Our guest today is Leah McClellan, a freelance writer and editor, who enjoys sharing her lessons in life and love. One of her big passions is exploring how personal peace creates world peace, and you can visit her anytime over on her own blog, Peaceful Planet.
We fall in love, but love disappoints. We think we know someone, but we don’t. We think we know ourselves and what we want, but we haven’t a glimmer of the truth until we’re not getting what we need and we’re hurting or angry or both.
It wasn’t until I finally figured out what was “wrong” in my marriage that I understood what had been wrong in all three of the most important relationships of my life.
Over the years, I’ve read countless good books on relationships, marriage, communication, and sex, but it was Harville Hendrix’s concept of Imago Relationship Therapy and his books, like Keeping the Love You Find, that finally helped me see why I got involved with the same kind of man every time, though none of them were even remotely similar to the other—at least on the surface.
Though I grew up in chaos, dysfunction, and abuse and fled from it at a young age, love was easy to find. Or it found me.
In my young 20s, I fell in love with a guy I worked with. He bought me flowers and a crystal swan that symbolized lifelong commitment. We got an apartment together, he did his fair share of the cleaning, sex was amazing, and everything was great. No complaints about the usual stuff I hear women complaining about.
After a year and a half together, it fell apart.
I worked on myself. It couldn’t have been all his fault, after all. I had been in therapy, and I went back. I figured out a lot of things, and a brand new me—or so I thought—got involved in another relationship a few years later.
There were some things that troubled me, but I shrugged them off. I’m not perfect, and I don’t expect it from anyone else.
We became engaged after three years and, starry-eyed, I moved in with him. It was over in a month.
I realized later there were some things I could have done differently. But that’s just a guess. Much like my previous boyfriend, he didn’t have any complaints, and he didn’t talk about anything serious despite my efforts to calmly discuss whatever needed discussing. Instead, he acted out his feelings with snide remarks, criticism, sarcasm, and silence, which was confusing and hurtful for me at best and intolerable at worst.
A few years later, I found my true love.
Clean-cut, courteous, educated, and respectfully employed, he owned his own home, he opened car doors for me, and he gave me flowers—regularly. He cooked, he cleaned, he did laundry. Dinner, theatre, skiing, travel—we had so much in common, and I felt so lucky.
He bought me a beautiful diamond engagement ring and proposed on bent knee.
Besides just having fun together and loving him as best as I knew how—like anyone—I used every skill I had learned, and I was completely committed to him and our life together.
Everything was in the open and discussed. Or so I thought. We even attended couples counseling before getting married because, despite four years together, there were some issues on his side that, although I was patient and understanding, weren’t resolving on their own or with pharmaceutical assistance.
Eighteen months after we were married, I left, although we eventually got back together. What had been occasional issues had escalated until they became almost constant, day after day, with no resolution.
It took me a long time to figure out what was going on, why I was hurting so bad, and why I felt so confused and humiliated. Why was I having panic attacks and nightmares and spiraling down into depression? Why was I getting isolated? Where were my friends?
I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I thought it must be me. Surely I was doing something wrong. I must be over-reacting. I must be codependent or something. Maybe I’m a perfectionist or maybe I just don’t know how to let someone love me.
I finally figured it out. Reading Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man: Coping with Hidden Aggression From the Bedroom to the Boardroom by Scott Wetzler opened my eyes. After five years of trying to fix myself and my marriage, I gave up.
That book described the man I had married almost perfectly, and it shed some light on my previous relationships as well. But why didn’t I see that something so important to me—honest, open, direct communication—was missing?
How, if I valued a “conscious relationship,” did I end up in anything but that? Why did I choose the men I chose?
Even when we freely choose our partners, and even when we think they’re nothing like our parents or childhood caretakers (if we think about that at all), we nevertheless choose some elements of what we grew up with.
Harville Hendrix explains that “our ‘free’ choice of a mate is, in the end, a product of our unconscious, which has an agenda of its own. And what the unconscious wants is to become whole and to heal the wounds of childhood.”
We all have wounds. Even when we come from the most stable, nurturing environments, buried childhood wounds make their presence known in our adult, intimate relationships and marriages. If we didn’t have unhealed wounds (or if every need we have were met), we wouldn’t get hurt, upset, or disappointed.
Hendrix also points out that we fall in love with “someone who has both the positive and the negative traits of our imperfect parents.”
In my case, I got involved with men who had the best qualities of my parents (and many more) plus the flip side, which wasn’t the alcoholism and physical abuse I had experienced but the less-obvious problems underneath: poor communication skills, little ability to resolve conflicts or find compromises, low empathy, and discomfort with real emotional intimacy, among other things.
I didn’t want that “flip side,” but I didn’t know what it looked like in the average person who doesn’t have any obvious issues.
I realized that the problem in my relationships—and what hurt so bad—was basically the same thing I had missed or experienced as a child.
So what can be done?
Whether you’ve had several relationships like I’ve had, or your marriage isn’t as great as it could be, it all comes down to the same thing.
We can face our issues, find new ways to love that work in our current relationships, and help each other heal and grow. Or we can walk away—literally, by leaving the relationship or figuratively, by ignoring the problems.
Hendrix says that “past relationships, though they may be reminders of pain or failure, are a valuable window into the issues, wounds, and conflicts that we must address if we are to make better partner choices and cope better with relationship problems in the future.”
That applies to everyone, whether we’re in one lifelong relationship (with all its stages) or have had several.
Am I afraid of making mistakes again? Not really. I’ve learned a lot, and I doubt I’ll ever deal with the same issues again. And really, there aren’t any mistakes. Life is about learning, and love shines its gentle light into some very dark places that we might not get to see otherwise.
photo credit: javcon117
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