Belle and Dutch never seemed to be able to match their schedules. She went to bed after dinner; he stayed up and read. He leapt out of bed at 6 a.m. to head for the gym; she slept until 7 a.m. His idea of a good time was sitting in front of the computer or working on projects in his garage workshop; hers was snuggling on the sofa. Dutch liked to constantly be doing something, while Belle preferred to connect and just hang out together.
Belle was an appreciative wife, praising Dutch’s work on their house, but she experienced a growing sense of frustration because they weren’t connecting. Sometimes she would be assertive, saying, “Come be with me.” Dutch often responded defensively, “What are you talking about? I’m right here.” But even as he was responding, Dutch was laying on his back in the bed looking at the ceiling, not touching Belle, barely hearing her, deep inside himself, lost in his own thoughts. They were in the same vicinity, but not emotionally close. One of the things getting in the way was that Dutch heard Belle’s requests as complaints about his adequacy, and he felt judged and scolded by her, even though that was not Belle’s intention. In response, he would withdraw and become even more disengaged. They were in a vicious cycle.
One day Belle broke down, in tears not of frustration and anger but of sadness. She feared that they would not ever be able to connect the way she wanted to. While Belle was crying, Dutch was thinking, “Here we go again.” But this time was different. The frustration that Dutch expected Belle to express did not come. Belle said, “I’m so scared that we’re not going to be able to be with each other the way I want to be. I’m afraid we might not be able to get through this awful impasse. I really love you, but it hurts so much to feel so distant so much of the time.” This got Dutch’s attention, and for the first time he was able to feel what Belle was feeling and wanting without being defensive.
The depth of her feelings stunned Dutch. He couldn’t think of anything to say. It was just the two of them together. Their shared fear and pain had finally been spoken and heard. In the silence, Dutch reached for Belle’s hand and gently held it. Their eyes met. “Thanks,” she said, “I needed that. Maybe it’s not hopeless after all.” The wordless gesture of reaching out his hand helped Dutch to understand what all of Belle’s words couldn’t convey to him. He started to realize what she wanted. Belle felt heard and met. She realized that two important things had prompted Dutch to respond to her this time: she was not irritable when she spoke to him, and she did not downplay the depth of her desire to be close. She was vulnerable, showing her fear and pain. This precedent proved to be a turning point in their relationship.
Belle and Dutch experienced increasingly more frequent openhearted connections, and the trust between them continued to grow. As Dutch became more familiar with the experience of openness, he began to feel more comfortable with his own vulnerability, and he could allow his boundaries to blur and defenses to drop with a kind of ease that he had never experienced. He became able to soften his tight grip on his defenses to listen more deeply to his partner. His focus shifted from protection to connection.
During this time, Belle was learning how to be more responsible and conscientious in identifying her own needs and getting them met. She saw that her work involved getting to know herself more intimately and that as she did so she was able to experience greater intimacy in her marriage. She also learned to manage the feelings, such as irritation and fear that would arise when she desired more closeness with Dutch. Rather than approach him with anger and frustration, she learned to open her own heart before speaking with him, which increased the chances of a successful outcome. If you talk to Dutch these days, he winks when he says, “If you have a happy wife, you have a happy life.”
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