The old paradigm for couples was pretty simple: The man went to work, brought home the money and paid for the house, mortgage, etc. He was the provider of security and stability. The woman’s role was to cook, clean, raise the children and take care of the home. She was the provider of emotional nurturing and comfort. The roles were clearly defined and rigid. How many of us have parents who fit this model or at least strived to?
Much of this has changed now. Women have jobs and careers, men may stay at home as the primary caregivers, and relationships run across a much broader spectrum than the old “He/She” model. For instance, now there are “He/ He” and “She/ She” models for couples. And there are couples who do not necessarily form a dyad. A “couple” could be in a committed triad relationship or be part of a larger poly community. There are numerous variations on these alternatives, and so it goes on. But what hasn’t changed much is that many relationships still run on unspoken contracts or implicit agreements regarding roles and expectations. When these contracts are broken, couples often get angry with each other and start pointing fingers.
Take the lesbian couple I was seeing last week. They had been very much in love until they decided to buy a house together. Shortly after their purchase, Suzy*, the main breadwinner, was laid off. She then had to take a job she hated in order to pay the mortgage and so that her partner, Chrissy*, could finish school. As a result, Suzy fell into a major depression and emotionally disappeared on Chrissy, who was at a loss as to how to get back the old Suzy she knew and loved.
The implicit agreement in their relationship was that Suzy held the role of emotional and material “provider” while Chrissy added the fun and spark in the relationship. Now this agreement was in jeopardy, which was upsetting the balance of their relationship. Chrissy fell into an abandonment depression and emotionally withdrew from the relationship. They came to my office five years later with complaints of “no sex” and “no emotional connection.” Their relationship was on the rocks.
Fundamentally, Chrissy was angry with Suzy for not upholding her end of their unspoken contract, which was to provide a safe haven of nurturing and comfort—not just by paying for the house but by providing emotional support as well. Suzy was disappointed that Chrissy was so distant and not much fun to be around. They were each secretly convinced that the problem lay with the other person and not with themselves.
I don’t go along with what I call the Blame/Shame Game. In other words, I don’t encourage finger-pointing; instead, I encourage couples to look at how they are each contributing to the negative situation they find themselves in. This approach creates opportunities to increase self-awareness and to grow within the relationship. Developing this ability to take responsibility for your own contributions is a fundamental ingredient if you want your relationship to serve as a vehicle for your growth. Let’s look at how this happened for Suzy and Chrissy.
As Chrissy began to explore more deeply what came up around her feeling “dropped” by Suzy after they bought their house, some very painful memories surfaced from when she was three years old. It was the era of Dr. Spock and Chrissy’s pediatrician had told her mother that it was not good to hold your child too much or spoil them, especially when they were upset and crying. Many mothers were being similarly misled about not comforting their child in distress. Unfortunately, Chrissy’s mother took this advice to the extreme and stopped holding Chrissy altogether. Chrissy went into a profound abandonment depression and completely lost trust in her mother. The mother-daughter relationship was still strained as a result of this abandonment.
For Chrissy, this trauma was locked in her muscular and cellular memory. It wasn’t until she had the experience of feeling abandoned in an intimate relationship again that the trauma started to resurface. Now she had two choices: She could either stay locked in feeling how awful and unfair it was that Suzy emotionally disappeared on her or she could use this situation as an opportunity to address the old abandonment wound that was surfacing.
Often, wounds that originate in a relationship also need to be healed within the context of a relationship. Chrissy had done a lot of work on her own to try to heal this deep abandonment wound around her mother, but in the end the real healing had to happen in a relationship. In this case, Chrissy had the perfect opportunity to use what was coming up in her relationship with Suzy as a vehicle for her growth and healing.
Chrissy made the empowered choice to stop blaming Suzy and, instead, really look at the deep sense of abandonment that Suzy had triggered in her. She did some powerful work in sessions to start to heal this. Suzy, inspired by Chrissy’s revelations during their sessions, started to look at ways she could show up more for the love of her life. She stopped blaming the economy and Chrissy’s educational needs for how trapped she felt and started to make choices that gave her more of a sense of empowerment. She started a health and exercise regimen that helped to boost her endorphins (the body’s natural mood enhancers) and increase her energy levels enormously. Much to Chrissy’s delight, Suzy’s sexual energy started to return. The two were safely on the road to repairing their emotional and sexual intimacy.
More importantly, Chrissy and Suzy both made the empowered choice to step out of blaming each other for breaking the unspoken agreements and rigid expectations in their relationship. They were willing to point the finger back at themselves and honestly address what was coming up for them. By doing this, they also made their relationship a safe container and a vehicle for their growth.
Perhaps Chrissy and Suzy found the secret to what makes a relationship last. After all, if they could grow within the relationship, then their relationship could grow with them. They didn’t have to leave the relationship because it had become too constrictive or didn’t meet their needs anymore.
* – Names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.