Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
“Leave her” the mother whispered
“Leave her” said the movie he watched
“Leave her” said his clients
“Leave her” said his weekly horoscope
“Leave her” whistled the winds of change
Worn down and exhausted, not by his wife, but by the voices whispering in his ears, Sam left her.
I relayed this story told to me by my hairdresser as Christian and I were walking along some rocks near the sea. There was a high wind. The rocks were very slippery and mossy in parts so we had to walk slowly and carefully. (Even in our relationship we have to tread carefully in high wind)
I have been listening to Sam’s story for a long time. Sam’s parents didn’t like Georgia from the start.
She wasn’t good enough
She was too “different” than their family
She had “issues”
The gradual undermining of their relationship increased yearly until the poison seeped into Sam’s insecurities and he started listening.
This is the litany he hears now:
“You are much better without her”
“You have your freedom back”
“You have much more time to pursue your own dreams now”
But he isn't feeling any better...
In a society emphasizing individual happiness, his genuinely concerned family and friends were offering unhelpful advice rather than pitching in. Maybe they’re too busy chasing their own happiness.
I have seen this devastation with someone close to me. Her weekends and special holidays are spent battling for her relationship. It is a common scene. I’ve heard this story so many times from different people.
I have also seen the icy claws of doubt tighten around a marriage and squeeze the life out of it.
As we walked around a point, we saw a wind-blown tree grasping hold of the edge of a cliff face.
It reminded me of a story Christian had talked about:
Kim was in Christian’s office, in tears.
“I can’t tell you how often my parents have told me I should leave him. My sisters and friends have told me the same. They just don’t understand. Sure, it’s difficult. He gets depressed and needs to be in hospital. Money is tight. I get tired and frustrated. I need support. Before his depression, Josh and I were wonderful, there was nothing we couldn’t do. We had lots of fun. It’s less like that, but I just can’t walk away. We belong together. Nobody understands.”
Our world values individualism. Kim’s family and friends are worried that she has put her individual happiness aside to support her depressed husband. She has.
What is she doing that keeps her marriage together?
She is cultivating selflessness and reaching for something deeper. Leaving would leave her miserable. She gains strength from being selfless. Kim is happier with Josh than without him; even if he adds to her burden at the moment.
Selflessness is not a popular idea in the 21st Century. But selflessness is a key ingredient of the glue that keeps a relationship strong when strong winds start blowing around you and the road ahead seems slippery.
The grass may seem greener on the other side, but it’s often moss and weeds.
When I looked back at the grasping tree, I noticed the rock face that it was holding onto. The wind had worn out hollows, but it was solid, beautiful and immovable, just like Kim and Josh’s relationship.
The wind does not have all the answers.
I woke up this morning and couldn’t see anything out of the window. A heavy mist shrouded the landscape swallowing the trees. I could hear the birds singing but only faintly; their normally clear, crisp melodies were muted and hollow.
The mist outside reflected my mood.
We had been at a party. Something came up which triggered a resentment, so we had been talking late into the night about past hurts. Ways we had hurt each other. There had been no anger, no malice, no blaming, but there were wounds there that had been opened and were stinging.
I was still hurting. Christian was still hurting. Even though we had discussed these hurts before. Even though we had “worked through” the issues, there were still resentments there that reared their ugly heads now and again. I felt heavy.
I found myself getting upset that these had not healed.
I used to think something was dreadfully wrong with our relationship when episodes like this happened. But I have grown in this. We could live on the surface and pretend everything was alright. Or we could share our hurts, our fears, our longings and go deeper in our relationship: I choose to go deeper.
Resentments that destroy relationships can be seemingly very small. They come in many shapes and forms
Resentments about parents and siblings - “yes but your father never…”
Resentments about trust issues - “why do you always pay attention to…”
Resentments about sex - “but you never ask what I want…”
Resentments about money - “you just spend, spend, spend…”
Resentments about children - “Why do I always have to be the bad one…”
And the list goes on.
Resentment is a safety blanket for many people. We feel justified, energised, even strangely triumphant when we dwell on our resentments in our minds. So why do we hold onto them?
We hold on to poisonous feelings because we feel entitled to them or out of pride. Resentment is effectively give away rent-free space in your mind to a hurt. Resentment feeds our pride or what Christian calls “the angry wolf.”
Resentment is a hungry, bitter wolf that is never satiated.
Layers of resentment are prickly protective shells that keep you at a distance from your love partner. Especially when they have to do with his parents, or her selfishness or his fear of commitment.
Later in the morning the mist was starting to lift so we went for a walk to clear our minds and dissipate the heaviness. The trees were beginning to emerge from the gloom.
“Sorry” he said.
“Sorry” I said. And we kept walking.
We have said it many, many times before, even for the same resentments, but my steps became lighter and the aching in my stomach began to subside. Christian holds on to resentment longer than I do, so I knew some thoughts from his bitter wolf lingered.
Saying sorry is a part of a healthy relationship. It is an acknowledgment of hurt when it occurs, and taking responsibility for it. Apologizing says I do not take you for granted and I want to learn more about you, your needs, and our relationship.
Letting go of resentment is not easy and I’ll talk about it some more in the future. The first step, however, is acknowledging that it is there. Instead of giving away rent-free space in your head to resentment and hurts, that space can be filled with deeper understanding, love and commitment to each other. Yes, this can happen.
As we turned around for home, I noticed my feet were wet. The dew on the grass had soaked through my shoes. But the sun was just stretching its golden head from behind the trees and the path in front of us was easier to navigate. Joined with the now clear melody of the birds, I felt my soul start to sing again.
“But what if she has just found out she’s pregnant to another guy?” I almost yelled.
Christian shooshed me. We were out on a walk and, as usual, everyone could hear my loud voice.
We have a colleague in the UK that we occasionally skype. He has been in a long-term relationship for 8 years. He suspects his partner is having an affair. He is completely tied up in knots about it. He can’t sleep, can’t eat properly, takes sick days for no reasons. But he can’t ask his girlfriend the simple question: are you sleeping with someone else?
“Why not?” I said exasperated. “Why can’t he ask her? Then he’d know.” Christian led me down a path to a less-crowded area so we could continue talking without stealing the peace.
We like visiting parks and had discovered a lovely Japanese garden. The delicate foliage on the trees, the flowers, the chosen stones were in complete harmony. Nothing was out of place: all was ordered. For all appearances, everything was in agreement. My emotions were far too inflated for a gentle atmosphere such as this. Or was it all gentle and harmonious? What was underneath? I began to reflect on how much silence is observed in nature, but what is hidden underneath? … weeds, debris, dead leaves.
I come from a background where there is much left unspoken. Where people are often “silent” about things that are going on and their partner is just meant to “know.” Marrying Christian changed all of that for me, but that’s another story.
“Not saying things” is another badge of honour in my background just like never arguing. I often hear my friends say “I couldn’t tell him that” or “She wouldn’t understand so I don’t tell her.” I know where this comes from as I have the same struggles myself. But I also know now how liberating it is to say something.
Even if the answer you hear will hurt.
Even if you have unspoken rules in your relationship.
Even if it may lead to an argument.
Even if you may feel exposed.
It’s worth it.
The unspoken in a relationship eats away and erodes your relationship. It feeds the green-eyed monster of jealousy. It creates fantasies in the imagination that grow into huge empires of distrust. It is often a one-way street to despair.
The unspoken breeds loneliness. Shared loneliness.
It may look harmonious on the outside, but it may be a relationship built on sand, not on weathered rock.
Couples may boast that they never argue (they don’t), never have conflicts (they do) and are always polite with each other (they are). The trouble is that their relationship may be falling apart one unspoken word at a time.
Like our colleague.
“Why can’t he just ask her what’s going on?” I repeated.
“I don’t know” Christian replied. He doesn’t have all the answers.
I gazed at all the beauty around me searching for an answer, a way through the mess of people not communicating and the complete bind they find themselves in because of the unspoken and keeping up appearances.
And the devastating consequence can sometimes be the end of a relationship. But there is a way that leads to healing, restoration and a deeper relationship …. to be continued in two weeks
Why am I qualified to talk about men? I’m not. But I’m surrounded by them. At home I have a husband, two sons, a male cat, a male dog that died 2 years ago and a male kookaburra called Harold that visits me nearly every morning on my back deck. At work, all the colleagues in my department, with the exception of a new appointment this year, are male. I loved bringing up boys: visiting building sites, playing pirates and reading Moby Dick. I was happiest when they came home covered in mud. Sounds sexist doesn’t it? It is.
I’m also going to draw heavily on a book Christian has written and his lectures on men’s mental health. Listening to the lectures has given me insights and lots of surprises about what it means to be male.
I’ve learnt enough to know how hard it is for men to be themselves in a world that increasingly seems to say that it’s wrong to be male. I watched this happen to one of my boys: it broke my heart.
OK, so we looked at controversial comments about women last week. This week it’s about men. Let’s get on with it:
Many men have a problem with anger
Men hate failing and particularly hate others seeing them fail
Men are not mind readers
Most men feel that if you take away their work they are a nobody
At work and in sport men know who the top dog is
It’s difficult for many men to trust other males
Men have huge hearts which they are constantly told to suppress
I know these are generalisations. This doesn’t apply to all men, but in his practice and in his lectures these are the ones Christian has found stand out.
Interesting facts: the larger percentage of our readers are male and females now initiate more divorces than males.
Since there is so much I could say about all these comments, I’m going to choose one with practical, immediate application. Let’s tackle the comment about anger in the straight-forward, problem solving way that men do: head on. Dealing with anger is actually all about having your head on: in the right way.
Let me start with an important point: strong emotions in men are not wrong. Women often make that mistake. I did. I couldn’t understand why my sons would listen to hard-hitting metal music, wanted to tackle each other on the football field or wanted to play mortal combat games on the internet.
Strong emotions, tempered by responsible thinking, are assets. Strong emotions help us survive. They teach us. They help us solve problems and are useful in relationships.
Strong emotions are as natural as fierce storms, raging oceans and howling winds. Too much suppressed anger can, however, become uncontrollable. It needs to be dealt with.
Below is the traffic light technique Christian gives his war vets to help them deal with the type of anger that consumes men so much that they do something irrational:
RED: STOP everything you are doing when gripped with a strong emotion
YELLOW: THINK. Tackle it with your head on - think about the emotion you are experiencing and ask yourself: what is safe to do? What is safe to say?
GREEN: GO. Put your safe choice into action when you are in control.
(Taken from Christian’s book Five Steps to Men’s Mental Health 2016: 89)
The traffic light technique is all about tackling strong emotions head on.
The men in my life, especially my three boys, fill my life with so much joy, adventure and passion. They are a constant source of strength, dependability and affection. They fill my love tank. It is not wrong to have the strong emotions that males experience in this complex world. It’s time to let boys encounter strong emotions, and learn how to control them, so that they can grow into men that can handle being men.
I have a confession to make.
I like to control other people.
If there’s conflict, I go silent. That makes me feel in control. Others have to work hard to get my attention and I can get my way.
I was watching a scene from a play that my students were performing. The couple in the play had just had an argument and the male character was giving his girlfriend “the silent treatment.” The pain that this caused the girlfriend, who tried everything to break through the wall of hostility, was excruciating.
Early in our relationship I used “the silent treatment.” It was my way of handling conflict. I could control and manipulate Christian that way. Christian had a different way: “getting it all out;” arguing. Both these ways of handling conflict are culturally inscribed or learnt behaviour.
Arguing has been given a bad wrap. The silent treatment seems more acceptable, kinder, more “civilized.” (I wince at that word.)
“Getting it all out” during arguing seems more aggressive than “the silent treatment” also known as “the cold shoulder.” But it isn’t.
The silent treatment is a form of cold warfare.
Not talking is just a type of wordless arguing at a distance; emotions are usually still flared up. It is avoiding rather than confronting the conflict. The conflict is, however, still felt. Emotions, thoughts and feelings get suppressed rather than expressed. If you are “not talking” you are still communicating: watching behaviours, body language, looking for signs of diplomatic envoys or olive branches, seeing if things have gone “too far” this time, and so forth.
I watched my students playing this out onstage. The female character looked like she was pleading with a brick wall. I shuddered as I felt the icy coldness of the male character’s aggressive silence.
The silent treatment can make the other person feel terribly alone. Useless.
Silence severs your relationship with your life partner. Although you may feel they somehow deserve it and gloat that you are in control, you keep them at arm’s length, creating a huge chasm that you can fall into. You can be left alone with only your pride to console you.
Aren’t we strange human beings that need control but also need rescuing?
So what can you do?
Use these words:
When you … I feel …
The way I see it is …
What would work for me is …
Every couple has different ways of handling conflict. Some argue it out. Some go silent for a couple of days, then they slowly come back together. They have a kind of silent contract of silence.
I still use the silent treatment at times, I can’t help it. But I am getting better at “getting it all out on the table” while trying to employ heart and humour. Christian is getting better at being less reactive and toning it down.
“The course of true love never does run smooth” (Midsummer Shakespeare)
There will still be arguments and conflicts. The love is in the trying. Keep trying. Keep valuing the greatest asset, the relationship; then perhaps cold shoulders will one day be replaced by warm fuzzies.
“I am so sick of everything! My work, where we live, how hot it is all the time. I’m not getting any sleep and I’m tired and cranky. I’m …”
Grizzle, grizzle, grizzle.
We were on our usual bushwalk. I was stomping along and gesturing madly with my hands. Occasionally we would pass other people out on walks. They stared at me as if I should be on stage or locked up. I should be – on stage, I mean. No-one ever seems to talk, or gesticulate as much as Christian and I do. Above us cockatoos were screeching out obscenities that suited my mood perfectly.
“And I nearly lost it when she said….”
Whinge, whinge, whinge.
Brits whinge . North Americans gripe. Australians rag on, grizzle, do our block, do our nut, and when it gets too bad we spit the dummy.
“And I’m really worried about….”
Gripe, gripe, gripe.
“I know that I have no right to complain, but … ”
“Wait a minute!” Christian almost yelled.
He had to raise his voice. I had been having such a good complain for the last 20 minutes, and had become so used to the sound of my own voice that I almost forgot he was there.
Why did he stop me then? OK … I must have touched a nerve.
“I hate it when people say that. You have every right to complain.”
Sure we were alone together but, ooh… “hate.” Strong word for Christian.
I knew I was in for one of his delightfully long-winded explanations. The fierce Queensland sun was slowly setting and a gentle wind cooled my heated emotions. We had time.
This is the short version:
When you hold things in, you repress them. Repressed feelings, hurts, troubles, problems and emotions always manifest in some other way in your life:
You become highly-strung.
You get sick.
You get bitter as you age.
Complaining is often called “getting things off your chest,” because that’s where repressed thoughts and feelings sit. They weigh down heavily on you until you can’t breathe anymore.
People have so many shoulds and shouldn’ts in their heads:
“You should be positive all the time.”
“No-one likes a whinger.”
“Always look on the bright side.”
“Some good will come out of this.”
“Others are worse off.”
I was brought up with these sayings. I felt guilty whenever I complained. As if I had no right to do it.
I have since learned otherwise.
It’s OK to complain. It releases built up tension. It’s real. It’s cathartic. It also means that you trust someone else enough to show them what’s really going on inside.
You privilege them by letting them know what’s really going on inside your head. That helps.
It also helps when they just listen.
As we retraced our steps on the way back we saw the flock of cockatoos again. They had alighted on a plain old grey gumtree, transforming it into a mass of white “flowers.” They were no longer screeching. They had had a good whinge and were now perched on the branches, in harmony with each other. Together they happily chewed on the gumnuts making a big mess on the ground.
A deep peace crept over the bush as we slowly walked home.
Question: What "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" were you told as a child? We'd love to hear. Please write it in a comment.
I had just been talking to a friend who is on the brink of separation.
So much hurt.
There were no affairs. There was no lying, no emotional abuse. They were just “too different” she told me. “We’ve hurt each other too much.”
“But why do people in close relationships hurt each other so much?” I pleaded with Christian.
We were finally back to our walk-talks. The trees were shedding their bark (beautiful but messy) and the bark on the path crackled under our feet as we wound our way through the gentle giant gumtrees.
“The closer someone is, the more they love you, but the more they can hurt you.”
Christian replied. He sees couples that are on the precipice of separation often.
Christian and I also hurt each other (I guess you know that by now). Cold shoulders, selfish actions, but mainly hurtful words. At times it has escalated and built up so much that I feel I have to change my life. Something seems wrong, dreadfully wrong. Emotions are so powerful. It’s actually comforting for me to know that everyone, at some point in their relationship, feels something like this. Whether they admit it or not. Whether they repress it or not.
Then the hurtful words begin. Or resentment. Or they “keep the peace” for the sake of the kids, or the crowds that surround and press in on every side: parents, friends and colleagues.
So why do we hurt each other so much?
Christian calls the hurtful words “quills” like those on an echidna or a hedgehog or porcupine.
Our hurtful quills are our pride, defences, selfishness, unresolved conflicts, demands or whimsical wishes. These lead to conflict. Conflict is everywhere; the whole world handles it badly. The only way to avoid conflict in a relationship is to make sure you don’t get close. We are all flawed, spikey, fragile humans.
A relationship need not end because of conflict. But conflict needs to be managed somehow. This is a skill you can learn.
The path we were walking along became more overgrown. It looked even more of a mess: the weeds, the bark. Australia is one of the only countries in the world where the trees shed their bark. Its messy, it needs to be cleaned up. My Dad spends hours each week cleaning his front yard to get rid of it. He even designed a catapult in his backyard to shoot the excess bark deep into the bush. That’s one solution, hide the mess so no one can see it.
A tree on the path caught my eye. The bark had almost completely shed, revealing a smooth, cream trunk underneath. There was writing on the trunk. Scribbles that were lovingly etched by little moths onto the surface.
If you shed all the spikey bark in your relationship, what you find underneath may surprise you.
Your relationship may have grown layers of anger and resentment or a rough protective shell. But the love is in there somewhere, otherwise you wouldn’t hurt or be hurt so much.
You hurt because you love. You wouldn’t bother arguing or having demands on another person if you didn’t love them. Think about that early time together. There was something that person fulfilled in you that other people couldn’t.
Find it. Dig it up.
Underneath are the words that are written on the tree of your hearts.
Welcome to our blog. Each blog contains an insight into your relationship and how to mend or grow it drawn from Christian's 18 years of clinical experience working in psychiatry. They are told as stories. The central ideas are in bold. All the pictures are originals. We post every fortnight and would love to hear your comments. Looking forward to travelling with you in this amazing journey called life.