Marriage and therapy is a winning combo.
“In this culture, marriage may be the most popular form of psychotherapy. We all seem to believe that marriage will change our lives, will make us feel better about ourselves. This special person will make us strong when we feel weak, whole when we feel empty, comforted when we feel lonely. This is the magic union, the one that has the power to transform reality.”
–Augustus Napier, in The Fragile Bond.
Linda: A loving marriage can heal old emotional wounds more effectively than the best therapy. At its best, psychotherapy creates a warm and understanding relationship through which we face ourselves. When we face our feelings honestly in a way that allows us to heal from past wounds, we begin to accept ourselves as we are. It is the therapist’s very being, rather than their philosophy or orientation that promotes this process. The best therapists are not distinguished by their degrees or credentials, but by their ability to extend themselves nonjudgmentally with openness, authenticity, and compassion. A therapist doesn’t learn these qualities in graduate school, but instead cultivates them through deliberate choice and life experience.
Although marriage doesn’t require you to take on the role of therapist, it does require both partners to develop the personal qualities of a good therapist. While few of us come into a relationship with these attributes fully developed, the cauldron of marriage provides us the context through which we can explore and enrich these signature strengths.
Fortunately we all have an inner drive to become complete and whole. So when we come close to another person, and the differences between us start to surface, we can come to understand why relationship is such a hot fire. The intensity of our feelings are emerging from our core wounds and deepest issues. One thing we can count on from close relationships is that all of our unfinished business from our family of origin and past adult relationships begins to show themselves. In our growing closeness and trust, there is a drive to reveal ourselves and be seen as we are so that we can finally stop stuffing down memories and those feelings that are connected with them.
Opening to the unfinished business is a challenging process that requires courage and some work on our part. It can be frightening to find out that the way we see things is very different from the way our partner sees it. And the way we see them can be quite different from the way they see themselves. It can be frightening to have the way we view ourselves threatened by our newly emerging self. All this shifting and changing is so unsettling and the accompanying fear can turn into fight or flight in a split second.
When we calm down enough to look more deeply into what is truly going on, we often find that some old unresolved pain from years ago is surfacing once again for us to finally be healed. One option is to repress, to live a low risk maintenance model of relationship that opts for security and predictability. The other option is to open up dynamic expansive growth model of relationship.
When we realize the potential available working out old issues that may have plagued us for years, we can live in the important questions such as: What are my core wounds that I am attempting to work out with my partner? What are my own inner struggles that manifest as conflict between us? Who from my past am I projecting on to my partner? What do I need to take a stand about? What do I need to forgive and let go of? Out of the curiosity and wonder of such an open-minded, questioning orientation, we can begin to resolve old issues from our past.
When we open up to become vulnerable, and let go of our defensiveness and protection, we then learn about the fears, disappointments, and tender areas that we are attempting to heal. Old painful memories of being left as a young child may surface, as well as the ways that we have abandoned the real self in an attempt to be accepted. Or perhaps we were controlled in a way that forced us to sacrifice some of our integrity and be compliant with another’s demands. We can begin to connect the dots when we fight or disconnect, to realize that our old fears are ignited.
By being able to argue well with our partner, we move on to greater understanding. When we see how we may have been avoiding contact, learning takes place, and the old patterns give way to new wholesome ones.The fresh patterns become a most incredible healing in our lives. We can openly ask to have our needs met and negotiate with our partner so that both of us can have what we truly need to thrive.
When both partners make a commitment to becoming more loving human beings, it helps us to accept ourselves in ways that we could never have accomplished on our own. Our partner’s willingness to view us (not always, but frequently) through eyes of compassion and acceptance can eventually override our deeply embedded negative self-judgments. Over time, we can come to see ourselves through their eyes and find forgiveness for our perceived deficiencies. Only then can we find acceptance of our “imperfections.”
Our relationship becomes the healer of our past wounds. This process allows us to experience genuine self-love perhaps for the first time in our adult life. Our capacity to extend ourselves can grow over time and with practice we both become more mature and accomplished at love. We become increasingly more able to return our partner’s gifts with gratitude. In the spirit of reciprocity, we then help them to transform their own self-perception in a similar way.
While marriage cannot be a substitute for counseling or therapy, we can become the living proof that it can promote the maturation process in profound and powerful ways.