Written By: Mark Smith
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Marriages can be brutally hurtful and emotionally bloody places to be. They have the ability to unearth our deepest pain-rage, abandonment, betrayal, depression, tears that won't stop, hatred, reactivity, defensiveness, saying horrible things that you don't really mean, feeling unheard, hopelessness and that awful crackling tension in the air. As a therapist I have been witness to a lot of ugly marital warfare: slamming of doors, calling of names, saying demeaning things, attacking, meanness and the like. If you are currently in such a marriage or if you were in one, I want to help you to make some sense of it all.
The Purpose of Marriage . . . somewhere along the line someone put it in our heads that the purpose of marriage was to provide unconditional love, happiness, nurturing, safety and a little heaven on earth. That is absolutely, positively not even remotely the purpose of marriage. I can just hear those of you who are still in the honeymoon / enmeshment stage-"Hey, Mr. Smarty-pants therapist, we actually do have heaven on earth in our marriage." I believe you, but give it some time. In seven to ten years (a lot sooner for most), you'll be whistling a different tune, my friend. The purpose of marriage, get this, is in fact to hurt us! You read that right. As children we all sustained some emotional wounds along the way, some more than others. It might be a parent who died early, or a divorce, or addictions, or an overly critical parent, or even something that happened outside the family. Fortunately we came equipped with the ability to protect, defend and bury those wounds so that we could cope, grow up and then get the heck out of Dodge. When we hit our late teens/early twenties we are idealistic and arrogant enough to believe that by physically leaving the premises, we have raised ourselves above whatever particular dysfunction our families foisted upon us. I believe that it is God's desire to heal those deep wounds in our hearts. However, as long as our defenses are covering them up, no healing can take place. So, God came up with His "Trojan Horse" strategy in reaching us; He places before us these wonderfully appealing, attractive and nearly perfect new love objects, we open up the walls of our emotional forts and then once safely inside, enemies of our worst nightmares emerge, crawl out of this vessel and start wreaking havoc. There you go, right from the pen of a leading professional-that is love and marriage. That is why marriage is so painful; it is a can opener that cuts through our protective shells only to reveal ancient weaknesses, vulnerability and pain.
I think that the term "wound" can denote a sense of having been victimized in some way by the "wounder." When couples come into my office, at least one (and many times both) of them invariably feels victimized by the other person. They present the problem as there being a victim and a bad guy. However, I have learned that there is never, ever a victim in marriage and that there aren't bad guys either. The terms I prefer to use for our marital protagonist are teacher, healer and best friend. When the marriage is seen in the light of the normal unconscious reenacting of unresolved childhood issues indirectly with the spouse standing in for the parents like an actor in a play, it all begins to make sense. This person isn't the devil him- or herself. They are whom I needed to pick to help me grow and heal. They aren't doing me wrong; they're just being the person that they always have been in their heart of hearts. They are doing me a favor. I should sincerely be thankful. The problem is not my spouse. The problem is my unresolved childhood pain. The marriage is just a symptom. When that light goes on for a couple, it changes everything. They are no longer enemies lashing out at each other; they become therapy buddies who support and encourage growth in the other person. Victimy pain is the worst kind of pain. If fate or some evil person just deliberately hurts you as an innocent victim, there is powerlessness and an anger to it that is overwhelming. However, if we are "eating our own cooking," then we can proactively grow and learn something about ourselves. It hurts, yes, but it is a positive because we are correcting something that we know that we have brought on ourselves; it is completely fair and it makes sense in the moral universe. That is my point; all marital wounds are our responsibilities. Our marital misery is not about our spouse; it is all about our unresolved childhood issues. That is good news, because that is the one thing that we have the power to fix and control.
I want to share a beautiful example of how this shift in thinking is currently being played out in the therapy of a couple that I am working with. We'll call them Mike and Sue. When they first came in, Sue acted sort of like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Her head didn't twist all the way around and she didn't spew pea soup, but it was close to that. She was filled with so much anger, reactivity and hurt. At times it felt like her head was going to explode as she hurled accusations at Mike. Mike frequently raged himself and it was so intense that it even intimidated me and I never get intimidated.
Mike and Sue have come a long, long way. In a recent session as Mike was feeling scared, vulnerable and sad as he talked about a marital wound that Sue had inflicted, rather than feeling shamed or attacked and then getting defensive and reactive as she previously always did, Sue tenderly encouraged Mike to do his work. I got a picture in my mind of a caring and nurturing mother reaching for the hand of a scared, sweet and hurting little boy as he thought about daring to walk into a daunting, dark and ominous forest. She knew that it wasn't about her. She knew that she had nothing to be ashamed of. She knew that while she was fully accountable for her hurtful actions, ultimately Mike would need to work through his deep woundedness that her actions conjured up from his childhood. There was nothing adversarial about it at all. It was an honor to be there witnessing it. It was so wonderfully different from the bloody and vicious attacks that they were previously capable of. That is what a marriage where both parties are working on their stuff should look like-facing the deep and painful issues with love and encouragement. They are learning from and healing their wounds. Their partner has become an ally. They are actually getting nurturing, healthy, quality love from the hurtful bearer of the same psychological DNA as the original hurtful objects-the parents. It really was beautiful to behold.
Learn from your marital wounds. They are there to teach, instruct and heal you. Stay in the box. Don't run away. If you do, know this, there are more Trojan Horses out there to get you. The next guy won't be a prince, trust me; he'll ultimately have the worst traits of your daddy and mommy just like husband #1 does. Stick with husband #1 and both of you roll up your sleeves and get to work proactively learning what you can learn from your marital wounds. We can help you to do this.
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