A client told me a few weeks ago that she’s been feeling irritated with her husband. Then, in the hushed tones I’ve come to identify immediately as shame, she asked, “Is that normal?” At which point I told her that my post entitled “When You Feel Irritated with Your Partner” receives the most hits of any blog on my site.
“Really?” she said, audibly relieved. “So it’s really normal?”
“Yes, really. Completely normal.”
The next day, synchronistically, my e-course moderator directed me to a deeply insightful post that one of the members wrote called “The Progress I’ve Made in Six Months”, which focused largely on getting underneath the irritation. With grateful permission, I’m sharing it here:
In the past six months I feel like I have made quite a bit of progress. I am starting to understand my fear cycle and I’d like to share it with you all.
The triggers and projections
I get very anxious about my boyfriends looks. Sometimes I find certain mannerisms and quirks extremely unattractive. Sometimes I think his facial expressions are gross. Sometimes his lack of “toughness” turns me off. His lackadaisical habits make me crazy. He pronounces things wrong. He wears funny shirts. His arms stick out too much. He uses weird sayings. You name it… there are a billion things that can irritate me at any moment.
Make the irritation worse with shame
I tend to feel a lot of shame for being irritated and having negative feelings towards my partner. I’d let the shame define me and my relationship by saying things like: “I feel such disgust towards my partner… How can this relationship last?”… “Why am I so ugly and critical?”… “This is a terrible match because I don’t like him so often.”… “Everything I feel towards my partner would hurt him! I should never voice my irritation! I’m trapped!”
Fear lives underneath the shame
When I pause from actively sending death glares of criticism toward my boyfriend… And when I can hold off from shaming myself to death… I can see that there’s something very terrified and shaking inside of me. I am afraid of my voice being lost in this relationship. I’m afraid of having to bend all of my patience for this person who irritates me everyday in some way. I’m afraid that I will lose my sense of self and have to accommodate this person until death do us part. “What about me?”…. “Will I be safe here?”… “Will I be loved despite all these feelings I have?”… “Am I going to be ok?”… “Will I be rejected by my family because of this person?”… “Will I be shunned by my community because my relationship is imperfect?”… “Will I be able to survive this if my anxiety happens again and again?”
Where do I find my security?
It’s so hard to accept that relationships have ups and downs. It’s hard to accept that I will be irritated with my partner a lot. When I reject the idea that love is imperfect, I go down the rabbit hole of desiring the impossible.My security cannot be found in comparing my relationship to a picture perfect highlight real from a hashtag wedding and seeing how I stack up. My security cannot be found in never-ending feelings of attraction or fireworks or chemistry. My security cannot be found in a feeling. It is in the fact, that I can use my god-given heart and soul to love my imperfect boyfriend with an imperfect love. Even when I am irritated as hell or when I’m scared as fuck. My imperfect love is good enough. His imperfect love is warm and kind and makes my soul feel known. Not all the time of course, but it is certainly there. And that it good enough for me too. My security is in GRACE. It is the grace we have for each other to be broken and imperfect people who try their best to love each other well.
The freedom to ask for an accommodation
So let’s say my boyfriend is wearing a shirt that doesn’t fit him right. It looks horrible. Previously, my guilt and shame would say: “You can’t handle this shirt? Wow, you are just the most shallow person to fixate on the fit of his shirt. BUCK UP! How can you be such a horrible girlfriend?”. My fear would chime in and say “holy shit, you are NEVER going to like the way he dresses, how will you live with this forever?”. But if I can put the shame and fear aside… I’ve discovered something incredibly freeing: I can ask for an accommodation. I have to consciously decide to let go of the shame and fear because these feelings only negatively define my irritation, say horrible things about who I am, and predict the demise of our relationship.
Once I put the shame and fear aside (sometimes this takes days), I can stop, rewind, and ask my boyfriend to change his ill-fitting shirt. I can say: “Hey, you know, I don’t think that shirt fits you very well, and I really LOVE it when shirts are well-tailored on you. What do you think about getting it tailored some day? Do you think you could do that for me?”What freedom. I don’t have to shame myself for being irritated. I don’t have to stay silent and suffer in my fear. I can speak up and say… “Hey, sometimes I don’t like things about you. and that’s totally normal and ok!” and when I’m calm and kind, I can ask for an accommodation: “Baby, this is how I feel in this circumstance, can you help me with this by making a change…. or simply by listening and trying to understand?” Sometimes he can and sometimes he can’t. But the key is being able to ask without shame.
Again and again
My anxiety was the strongest in the beginning of the year. Six months later, with lots of couples’ therapy, we have found ways to cope and understand each other better. I’ve experienced the grace of just letting myself be… and breathing through all the pain and fear. I’ve experienced peace when I can embrace the negative feelings I feel about my partner without judging myself so harshly. It is hard work. But look, I’ve survived! My boyfriend and I have survived.When the fear washes away I can see how beautiful we are together. Even when I’m so irritated with him I could scream. He is beautiful. I am beautiful. And we’re gonna be okay.
And that, my readers, is how you break apart the projection and arrive at what lives at its core. The anxiety is a symptom. The irritation is a symptom. When you can pull back the projection that the problem is your partner and the illusory belief that if your partner were “more this” or “less that” you wouldn’t feel irritated or anxious, you can begin the deep and lifelong work of looking at and healing yourself and your life. Of course what lives embedded inside a projections differs for everyone, but seeing one clear example can help you begin your excavation process.
This isn’t easy work and it’s not fast work. We wrestle with the projections as if they’re characters from a scary dream, dark forces that eclipse the light of an open heart and prevent us from seeing clearly. We reel them back and see with clear eyes only to find that they’ve taken hold again the next hour or day. Over time, with committed attention, we have longer stretches of seeing our beauty, our partners’ essence, and knowing that we’re going to be okay. And this is worth the wrestling and the darkness: to live day-by-day in the light and warm love that arrives when fear leaves the building and we see clearly.