“Why do you always get so quiet?” my wife Amber asked.
Why do you always get so upset, I thought, but of course didn’t say (which was Amber’s point).
I stood there trying to figure out how to resolve this argument, but nothing was coming to me. So I just kept thinking. Quietly.
“Why don’t you say something?” Amber begged.
Frustrated, I thought, Well, what do you want me to say! Just tell me what you want me to say, and I’ll say it!
With nothing but a few stammers coming from my stymied lips, that prompted another, “Just please tell me what you’re thinking?” from her.
Well, you get the picture. I don’t want to say what I’m thinking because I’m a turtle—I process things internally and avoid conflict at all costs. First of all, I’m not always sure what I’m thinking in these tense moments. Second of all, I don’t want to say what I’m thinking because I’m worried that it will just escalate the argument. Besides, in the moment, I’m a little traumatized that my wife is apparently blaming me for something that I perceive to be a normal life challenge (the kids are fussy and at each other, we have a busy week with barely any family time). Why else would she be so upset?
But Amber wants me to say something (anything!) because she’s a tiger—she processes things verbally and is okay with conflict if it produces a resolution. But she needs help processing and a little comfort as well. Besides, in the moment she is a little traumatized because she feels like her husband is emotionally abandoning her, leaving her to fend for herself. Why else would he be so quiet?
In other words, we really weren’t understanding each other. Recently, though, we had a breakthrough.
We’d had a disagreement earlier that day, and it was bothering both of us. The clock had already struck midnight, and here we were, stuck in this rut. We were stuck, and we didn’t know how to get out. It felt like we were enclosed in this recurring pattern, with no way out—just a staircase descending further and further down….
That’s when, though I forget what prompted it, we had an epiphany: She was upset because she felt as if I was emotionally abandoning her—and I was quiet and frazzled because I felt as if she was abandoning me. And because we both felt that the other person was detaching, we both felt a threat to our relationship.
For my part, because I believed that she was blaming me about something largely out of our control, I felt like she was going from “we” and pinning it all on “me.” For her part, because she interpreted my silence as abandonment, she also felt like our marriage was going from “we” to “me.” However unconsciously, we both felt that the intimacy we’ve spent so much time cultivating was under attack by the other person.
Marriage is a big “we” relationship: It’s all about enjoying and enduring together. The moment one person develops the attitude that, “This is her problem, and it doesn’t concern me,” or “This is all his fault, and I’m gonna let him have it,” it strikes a huge blow to the “we” relationship. And that’s what we both thought the other person was doing!
The next day, a friend of ours, unaware of our midnight pow-wow the night before, told us about a psychologist, Sue Johnson, who talks about “love sense.” She says that the first instinct of human beings isn’t sex or aggression, but connection. We are created to attach to others, and for relationship.
Just think of how a baby needs human touch, she says. She notes studies have found that anywhere from 31 to 75 percent of children who are institutionalized die before their third birthday. Studies of adopted Romanian orphans, who spent up to twenty hours in their cribs without any attention, found that many of them suffer from brain abnormalities and “extreme difficulty in relating to others.” Without loving attachments, people literally die. But with them, we thrive.
It’s the same with romantic relationships, Johnson says. Lovers share an attachment bond, similar to the bond between mother and child, or father and child. We need to know that someone is there for us, that someone has our back. And this isn’t a sign of weakness, she says, but a sign that you’re a living, breathing, normal human being. We’re wired for connection—and that’s the way it’s meant to be!
So, fresh with this realization, Amber and I are now a little more empowered for the next time a frustration emerges. I don’t need to quake in fear and shiver in silence. I can speak with the confidence that we’re a team. I can wrap my arms around her and assure her that, “I’m in this with you.” And she can raise a challenge with the assurance that I’ll walk through it with her. And together, we can do it.