It took me many years to learn how to love my husband well, and, of course, I’m still learning.
Like many people, I didn’t grow up witnessing a healthy model of true partnership. My parents, like all parents, did the best they could and they gave me many gifts, but I’m sure even they would agree that role-modeling a healthy and loving marriage wasn’t one of them. Coupled with growing up in a culture that transmits abysmally dysfunctional messages about what real love and real attraction are and aren’t, I reached adulthood quite clueless about how to love well.
But I learned, and as I tell my clients and course members every day, a healthy marriage doesn’t depend on knowing how to love well from the get-go. Rather, a good marriage depends on the willingness to learn how to love well over time. For the truth is that even if you grew up witnessing and absorbing a healthy marriage, learning how to love your partner is a brand new experience, one that you can’t practice ahead of time. There are no formulas for loving well. It’s not a 3-step process that you can learn from a book. While we can certainly glean many essential tools and mindsets from books and courses about how to love and how to work through conflict, because the unique dyad of the two of you has never existed before, the real art and skill of loving the person you’re with can only be learned with the person you’re with.
Even though my projections spewed out onto my husband from day one, another part of me also loved him from the beginning. But when the fear-flames licked my ankles then dragged me into the underworld of relationship anxiety, all kindness flew out the window. The man who had been my friend just the day before suddenly turned into my perceived enemy. Every unhealed wound, every ungrieved loss, every unhealthy belief about love born from the wounds of my heart that had been deeply hurt and betrayed sealed onto him in what, even at the time, I understood as projection. I would spend the next several months unraveling those projections, and the next several years learning how to love him well.
This is how I learned to love my husband well:
1. I learned to listen to his feedback. Sometimes he would offer feedback lovingly and sometimes, because of his own triggers, the delivery of the feedback wasn’t the most gentle. At some point, I realized that I can take in what my husband is saying about my behavior and at a later point, after the repair, I can make a request for a kinder delivery. This has been a learning process that has evolved over many, many years, and I’m still learning.
2. I read Sue Johnson‘s book Hold Me Tight and learned as much as possible about EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) couples counseling, including doing our own round of couples counseling several years ago. This was marriage-changing.
3. When I couldn’t see myself clearly, I would ask for feedback from friends. We all have blindspots – places of wound about ourselves that we can’t see (which is why they’re called blind spots). Our partner will reflect these places back to us and we can either take it in or we can push back and defend. I spent years and years pushing back and defending until it finally became clear that that wasn’t going to work anymore. I was hurting him, I was hurting us, and mostly I was hurting myself. When we remain committed to our defenses we remain stuck behind a very thick fortress. Bringing these blindspots to friends was essential to my eventual ability to see myself more clearly. Again, this is a work-in-progress.
4. I’ve been fiercely devoted to working through my fears and to softening the deeply engrained inter-generational patterns that have been handed down through the centuries that have blocked love. For me, this means practicing what I teach in terms of showing up for myself with a compassionate inner parent in my four realms of self: tending to my physical body, journaling every day, working with my dreams, entering the imaginal realm through poetry, prayer and creativity, working with a therapist, reading constantly, and spending time in nature.
There have been times when my tears have joined with the river that runs behind our home, when the grief of old and current pain cracked my heart open. When I didn’t tend to this grief, it would project onto my husband. The work in relationships is to name and harness these projections as best we can so that we can take full responsibility for our pain and heal at the root. Every time we do this, we heal a layer of the spiral and open more fully to love.
A few days ago I said to my husband, “I am the luckiest woman in the world.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because you’re my husband,” I replied.
To think I almost let him go. To think I almost turned from this beautiful man and the blessed life that we’ve created together. I breathe into the almost-ness of these thoughts and then orient back to gratitude for what is, which is this:
A man I love more than I can express.
A man who has taught me the true meaning of love.
A man who has stood by me when I have failed at love.
A man who is my rock, my partner, my co-parent, and co-creator in this life.
I am truly blessed.
And so are you. Real love awaits on the other side of your fears. The life that you’ve imagined – better than any Hollywood movie in its simplicity and goodness – lives on the other side of the projections. It takes real work, accurate information, effective tools, and patience, but as thousands of people have broken through the ceiling of their relationship anxiety, you can, too.