In a recent posting on her Psychology Today blog (The Dance of Connection: Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships), family and marriage therapist and author Dr. Harriet Lerner stresses the importance of “tending generously” to our partners’ vulnerabilities.
Your partner (like all humans) has vulnerabilities and sensitivities that have their origins in the family he or she grew up in, as well as in painful events that occurred in the world outside the home.
The pain of the past is not just something we “get over.” Instead, we carry our vulnerabilites into our adult relationships. Perhaps your partner can’t stand being misunderstood, or being treated as ignorant, or being touched in a particular way. You can make your own list.
Don’t try to talk your partner out of her vulnerabilities (impossible!) or prove to your partner that he or she is being oversensitive. Instead, give her one of the best gifts that we can give to those we love. Know her better. Stay curious about the family that your partner grew up in. Invite her stories of the good, the bad, and the terrible, and get to know her family members when possible.
This kind of intimate knowledge deepens connection, and can help you lead with your heart and not your attack dog, even when you’re feeling angry or fed up.
Here’s an example from one of my clients: Alicia, a financial planner, told me that she and her partner Mary fought every single time they left a party or social gathering.
“Mary claims I’m paying attention to everyone but her.” Alicia told me. “I live with Mary! Of course, I want to talk to people I don’t get a chance to see. She’s being totally illogical. This is obviously all about Mary’s family history where she was always the invisible outsider.”
Alicia interpretation of Mary’s behavior may be accurate. There is nothing logical about how partners respond to each other in long-term relationships. Everyone brings their pain and unresolved longings from their first family into their marriage. We all over-react to certain of our partner’s traits, qualities and behaviors based on our past. If Mary was the invisible outsider in her first family, of course she wants Alicia to really see her, and to pay attention.
With the help of therapy, Alicia was able to stop fixating on how unreasonable Mary’s expectations were. It turned out to be easy enough for Alicia to talk to her friends at parties, and pay attention to Mary. She made it a point to sit next to her on the couch for a while, to draw her into one or two of her other conversations, and to show physical affection in a manner that Mary appreciated.
I’m not suggesting that you give in to entirely unreasonable demands when doing so is at your expense. Rather, I’m suggesting that you look at your partner from a wider perspective. People enter marriage with a deep longing that their partner will tend to their wounds and not throw salt in them. Tend generously to your partner’s vulnerability.
See also: 15 Tips for Sustaining Love (H. Lerner)
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Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and couples, parenting, and the psychology of women. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles and eleven books, including The New York Times bestseller, The Dance of Anger, Women in Therapy, and The Mother Dance.
Her latest book is Marriage Rules: A Manual for The Married and The Coupled Up