Melony and Jude married when they were both barely out of their teens. Like many couples, neither of them had experienced or observed much genuine intimacy in their lives or families prior to meeting and marrying. Melony’s mother was a hyper-responsible supermom who worked full time, did the shopping, cooking, and cleaning, managed the money, helped the children with homework, and volunteered at church in her spare time. Melony grew up believing that this was what a good wife and mother was supposed to do. Trying to live up to these impossible expectations frequently left her exhausted, depleted, and resentful. She often felt stressed out and anxious.
Her husband, Jude, had a completely different temperament. He was relaxed to the point of being irresponsible at times and had much lower standards of order and control in his life. Melony treated Jude like one of the kids. Sometimes he complied with her frequent requests and demands, and sometimes he didn’t. Although Jude claimed that he didn’t mind Melony’s constant reminders, too often he felt resentful, and his feelings periodically leaked out. In the mean- time, she was feeling increasingly angry for “having to” do so much work.
Predictably, a time came when Jude and Melony could no longer contain these feelings. Things came to a head when Jude initiated an affair with one of Melony’s closest friends. To say that Melony was upset when she got the news from her friend would be a huge understatement. In her opinion, a slow, agonizing death for both Jude and her friend would have been an inadequate consequence for the crime. Her first response was to throw Jude out of the house. Things went downhill from there.
Unaccustomed to life in a cheap motel and never having lived on his own, Jude was not particularly pleased with the latest turn of events. He had vastly underestimated Melony’s willingness to live without him. Determined to win her back, Jude appealed to her for a second chance. “No way,” she insisted. He begged, pleaded, apologized, and promised to never do it again. Slowly, Melony’s resistance softened; after three months she consented to enter marriage counseling. Gradually they were able to see how they had colluded to create an environment that had culminated in Jude’s affair. It became obvious to them both how the roles of the misbehaving boy and the controlling mother had predisposed their marriage to disaster.
They took on the task of rebuilding the structure of their relationship in a way that created a greater degree of equality and shared responsibility. They were able to pull back from the edge of the abyss just in time. During the course of therapy, Melony saw that by taking a position of power and control, handling decisions with no collaboration with Jude, she had precluded him from being a true and equal partner. Jude had thought that he was getting off easy by not having to be attentive to the children and the house. He had no idea of the price he was paying for being detached from the ongoing requirements of running a family and household.
During the time that they lived apart, Jude experienced a crash course in how to be an adult. For the first time in his life he was responsible for shopping, cooking, cleaning, managing money, and, when he had visitation, actively participating in the raising of his children. Over time, his aptitude for responsibility grew, along with his self-esteem. Melony noticed his increased competence and began to relate to him with more respect, her resentment gradually melting away. She began to trust that he actually did care deeply for her, and she felt his love manifested in his actions, which reflected his consideration for her.
For Melony, the searing pain of the sexual betrayal began to fade. Eventually, she was able to forgive Jude, and they began to truly share decision-making for the first time. They discovered a level of intimacy that they had never before experienced. They moved back in together with a new vow; to be equals in all ways.
When a couple is still playing out their struggle for power there are only intermittent flashes of intimacy; it is illusive and inconsistent. The desire to stay safe, be in control, and dominate undermines sustained intimacy. As long as the domination and submission cycle continues there can be no possibility of genuine closeness. As we continue to recognize even the most subtle ways we grasp for power, we can work skillfully with this protective tendency, and the quality of intimacy deepens.
The barriers to intimate connection crumble away when there are feelings of trust, safety, and respect. This attitude creates the grounding from which equality flows very naturally. As we recognize the triggers that stimulate old patterns of self-protection, we can address and systematically disarm them, both internally and in dialogue with our partner.
Like a skilled technician who steps cautiously into a minefield to deactivate the bombs, it takes great courage to do this tedious and dangerous work. Our reward is the joy that comes in playing and dancing together with abandon and delight, as equals.
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That Which Doesn’t Kill Us: How One Couple Got Stronger at the Broken Places is newly published and has been met with rave reviews. The book is a very personal joint memoir written in alternating chapters describing their experiences during a ten-year period of their marriage in which they endured a series of challenges and ordeals that brought them to the brink of divorce. The book details the process of their descent into relationship hell as well as the process that enabled them to re-establish a connection that was stronger and more mutually fulfilling than what they had ever previously experienced.
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