Matt and Sue* cautiously sip their coffee and sit slightly apart from each other on the sofa in front of us. They’re here for their first couple coaching session and their body language and words are telling us a story of disconnection, hurt and conflict.
Married 23 years, with three teenage children, they regularly find themselves caught in the same circular arguments. They know their dance well and are able to label their steps without too much forethought. She criticises when she feels hurt and he withdraws from the sting of her words. The more he steps back and tries to protect himself, the more she moves forward in protest. She’s convinced he doesn’t care about her, whilst he has come to believe that he can’t do anything right. They don’t want to be like this but they’re stuck and can’t seem to find a way out.
Like many of the couples that come to see us, the roots of Matt and Sue’s problems lie in the past. Both of them can pinpoint a painful issue from before their wedding that was never dealt with, discussed or healed. This relationship wound has been left to fester and when either of them feel disconnected they find themselves knocking the scab and reliving the pain. There are plenty of other unresolved hurts lying close to the surface that are also in danger of being re-opened, irritated or bruised without warning.
Rewind even further and the cause of their arguments can be traced back to before the two of them had even met. Painful experiences in Sue’s childhood left her feeling sensitive to perceived rejection and Matt’s critical father created a sense in him that he would never measure up. Forty years later and this couple is recreating a dance they had originally learnt as children.
The answer for Matt and Sue (and the rest of us who find ourselves caught in negative cycles in our marriages) is to uncover and heal any hurts from the past that might be causing pain in the present. The future of our marriage doesn’t have to be negatively impacted by the wounds of the past.
In fact, marriage itself can be a great source of healing as we come to understand our spouse’s sensitivities and hurts and find a way to respond to each other with consideration, empathy and care.
Just like Matt and Sue, there are times when my husband David and I have found ourselves involved in painful dances. We’ve learnt over the years to pause the dance and look below the surface. We ask ourselves and each other questions. What are we feeling below our behaviour and responses? When have we felt like this before in our relationship and when in the past did we first feel like this? Often we find that what we are arguing about today has its roots in something that goes far back.
As we come to understand our dance and recognise our steps, we can choose to move differently in a way that meets each other’s needs and demonstrates grace, love and understanding.
Matt and Sue managed to recognise their past hurts and help each other in their healing. It wasn’t easy but if you asked them today they’d tell you that dealing with the past brought them the future and the marriage that they’d always wanted.
*Names and details have been changed.