Jill and her husband, two clients, had attended a friend’s party, and Jill came home upset. Her husband’s friendliness—and what looked like flirtation—with another woman kept her awake all night, feeling hurt, angry, and threatened. She knew her husband loved her; she wasn’t worried that he would cheat. Still, the whole thing made her feel bad.
She tried to let it go, not wanting to create a conflict and upset the “good stretch” they were in. She was worried about how her husband would react to her insecurity. But after a few days, her hurt feelings were still weighing on her mind and heart. Worse, they were turning into resentment—a narrative about her husband that started with “How could he? How dare he?" She knew she had to say something when she found herself obsessively ruminating and snapping at him over small things.
A few days later, she decided to “risk it” and be honest. Over a nice dinner, Jill shared her feelings, saying that while she trusted that he wouldn’t cheat, nonetheless his being holed up with this other woman all evening in the corner of the room made her feel afraid and hurt. Most of all, it triggered her fear of abandonment and inadequacy, her sense of being “not pretty enough, not young enough, not cool enough, not anything enough.” Jill’s own father had left the family when she was young, something her husband was aware of and of which she reminded him. She spoke openly about how his choice to spend the evening enjoying this other woman triggered her deepest insecurity.
Sadly, her husband’s reaction wasn’t the warm reassurance she had hoped for and needed. Rather than saying the loving words she craved—that he cherished her and would never leave her—he angrily questioned her use of the terms “holed up,” “in the corner of the room,” and “enjoying this other woman.” He rejected her description of his actions and accused her of calling him unfaithful and assuming the worst about him. When she defended herself, he told her that she was “nuts.” He said she was overly sensitive and had to get her jealousy under control. Moreover, he said that he was sick and tired of being monitored.
The conversation (which was never really a conversation) ended with his saying, “Nothing I do is ever enough for you,” and the couple retreated to their separate rooms.
Some version of this scenario plays itself out in every relationship I’ve ever seen or experienced: One partner shares his or her experience, longing to feel less alone in his or her pain, to be reassured and comforted, and to move the relationship into something more real and connected. But the result is a further wounding experience. He or she ends up feeling misunderstood, and more alone. The other partner’s anger and criticism then obstruct and add to the original pain.
These kinds of tragic “misses” happen in every relationship. We open a conversation with the desire to feel understood and known. But before we know what’s happened, we’re in a huge fight, tangled up in a lifetime of suffering. Instead of feeling more connected, and we feel profoundly cut off. Instead of feeling understood, we feel rejected. We started out feeling hurt and ended up accused of doing the hurting. We are miles from the empathic embrace we were craving.
Emotional safety is a universal human longing. We yearn for someone with whom we can be completely open; we want to express our real thoughts and feelings without being criticized or blamed. Deep down, we ache to be known.
As a therapist, I hear this same longing from people of every age group, race, gender and socioeconomic background. The longing is to not have to twist our truth into a pretzel so as to make it palatable, to not have to silence our experience to maintain the relationship and the other person’s ego. We long to be heard without judgment. And yet, even as we are denied this kind of openness we also have difficulty offering it to our partner.
The Persian poet Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing, and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” That's it, exactly. And yet, despite our longing and effort, again and again we find ourselves in the loneliest of places, feeling unloved and unknown. Worse, we feel unknowable. We question whether there is anywhere we can be received wholly, without judgment, and without having to fight vigilantly to get there. What we know is that we’re failing to gain entry into that union we crave, where egos fall away and the love is big enough to hold all our separate stories.
We long for the kind of love that can include everything. And yet, we get caught again and again in our humanness. We want unconditional love, but seem relentlessly stuck in the conditional.
A part of this pain is simply failing to accept the basic reality of being a human being. As human beings, we are condemned to live in separate bodies and separate minds, which makes for different thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We live in different realities, with different relative truths. We expect something different, especially in our closest relationships. We expect our partners to have an expansive understanding and acceptance of us, and then we experience great suffering when that expectation isn’t fulfilled.
When we are truly open, we are often denied the understanding we need. Our truth ends up bumping into our partner’s ego, their protective armor. Our experience signals a threat to our partner. They, too, feel misunderstood, expecting us to also have an expansive understanding and acceptance. The result is that our experience sounds like an accusation because it doesn’t reflect what they expect us to already have understood. And so they respond with anger and defensiveness. We end up in a life-or-death battle with our partner’s “me,” their wounds and storylines. Simultaneously, we’re trapped inside the claustrophobic separateness of our own little “me.”
It’s important to realize that all people suffer to some degree in this inevitable form of isolation; it’s a core aspect of the human experience and a consequence of the terrible inadequacy of words and gestures to convey who we truly are, even to those to whom we are closest.
When we share our experience, we are sending an invitation to our partner to meet us beyond the words, in that expansive field of truth. It’s an attempt to bridge the divide between two people. Our truth is a path out of the isolation we all face as separate human beings. We offer our truth to our partner in search of love.
This attempt is profound. Furthermore, the awareness of what's really being attempted changes the experience itself. At the same time, there are certain things we can do, and ways we can communicate, that will improve our chances of receiving the kind of acceptance and love we crave.