I consider myself a pretty good listener. I enjoy hearing people out, listening to them talk about their issues, and offering advice when asked. The one person it seems to be the hardest to listen to- is Tim. You see, for a long time in our marriage, he didn’t speak up whenever there was conflict. So now, when he does, I have to catch myself and really listen, instead of immediately going on the defensive and writing him off.
You know, for having feelings. Yeah, I know. I’m working on it. Here’s a little history...
You may laugh, but simply put- that’s exactly how our life was. As Tim mentioned in his last post, he really wasn’t present emotionally during the first years of our marriage. Which, as a fairly emotional person at the time, was a cruel shock for me. I had this boyfriend who doted on me, said all the sweet things, wrote me letters on a daily basis telling me how much he adored me…and then once we were married, that all but disappeared. He felt cold, distant and unmoved by anything I did. I would ask him to tell me how he felt, I craved words of affirmation, of adoration, but it seemed like he didn’t have much to give anymore. It was like he had built this dam to keep any and all emotions at bay. The only “upside” to that in my mind was, he basically let me have and do whatever I wanted without complaining or resisting. Yet all the while, Tim had feelings about these things that he wasn’t sharing. And his resentment was growing under the surface. Eventually, something would tip the scales and he would shut down completely. Then all of it would come tumbling out in a frustrated mess that left me shocked and angry. I remember saying things to him like, “Oh NOW you have feelings you want to share? Now you want to talk about how you feel?” I was so upset by the fact that the only emotions I seemed to be able to elicit from him were anger and sadness. When he would confront me about how he had been upset about something but hadn’t told me in the moment, I would snap at him, “If you didn’t want me to do ____ or didn’t want us to _____ YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID SOMETHING THEN! NOT WAITED A YEAR AND THEN THROW IT BACK IN MY FACE!” What I didn’t say was, “I’m feeling insecure about my life generally and you disapproving of this feels like you disapprove of me, and I don’t know how to handle that.” and “I want your input and to know your thoughts, but I’m afraid that if we have conflict- you’ll decide I wasn’t worth it and walk away.”
He would, at that point, turn off all emotional expression and simply walk away. The message I got was, “I don’t care enough to fight about this with you, come find me when you’re ready to apologize.” and “I’m taking the power in this situation by ending the conversation when I want to, without taking any responsibility for my part.” I completely missed his message which was more like, “I don’t really have the tools to communicate this effectively, and I’m worried that if I show emotion, you’ll judge me. But I’m also afraid to say ‘No’ to you, because I don’t want you to leave me.” That was at the very core. If you follow anger or frustration down to it’s core- you’ll always find fear, sadness or both.
We continued on this cycle up until Tim started counseling about 2 years ago. I felt triumphant when his counselor began encouraging him to express his emotions. HA! Hadn’t I been telling him this for years? His homework was to start telling me how he was feeling. I imagined him sitting me down and ravishing me with poetic-like statements about his endless love and admiration for me, how he couldn’t live without me, how I and only I- his perfect dove would forever be the apple of his eye.
And what I got instead was verbal diarrhea. It suddenly seemed like I couldn’t even move without Tim telling me it upset him, or pulling up something from our past and telling me how he really felt about it. This was not what I had hoped it would be. It was like the dam that Tim had constructed to keep back his negative emotions had been blasted to smithereens, and I was left drowning in the torrent. I remember thinking, “What have I done?” In that moment, I wished the old Tim back. The seemingly placid, easy going one who didn’t call me on my crap or express frustration and anger. I wanted so desperately to put the lid back on that Pandora’s box. It was so messy. So imperfect. After weeks of conversations every week about all the things he was working through, it all came to a head when after a counseling session, I asked what they had talked about. It was me, they had talked about how Tim felt about my mental health issues. My stomach dropped as Tim expressed how it had been for him, dealing with my issues for so many years. “So you resent me because I have depression?” I asked, my voice quivering. “Yes, sometimes.” he admitted in a low voice. I had absolutely no idea what to do with that, so I just cried. I held in sobs until my stomach hurt, and refused to let him hold me. His love language is physical touch, and in that moment, I wanted him to hurt. I was so raw, and so was he. We were tired. And in that moment, I had to make a critical decision.
Was I going to choose to be on the same team about this? Was I going to be supportive of this new version of my husband who told me the truth even when it really hurt? Or was I going to build a wall to shut him out because I didn’t want to get hurt? I wish I could say that it had only taken a moment, or even a few hours for me to get to that place, but it took a few days of uncomfortable silence. I had been pushing and pushing for him to be open with me about his feelings about me for years. Now he was doing just that, and not all of it was pretty. How could it be? I wasn’t perfect. I had to take the honesty whether it made my heart fly- or sink. I remember thinking- “Marriage sucks right now.” I think I was right. It’s not always fun. But I can tell you, as Tim has learned to unlock this side of himself and feel more safe around me, the honesty has been so sweet, even if sometimes there are flies in the honey.