By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
In reference to Dr. Sue Johnson author of Hold Me Tight – Conversation 4
The best thing about being in a loving relationship is the intimate connection and support. And endlessly quoting Clueless (or whatever dork thing it is you and your partner love). This is why there is almost nothing worse than dwelling where love is not. “I get so lonely, like you wouldn’t believe, but I’m lonelier here now with you next to me.” I can only assume Tim Barry wrote this song “500 Miles” from a place love had abandoned. The grief in his voice when he repeats this lyric brings tears every time, because he’s speaking to having had something rare and precious that was gradually exchanged for something soul-killing.
This tragic inhabitance that so many couples find themselves in serves as an impetus for the fourth conversation in Dr. Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight. “Engaging and Connecting” is about teaching couples how to build and sustain secure bonds by “creat(ing) moments of engagement and connection” and “generat(ing) positive patterns of reaching for and responding to your loved one.” (142) Johnson guides couples away from relationship-destroying cycles of antagonism and withdrawal and pushes them toward being forthright with their partner about their attachment needs.
Johnson’s work guides couples toward the relationship God wants for his children– one of intimacy and support. His word reiterates the theme of believers drawing near to him to share their fears and longings. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16 ESV) Just as the believer pursues a more personal relationship with their Heavenly Father, so should they pursue a more personal relationship with their spouse.
Can your partner read your mind?
There was a woman in the stands at a girls high school weight lifting meet a while back (yes, these do exist, and they are super rad) and she overheard the following conversation between a teenage girl and her friend’s boyfriend.
“What does she want for Valentine’s Day?” the boy asked.
“She told me not to tell you,” the girl replied.
“Why not?” the boy said.
“She said if you really love her, you’ll just know,” the girl told him.
The boy just sat there looking like something out of a gender stereotype joke, which he kind of was.
Don’t laugh! You know at some time you’ve had the same ridiculous, impossible expectation of your partner. As if it is reasonable to expect a human being to develop supernatural telepathy once they’ve attained a certain level of affection for you. Apparently Genesis 2’s metaphor about “one flesh” didn’t include the brain.
How do you talk to your partner?
In her book, Johnson suggests couples begin by talking about what they are most afraid in their relationship by using “handles,” which are “descriptive images, words, and phrases that open the door into your innermost feelings and vulnerabilities, your emotional reality.” Once you have some concrete ideas about your feelings, it will be easier for you to talk with your spouse about them. For one of the spouses Johnson uses to illustrate this, his handles take the form of, “a shattered heart, overwhelmed, anxious, freaking, and fleeing.” (147) But, rather than deal with these emotions, he withdraws from his partner and focuses his attention elsewhere. We’re going to call this the “Hank Hill” method. For those unfamiliar with the show “King of the Hill,” Hank represents the male stereotype for whom emotions are so anathema (unless it’s sports or Texas) that he more or less refuses to acknowledge their existence. Consider the episode when his niece Luanne is dumped by her loser boyfriend Buckley (who eventually dies when the Mega-Lo-Mart explodes). Luanne has spent the last week sobbing her eyes out and Hank, fed up, decides to take the situation in hand, leading to this marvelous declaration, “Your heart is telling you?! Who’s the boss, you or your heart? You are! Your heart is your employee! So get your heart off its butt and back to work!” He goes on to give her a practical lesson in stuffing her feelings into the pit of her stomach.
Unfortunately for Hank, it’s just not this simple. If you keep cramming your feelings down on top of each other, eventually they’re going to run out of space and spill out somewhere. And those emotional explosions are no more likely to bring you closer to your partner than ignoring every time they upset you. This is why Johnson encourages couples to take a moment to think about what exactly it is they’re feeling before they try to articulate their feelings to their partner.
Where are those feelings coming from?
She offers the following suggestions (152):
• Think about what is keeping you from saying how you feel to your spouse.
• Make a list of some “handles” that come to mind when you think about past conversations with your partner.
• Consider the worse case scenario. What do you think are the worst things that could happen if you told your partner how you feel?
• Talk to your partner about your fears and how it feels to share them.
Now, as each of you take turns completing these steps, it is crucial the partner who is listening meet their partner’s vulnerability with warmth and support. This is an opportunity for the two of you to address emotional obstacles that keep you from connecting with each other. God didn’t design Christians to be loners. We need to commune with others in order to be refreshed and encouraged. During a sermon, Pastor Ryan Kelly of Desert Springs Church used the following verse to illustrate this, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5 ESV) His sermon was centered on the metaphor that Christians are like bricks. And bricks are made to be with other bricks. Alone, they’re not much good for anything than being thrown through a window, but together they can be used to construct great monuments to God’s glory.
After addressing the fears you have about your partner and your relationship, Johnson recommends couples talk about what they can do to assuage these fears. One of the clients in her book uses an awesome hockey analogy– spouses may find themselves wearing metaphorical hockey masks, but they can’t connect with each other unless they take them off. As the woman explains it, “Some part of me says that opening up like that is just asking to be smashed in the face,” but partners can’t understand each other if one or both of them always play defense. They have to be willing to come out from behind their protective barriers and reach for the other. (154) “By knowing and trusting their own emotions and reaching past their fears, (partners) are stronger, individually and together. When couples can do this, they can more easily repair conflicts and rifts and shape a nurturing, loving connection.” (156)
Johnson suggests the following for discussing attachment needs:
• What makes it difficult for you to talk about this with your partner?
• What can they do to make it easier?
• What do you need from your partner to feel secure and loved?
In her book, Johnson helps her clients by reminding them it is only natural to crave support and reassurance from their loved ones. It’s not weak or unreasonable to want your spouse to be there for you. People were designed to need other people. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV)
Do you need help talking about feelings?
Talking to your partner about your fears regarding the relationship or how they can better support your can be scary, particularly if these kinds of discussions were not welcome in your past relationships. Consider sitting down with a Christian marriage counselor who can help get the conversation started. A relationship counselor may even be able to help you both pinpoint the fears you’re dealing with and what triggers them. Professional counseling is also an opportunity to see where you create barriers against intimacy, why you create them, and how to deconstruct them. And if one or both of you tend to avoid or put off these kinds of necessary discussions, a counseling session will be the ideal tool to getting you to sit down and confront them.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com -“Couple” by Tina Phillips
“Frangipani Flower On Old Brick Wall” by domdeen