One of my favorite movies is Scent of a Woman
For so many reasons. But the one I want to tell you about now comes a little more than halfway into the film, in the few quiet moments before the Slade's crisis curtails the plot. Slade has whisked Charlie away for a weekend tryst at an expensive hotel and the two find themselves sitting with to a lovely young woman named Donna whom Slade attempts to coax into a tango. Slade asks Donna if she'd like to learn to tango, and in a moment of perfectly metaphorical vulnerability, Donna responds that she'd be a little afraid that she would make a mistake.
Do you need to reconnect?
I'm going to try and convince you that Donna's courageous response to Slade's invitation is the cure for every ailing heartache, every strained relationship. Therapists have quite a bit to say about how to help hurting couples, but in my opinion, the leading researcher in couple's therapy is a brilliant author named Sue Johnson who often describes relationships as a dance. Problems emerge when couples get out of step with each other. But what causes people to get out of step? How do relationships dissolve?
Simple, daily, indifference
Couples who come into my office usually think they have a problem because they argue so much. How is it possible to pack up and walk out of the house over a fight about scrambled eggs? They ask. But arguments are only one relatively small piece of what is actually happening when a relationships starts to crumble. I like to tell my clients that you and your partner are always having two conversations: the one with your mouth and the one with your heart. For this reason, you might hear your partner tell you that he loves you, but what you believe is that he's bored with you.
The true enemy of a healthy relationship is not fighting, but apathy. People start to act strangely when they believe their partner is indifferent to them. The world can be a scary place, and you depend on your partner to provide you with emotional safety. If, over time, you miss your partner's hints that she or he needs you, it can lead to confusion, fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness.
But these are not the emotions your partner will see.
They are too raw. You are not sure you can trust them to care for you in your moment of need. So instead, you let them know just how pissed off at them you are, for again, not storing the toothbrush where it belongs. "I've told you a million times not to leave your toothbrush on the damn sink," says your mouth, when your heart says, "where are you? You are not there when I need you."
Even counselors can make this more complicated than it needs to be.
Just yesterday I read an article where a local therapist explained that divorce occurs when couples' personality types are too different, or because men really want mothers and not wives. This may work in the world of the Ray Romano sitcom, but it doesn't hold up in real life. Later in the article an attorney offered her thoughts on why couples divorce: "I think its because couples stop tending to each other emotionally." Which of these two professionals do you think spends more time with folks in distressed relationships?
Here's the thing. The secret to restoring a broken relationship is a lot like going on a diet. You can try all the tricks you want. Try the Adkins approach to infidelity or the South Beach couple's handbook. Each fad may lead you down the road to quick progress, but eventually the heavy problems come back to haunt you. If you really want long lasting success, if you really want a lean and healthy marriage, what you need is a steady diet of emotional connection, and don't forget to exercise secure attachment.
Like Donna, you work toward letting down your walls.
You have to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to turn to your partner and risk saying, "I'm scared because I cannot find you. I'm scared because I'm afraid I'm losing you." For men, this is especially hard. We're taught all our lives not to be vulnerable. We're taught not to need help. To stay on our feet. Pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. This is a pesky cultural myth. Men have poor models for emotional engagement but in our intimate relationships, we have low thresholds for failure. We recognize quickly that something is wrong in our relationship and we don't know how to fix it. So we internalize failure and shame. And each time you come after us in fear dressed up in criticism, we withdraw from you because we are too ashamed that we continue to let you down. Again. And again. What we need is acceptance.
So instead of going through the same tired routine of avoiding each other, instead of pretending that there's nothing wrong or acting like your satisfied with the lack of intimacy, try tuning your heart and mouth to the same song.
The healthiest couples attend to each other's imperfections in compassion and acceptance, as Slade demonstrates in response to Donna's fears:
No mistakes in the tango, darling, not like life. Simple. That's what makes the tango so great. If you make a mistake, you get all tangled up, you just tango on.
Afraid of making a mistake? Afraid you are losing each other? Give me a call. I can help you tango on.