My husband was fired from his job of over twenty years less than a year and a half ago. It ripped away his self-confidence and replaced it with feelings of doubt and inadequacy. He felt he had let our family down, and that feeling didn’t go away when the new job he acquired was over twenty thousand dollars less than the one he had before.
The effects of these events are still open wounds for him. He does a good job of “keeping the band-aids on,” but when you’ve lived with someone for over twenty years, you can see right through those latex strips.
He’s still depressed even though he won’t admit it. He angers more easily than he did a year and a half ago when he still felt “whole.” And he’s erected a brick wall to protect himself from ever having to relive those days when his self-concept was shattered into a thousand pieces.
So in order to be what he needs me to be, I have to constantly keep in mind the fact that he remains broken in some small way. And for our relationship to remain healthy, each interaction between us requires me to remember his struggles, ones that have not yet been laid to rest.
And the point is, no matter how we pretend, we’re all broken in some way. Maybe we’ve sewn some of those deep gashes back together again, but the point is that certain painful events in our lives make it impossible for us to ever be the same person as we were before the cuts were made.
And without understanding your partner’s “brokenness,” your relationship will not thrive.
So here’s what you need to understand about your lover to ensure that your life together can be happier and more intimate.
You need to understand the impact of your lover’s past on your present relationship
Our parents. Our childhood friends. The ones who bullied us. The ones who broke our hearts. The experiences we’ve had and the people who impacted our past have made footprints on our soul that never quite go away.
And as partners in a relationship, we must understand how and why these previous events bleed into our interactions with our lovers.
For example, I spend way, way too much on makeup. So much money in fact that I’m ashamed to tell you.
As a child, I was bullied. For my freckles and for the gap between my teeth. It didn’t help that my sister was amazingly beautiful. The point is a large part of my actions are because the “ugly duckling syndrome” still lives inside of me.
My husband understands this and usually refrains from criticizing my overspending on these things. For example, I’m sure he sees the thirty lipsticks on my bathroom vanity and thinks it’s crazy that I go out and buy more. But he “gets it.” He knows the pain is still there. He loves me and realizes that if a new blush will make the memories go away for a while, the purchase was worth it.
So think of what you know about your lover’s past. Then keep those facts in mind before you argue, say hurtful things, or attack your partner for their words or actions. I’m not saying you should accept everything they do, but try to understand what things may have influenced them to do it.
For example, maybe they crave compliments because bullies in the past made them insecure about their looks. Maybe they need calls from you during the day because a previous relationship ended due to a partner’s infidelity. Maybe they say no to your requests to take a cruise or exotic vacation because they lived through the pain of poverty as a child.
And if you can give them the validation they so desperately crave because of past wounds, why hold back?
If they react illogically to certain circumstances or requests, be gentle, not defensive. Tell them that you understand why they feel the way they do. Then help them put things in perspective without belittling their feelings or opinions.
You need to understand your partner’s present struggles and how they may be affecting your life together
It’s hard enough to have a successful relationship when we are haunted by the ghosts of our past, but when you add in the difficulties of the present, the struggles to keep a relationship strong and healthy are multiplied.
For example, everyday life is chaotic and stressful, and though we try not to bring our work life home with us, it follows us regardless. We’re tired and exhausted both physically and emotionally from long hours on the job. And we never really know just what daily struggles our partners bring home to us as well.
Their boss may have made them feel incompetent, a presentation they gave may have been unsuccessful, or a co-worker may have made a nasty comment at their expense. And depending on the profession, the emotional struggles your partner goes through in their daily lives maybe even more intense. Maybe your partner is a nurse who lost a patient that day. Maybe your partner is a policeman who saw a child abused, neglected, or subjected to domestic violence.
And work issues are not the only struggles your partner may be dealing with at the current moment. Perhaps there are family issues your partner is dealing with. Issues that may literally hit “too close to home” for them to feel comfortable talking to anyone about, even you.
So what can you do?
If your partner shares their present struggles, provide a listening ear. Ask questions, but don’t push. Be compassionate. Don’t criticize their actions or feelings. Then, in the days ahead, if they act standoffish or need time alone, give it to them. Let them do what they need to regain a clearer outlook on life.
And if your partner doesn’t seem to want to share their feelings because they are too painful at the present moment, don’t sulk or take it personally. Let them know you’re there if they need to talk. Tell them you want to help if there’s anything you can do to make things better. Then let your partner sort things out in their own time while giving them the gentle treatment that they need at the moment.
Be aware of future concerns that may be troubling your partner
Lots of times, it’s not the past or the present that weighs so heavily on our minds. Many times, it’s the future.
For example, for about six months after my husband found a new job, we were all anxious, but no one more so than my husband. We had used up his 401k just trying to make it through the period of his unemployment, and if something went wrong at his new workplace, survival would be exponentially harder. So even though we were thankful he was finally working, the stress didn’t go away.
And because there are so many scary unknowns about the future, relationships often suffer from things that haven’t even happened. Or things that may never happen. But these facts don’t make the emotions any less intense.
Maybe your partner’s company is suffering, and the threat of lay-offs is weighing on their mind. It could be that a family member’s health is failing, or the fact that Christmas is coming and money is tight. The crises that this pandemic has gifted us with keeps most of us on edge in some way or another.
For instance, as a teacher, there is a real possibility that the virtual teaching I am doing may turn into in-class teaching. The very thought of it makes me anxious. It doesn’t help that I have a panic disorder, and the threat of what health risks may lie in this transition already has me more “tightly wound.”
Understanding the concerns that may weigh heavily on your partner’s mind is crucial. Don’t tell them they’re foolish for being worried about things looming in the future that they can’t control. Don’t trivialize their apprehension by joking about the fact that they’re a “worry wart” or be insensitive and say they’re looking for things to worry about.
Listen to their uncertainties. Help ease their mind by discussing what things may be done if “the worst” becomes a reality. Try to help them see that maybe the likelihood of their troubles becoming true is far less realistic than they imagine. Remind them you will be there for them no matter what happens, and that you’ll work together through the hardships if they arise.
And if possible take their mind off their distressing thoughts by doing something that will bring them joy. Pop popcorn and watch their favorite movie with them. Go for a walk together or just sit and talk over a glass of wine and a good meal. End the night with a massage (or something even better). Immerse your partner in the joys of the present, and their worries about the future may not take center stage.
The bottom line:
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, says that “We really have to understand the person we want to love. If our love is only a will to possess, it is not love. If we only think of ourselves, if we know only our own needs and ignore the needs of the other person, we cannot love. We must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the person we love. This is the ground of real love.”
Real love understands that though we cannot repair the damage of the past or take away our partner’s fears or pains, we can be a safe and loving harbor for them.
We can be cognizant of the broken places in our partner’s heart. And we can let those places guide us to a deeper connection with our partner. Though we may not be able to mend the tears of the past or demolish the fears of the future, we can help them see that we’ll always be there to help them through their troubles.
Because in the end, that's what true love really means.