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"Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification." Romans 14:19
"You think you're hurting?" the young woman asked her husband during a recent counseling session. "That doesn't begin to compare with what you've done to me."
"But, you have hurt me too," her husband protested.
"I'm just reacting from all the pain you've caused me," she continued. "You don't get it. You're the one who started all this."
I watched as he winced, lowered his head and slunk into silence, appearing dejected.
I watched and listened as this husband and wife each claimed to be "the one hurt the most." Squarely anchored in a makeshift courtroom, each made a case for themselves. Each tried to convince the other they were the one hurt first and the most, and therefore deserving of the resentment they rehearsed.
Caught in an endless cycle of blame, this man and woman had been beating up on each other for years prior to making their way to the marriage recovery center where they hoped for a miracle. Both secretly hoped I would serve as a judge, endorsing their right to be angry, bitter and vengeful. I refused to oblige.
This couple's story resonated with a recent email I received:
Dr. David. My wife complains that I am the sole cause of her problems. She struggles from depression, and blames it entirely on me. What I can't seem to get across to her is that she treats me as bad as I treat her. She screams and yells at me, but only seems to notice when I raise my voice with her. How can I get her to see that it takes two to tango? Why won't she see her part in our problems, and how can we ever get out of our destructive dance if she thinks I'm the only one with the problems? Help.
These couples are similar to many who illustrate a profound principle: Hurting people hurt people. In other words, most couples are wounded people who unwittingly continue to hurt each other. While many couples continue to struggle over who has been hurt the worst, the truth of the matter is that couples take turns playing roles of "villain" and "victim." While they may, and often do, harm each other in different ways, both are wounded individuals.
This is a hard pill to swallow for most. We seem wired to find fault and cast blame, minimizing our own faults while maximizing the faults of our mate. While there are certainly many situations where one mate has perpetrated abuse on their mate, there are many marriages fraught with mutual wounding. Failure to recognize this dynamic renders too many couples stuck in mutual blame, hurting each other in a constant cycle. Consider the positive ripple effect if couples viewed each other from the following perspective:
- We are both wounded and need love and support from each other;
- We have wounded each other in different ways;
- We often wound each other out of our own wounds;
- There is no value in finding fault, or casting blame;
- We must seek solutions rather than harboring resentment;
- We are uniquely equipped to help our mate heal.
What are the implications of changing our attitude about our mate wounding us?
First, assuming mutual responsibility for problems leads more quickly to mutual problem-solving. Remaining focused on the belief that your mate is the sole problem means you will remain stuck waiting for him/ her to fix the problem. In many ways this leaves you powerless, since you cannot make them change. This position also eliminates the possibility of working together with your mate in solving your problems.
Second, assuming mutual responsibility moves you out of rehearsing resentment. Letting go of the belief that "it's all their fault" releases you from a mountain of resentment. Believing you co-created your problems limits your resentment, creating room for more positive emotions and dispositions.
Third, assuming your mate hurts as much as you leads to an empathic relationship and a healthier connection to one another. When we view our mate as experiencing as much hurt as we experience, we see them in a much more compassionate light. We recognize that a victim/ villain posture is unhealthy, and we are ready to see that both have been wounded and are capable of wounding. We can then reach out our hands in love and connection.
Fourth, empathizing with your mate often brings healing. Because we all long to be understood and cared for, accurate empathy heals. Shifting from the victim/ villain positional thinking, into the understanding "we're both hurting, and fully capable of hurting others" brings a refreshing shift in the way we relate.
Finally, every problem you face together becomes an opportunity for growth. Since we're in this together, we must make every problem a situation we face together an exercise finding solutions together. No one is more responsible than another, no one is "the bad guy." We have played different parts in the problem and must take responsibility only for the part we play in the problem. Doing so, however, leads to healing.
What if you were to see your mate as someone hurting—at least in part because of your behavior—and who can help to be healed by your actions? Practice some of these tools and let me know how they work for you. I'd like to hear your opinions about sharing responsibility for wounds in marriage. Remember, hurt people hurt people and we each need to take responsibility to stop the cycle.
August 10, 2010
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 life, 90 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.