The hotel conference room was filled with hundreds of couples, all turned and facing each other. Some had been married for years. Others, like David and I, were engaged and about to embark on that adventure called marriage. The speaker on stage asked us to face our partners, look each other in the eyes, and repeat: “You are not my enemy.”
At that time, David and I kind of giggled. We were so in love. It seemed obvious to us that we were not enemies. Yet, we knew that sometimes when we fought it sure did feel like we were. And so the line stuck with us.
At different points in our marriage we have remembered those words. Recently, we found ourselves in an unhelpful communication pattern—and it did feel like we were enemies sometimes. The screenplay to our drama went something like this:
Scene One: Something stressful happens.
Scene Two: I react by venting verbally and expecting David to know what to do to calm me down and solve the problem.
Scene Three: David reacts by withdrawing and becoming quiet.
Scene Four: His silence makes me turn up the volume. I get more and more upset, trying to get him to say something.
Scene Five: David gets quieter and even more withdrawn.
Scene Six: I feel angry at David and he feels threatened by me.
With this pattern, we lose perspective. We start to feel like we are enemies.
But recently, with the help of some marriage counseling and conversations with good friends, we came up with a different image to help us remember that we are not enemies.
Imagine this. A bright orange meteor of stress is streaking across the sky, falling towards David and me. That attacking stressor is our common enemy, and we are on the same team. But David and I both react very differently to the meteor of stress. I start jumping up and down, yelling and waving my arms, ranting about the stress. David drops to the floor and curls up to protect himself. We just have completely opposite ways of responding to whatever comes at us. It’s that simple.
What’s not so simple is the way that those different responses make us feel distant from each other. Because David is responding differently than I am, I think he is abandoning me to fight the flaming meteor on my own. Because my response is different than David’s, he feels threatened by me and withdraws.
We’re learning to be better team players after counseling helped us to recognize our natural responses to stress. We don’t want to tackle these things alone, we want to be a team. We want to stand on our feet and link arms to face our problems together. This involves listening, talking with one another calmly, strategizing solutions, and frequently checking in with one another.
That image and those actions help us to remember that we are not enemies, but two caring people whose relationship is not set afire by stress but by love.