as you think.



Bad Relationship Advice: The Case of Abuse

There is one very important exception to the principles I discussed in my previous post.  If you are in a situation where abuse is involved, taking care of yourself or even leaving may very well be good advice.  In this case, this is not selfishness.  This is simply self-preservation. 

Abuse in any form is unacceptable.  The most common forms include physical, sexual, and emotional/verbal abuse.   Physical abuse is fairly easy to recognize.  It is intentionally inflicting physical harm, or preventing actions necessary to maintain life and safety.  Sexual abuse is forcing any sort of sexual contact (physical or visual) against another’s will. 

Emotional abuse can be far more difficult to identify.  This is also the area where friends and family make the most errors in giving advice.  You must be very careful in assessing emotional abuse.  I have often met with individuals whom were convinced that they were being emotionally abused, either because of their own conclusions, or of those close to them.  However, after observing what they deemed emotional abuse, I would find that it was their own personal insecurities that were abusing them, not their spouse.  Due to strong feelings of inadequacy or being unlovable that resulted from long past experiences, a minor inadvertent comment by their spouse could trigger an intense emotional response in them.  What was perceived as emotional abuse was nothing more than an “emotional landmine” that their spouse happened to stumble upon. 

I have just as often discovered that the one crying the abuse was a greater perpetrator than their “oppressor.”  Individuals often complain to others of those things they actually dislike most about themselves.  If you hate yourself for the way you lose your temper, you are likely very sensitive when others lose their tempers as well.

The moral of this story is that neither you nor those close to you are in the best position to determine whether you are being emotionally abused or not.  It is absolutely true that many times in abusive relationships it requires the encouragement of others in order to recognize and/or have the courage to stand against the abuse.  In the case of emotional abuse, it is very important that you seek out professional help in assessing and working through the issue.  You and those close to you are far too emotionally involved to make a reliable judgement.

Please don’t misunderstand, true emotional abuse is extremely damaging to an individual.  It can cause emotional and psychological problems that can persist for a lifetime.  In no way is my intention to diminish this fact.  It is my intention to reduce the damage done by perceived emotional abuse- those situations where an individual reacts rashly due to their incorrect perception that they are the victim.  Please be very careful in considering emotional abuse.  This, or any other type of abuse, should not be dealt with without the assistance of professional help.

Published in: on March 18, 2009 at 11:44 am  Comments (3)  
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Beware of Bad Relationship Advice

Good relationship advice can be very hard to come by, particularly when you’re seeking it from friends or family.  This is primarily because most of the advice we receive is founded on principles of selfishness rather than love.  Comments like, “You need to take care of yourself.”, or “How can you put up with that?!  You should leave!”, seem to be universal answers for every problem.  Sadly, even many therapists, speaking from the baggage of their own failed relationships, may give this type of advice.  Those who give this advice always mean well.  They are not trying to cause further damage to our relationships.  They are merely trying to be supportive.  Unfortunately, being told we are right is not always what is right for us or the relationship.  Well meaning people can wreak great havoc by promoting selfishness and separation.

Even if the advice you receive from others seems like good advice, considering the information you have given, it is very important to remember that their assessment of your situation is only based on half of the information.  I am constantly amazed by how masterfully we can paint ourselves as the ultimate martyrs in our relationships.  I remember one couple I met with particularly well.  The husband started the session by constructing a perfect picture of his wife being a perpetual nag, while he did nothing but serve her and do her will.  The wife then jumped in and told the story of an uncaring distant husband, who only saw her as his “whore.”  Had I only heard one side of their story I would have been ready to call out the hangman’s mob to bring the other to justice!  It is not only unwise, but completely wreckless to give advice when only having half the information.  At the same time, it is even more unwise and wreckless to take advice when you know you have only given half the information.  Remember, YOUR story is not THE story.  The true story usually ends up being some kind of average between your perspective and your spouses. 

This brings us to the question, “So, how do you know when advice is good advice, and should be taken?”  For starters, if you are sincerely looking for advice and not just someone to tell you you are right, then begin by making sure that the third party has as much information as possible.  If possible, give them the opportunity to speak with both of you.  You will be doing you and your relationship a great disservice by only offering your perspective.

Second, in listening to others’ advice, look for signs that they may be reacting particularly strong to certain issues.  This could be a sign that they are speaking from their own relationship baggage, which could drastically affect the reliability of their advice.  The best advice comes from those who are able to be as neutral as possible.  If they have a strong emotional connection to a certain aspect of the issue, they will likely be speaking from their emotions rather than their wisdom.  This is an extremely common reaction, one that even some therapists fall in to.  It causes great bias in how others view our circumstances, so be very vigilant of this hazard.   

Finally, ask yourself the question, “Is this advice based on principles of love or selfishness?”  This simple question can reveal a great deal about the quality of the advice you are receiving.  It reaveals whether you are receiving constructive or destructive advice.  If you have seen the movie Fireproof  you may remember the scene where the wife is surrounded by her friends, telling them about how awful her husband is.  The scene rapidly switches over to her husband complaining to his best friend about her.  The scene goes back and forth, showing the reactions of the friends of the couple to the news they have heard.  The friends of the wife say things much like the other blind, selfish phrases I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  Things like, “You are so right”, “You need to leave him!”, or “He is no good for you!”  On the other side, the husband’s friend reacts very differently.  His response is to put the responsibility back on the husband, asking him what he is doing to make the relationship better. 

As the movie goes on, the effects of these different approaches become very apparent as the husband gradually makes more loving and committed efforts to the relationship, while the wife slowly drifts further away, even to the point of becoming involved with another married man.  Fortunately, the wife eventually recognizes the efforts of her husband and comes back to him, but it does leave you to wonder how much faster that would have taken place had she had the type of friends her husband did.

 Don’t fall into the trap of giving or accepting gifts of destruction.  Much advice can appear appealing as it is wrapped in the alluring wrapping paper of confirming our beliefs and justifying our wrong actions.  But, when that package is opened, we find nothing more than a ticking time bomb waiting to explode on our relationships.