My wife and I occupy different spaces in our marriage. I tend to be a little spacey, a little head-in-the-clouds-y, while my wife tends to have her feet planted firmly on the ground. Restless thoughts keep me up at night while she wraps the blankets tightly around her because she likes the feeling of warmth and safety while she sleeps. This has...occasionally...been a challenge for us both. Her mind's desire for security is deeply challenged by my tendency to do very stupid things.
Our minds operate at their best in two different ways.
My mind needs a world without boundaries, disordered and filled with risk. Her mind thrives in an ordered world, where safety and consistency abound. This is a generalization, of course. She surprises me sometimes - like the time she hitchhiked to the women's march with a group of girlfriends because the buses were taking too long. And I'll surprise her (although far less frequently) with my attention to detail and consistency.
This tension between safety and risk has created moments where each of us felt that the other was either suffocating or abandoning us. It is one of most common and normal challenges that intimate partners face.
We tend to find the things that complement us in our other(s). Her focused and attentive mind is deeply soothing to my chaotic and, at times, frenzied one. My jump-first-get-a-cast-later attitude keeps her world bright and lively.
But it turns out that when these strengths aren't balanced, they can render any attempt to show love a disaster. No amount of time spent or gifts given can soothe a worried mind or calm a restless spirit. But these moments when I have failed to see what motivated her to take a risk with me taught me something vital.
My wife's craving for security is not a liability, but a love language.
In Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages, he challenges partners to think through ways that are not natural to them in order to reach their intimate others. While Chapman's book can be a little reductive (There's only five love languages?!), it's a useful exercise to get out of your own head and see what your partner needs.
My wife's need for security - which often shows up as she grills me on the details of my plan - is not an attempt to control or even influence my ideas, but rather, to feel secure in my risk-taking.
She wants to join me, not restrict me. It's a big difference.
It turns out that my willingness to invest in her safety and security was the love language I never knew existed.
I was working with a couple that was negotiating a difference like this. Tom wanted to move into the city while Stefan wanted to stay put in his comfortable suburban neighborhood.
Stefan's logic was rock solid. They're house was earning a lot of value. They couldn't carry two notes, so they'd have to sell the house and lose that investment to move to the city. Still, the argument didn't sway Tom. They ran around in circles for a year in this argument before I saw them.
It almost brought them to the end of a 20-year relationship.
Stefan couldn't understand why Tom cared so much about moving when they had everything they could possibly want.
So he was surprised to learn that it was precisely because they had everything they needed that made Tom feel so stuck. He had a hard time explaining it, but in one desperate moment, Tom shared that living in a suburban neighborhood for the rest of his life felt like he was slowly dying.
He needed access to a dream. Something more.
I'll fast forward through the details - except to say that it was only when Stefan began to understand - when he decided to suspend his fear-driven agenda - that Tom needed opportunities to grow, to move, to stretch and to risk in order to feel alive. While Stefan was comfortable in his contentment, Tom felt restless, frantic and even depressed without the ability to wander.
The couple ended up staying in their home, but only after hours of conversation and Stefan's commitment to Tom's adventurous spirit. They started to travel more, spend more time away from home - a few more weekends in the city without a schedule.
This satisfied Tom's desire to feel alive in his own way without sacrificing the secure foundation Stefan needed.
This struggle could have devolved into a never-ending habit of the couple missing each other's core needs. In order to take a risk with Tom, Stefan needed to feel secure that Tom was going to invest in his need for stability.
Stefan didn't want to reject Tom's dream, but his brain would not allow him to entertain the idea without feeling like he had a plan he needed to feel secure enough to dream.
Tom needed to feel confident that Stefan would be willing to dream with him. They moved from saying things like this:
You'll always be the same. You never want to go anywhere or do anything.
I get it. You need me to build confidence with you. You need to hear me think this through so you can feel safe enough to dream with me.
Like Stefan, my wife's willingness to take deep breaths when she hears about my latest idea, or entertains my latest request and just hear me out is her willingness to engage my love language: risk.
Risk and safety are the two love languages we never knew existed.
They're not actually two love languages, but one. They work together. Because all of us need security in order to take risks and feel alive, and as John A. Shedd puts it best, "A ship in harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are built for."
If you find yourselves having this argument again and again, try to make a conversational shift. Take a moment and have a few deep breaths. Suspend your agenda in the conversation. Don't be an engineer - trying to hack your partner's logic so she/he no longer says things that upset you. Don't be a lawyer, litigating your case or defending yourself against accusations.
Instead, be a journalist, whose only agenda is to get the story.
Ask open-ended non-judgmental questions. Stuff like:
What's that like for you?
What about this makes you feel so alive?
What would make you feel safe as we have this conversation?
Just because you occupy different spaces in your relationship, doesn't mean you can't share those spaces together.