“I can’t believe how sad I feel,” Sheila said, a tall woman with a warm face. She looked sadly at her husband of thirty years. Stan, a man with a full beard and piercing blue eyes, stared blankly back at her.

“I still feel sad and hurt over what happened,” she said, referring to an affair he had approximately six months earlier. “I can’t believe you would ever do something like that to me.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “I’ve told you continually, I’m sorry for the hurt I’ve caused you. But, nothing I ever say seems to be enough.”

“Listen to how you just said that,” Sheila said abruptly. “You expect me to feel better when you talk to me like that? I’m sorry that I’m not over it, Stan. I know you think you’d handle things so much better than I do.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Stan said, obviously becoming angrier.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said sarcastically. “I just love trying my hardest, just to have her kick me in the gut. This counseling just gives her more ammunition to use against me. I’ve about had it with everything.”

“That’s why I don’t share my feelings with him,” Sheila said, turning away from Stan. “When I do he spouts some sarcastic comment, or else he just walks away.”

Stan continued looking away, grimacing. He had disconnected minutes ago and was no longer listening to anything she said.

I sat quietly for a moment, reflecting on what had just happened. It was a scene I had witnessed over and over before during my professional career. Couples trying to make contact with each other, only to have their conversation escalate, gain tension and blow apart, leaving both feeling profoundly discouraged. I had noticed the very moment things blew.

Kapow! Zam! Every disconnection happens in a moment, sending a potentially healthy conversation spiraling into a Battle Royale. In the process, not only do old wounds continue to fester, but new ones are added to the pile.

In this case, Sheila was stuck not only with her sadness and hurt from Stan’s affair, but also felt abandonment from his failure to connect to her feelings. She felt hopeless about ever having a place where she would be understood and cared about. Yet, Stan was also wounded. He had tried to connect to Sheila. He truly wanted to be available to her and was sorry for his affair. But, in their troubled encounter, neither received what they needed.

As you reflect upon their interaction, you may see yourself. It is easy to see yourself as the Innocent Wounded One, while seeing your mate as The Enemy. Polarized, angry and hurt, you aren’t sure you can ever give what you so desperately want. But, that is what is needed. You must master the art of the path to relational healing. Let’s walk through how both people must work at creating a safe place for the other’s feelings to land.

Here is the recipe for relational healing that both Stan and Sheila must follow:

One, empathy. Yes, I know I write a lot about this, but it’s true that empathy is the cornerstone of any healthy conversation, especially if there is any voltage in it. In Sheila’s case, she needs Stan to empathize with her lingering pain.

However, Sheila must also empathize with Stan’s dilemma. He’s trying the best he can, and must be encouraged to keep trying. She needs to understand the challenges of what it is like to “sit with” her pain.

Two, validation. Here we share the validity of the other’s situation, giving them full permission to feel the way they do. Not only acknowledging their right to feel the way they do, we affirm our contribution to our mate’s pain. We share, perhaps again and again, that we are aware of the immensity and magnitude of our mate’s ongoing struggle.

In the above case, Stan must validate that he has hurt Sheila. He must own the large and small aspects of her pain and his part in it. As I’ve said in previous articles, he must “stand in the heat.” (At a different time, she can also validate the challenges of standing in the heat.)

Three, acceptance of responsibility. Here the wounding partner must take full responsibility for what they have done, without minimizing, excusing or denying it in any way. The wounding partner acknowledges the larger ramifications of their actions — the ever-widening circle of consequences stemming from their actions. Here Stan must recognize the loss of trust that is now encircling their marriage. He must acknowledge and “sit with” her sadness, grief and anger. At another time, Sheila can acknowledge the impact her anger has on him, and own the ways she makes it challenging for him to “lean in.”

Four, apologize. There is little as soothing to the soul as a heartfelt apology. Sitting with the wounded partner, the wounding partner shares how sorry they are for what they’ve done. They can “see” the impact of their behavior on their mate, and feel sorrow for it.

Finally, change of behavior. The ultimate culmination of feelings of empathy, validation, acceptance of responsibility and a timely apology is a commitment to change. Problems inherent in the marriage that led up to any failings must be dealt with and remedied. Problems within the character of the wounding person must be firmly addressed, offering reassurance to the wounded partner that problems have been squarely addressed and there is a commitment to change. Scripture tells us that “Godly sorrow brings repentance” — turning away from the sinful behavior (II Corinthians 7:10).

You can see how each of these “steps” builds upon one another. One step without the others is useless, as in the case of an apology without real change, or empathy without owning responsibility. I challenge you to take any troubling behavior in your marriage and apply these five steps to the healing process and see the healing change that occurs.

I’d love to hear your reaction to this column on connection. What kinds of destructive dances do you get into? Have you been able to step back, analyze the steps, and replace them with healthier ones? Please send your responses to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com and visit my website at www.TheMarriageRecoveryCenter.com.

 

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.

Publication date: April 9, 2012