Attraction: What our relationships tell us about ourselves

Attraction ‘at trac tion’ late Middle English denoting the action of a poultice in drawing matter from the tissues

I’ve had numerous conversations with my brother-in-law, a clinical psychologist who focuses his practice on children and early childhood trauma. A revealing dynamic he has shared is the difference in play between healthy children and those that have experienced trauma. For healthy children, they experience play where conflict, say over a mutually desired toy, is experienced in the moment and then passes as quickly as it came. Children who have suffered trauma, however, hang on to the conflict and repeatedly experience the drama projecting it into one play interaction to the next.

The implication of the latter case is profound as the children grow into adults; the cycle of transferring and projecting the unresolved trauma and drama from one relationship to the other becomes relentless. Most of us can think of a person or two whom we have known that continually is trapped in this cycle. Whether at work, in our family or some other community circle, there are those that are prone to conflict and drama and often just the thought of interacting with them creates stress. Or perhaps, others become stressed when they know they have to interact with us! You see, we all fall victim to this transference and projection of unresolved trauma to a degree because trauma in our childhood is unavoidable. Even for the most well adjusted person, whether through a loss of a pet, a grandparent, a frayed friendship, or the divorce of parents or worse, we all experience trauma which then sets in motion the lifelong pursuit of our nature to heal. Yet many don’t.

For many, and as has been the case for myself for years, healing can be nothing more than a slog of repeated drama. Life is like a hamster on a wheel, just more of the same conflict transferred from one relationship to another. To understand this, we have to unpack the nature of relationship. Relationship, like a poultice, draws out what we need from others, and draws out what they need from us. And yet neither person is prepared for the bitter medicine of what results. The problem comes from our expectation of the relationship. We expect that it will make us better, make us whole, and yet that is not the purpose of it. The purpose of the relationship is to draw out of each other what we are meant to learn. And in many cases, we are unwilling to learn what we are confronted with; that perhaps it is us that is the problem. That we need to make changes and choose another way of being.

When we do choose to learn from the relationship, often the purpose of the relationship itself is fulfilled and comes to an end. A sign of healing is knowing when to let go or continue in the vein of an entirely new contract where both parties have come to a new depth of understanding of themselves and the other. It is rare, but it happens. A few years ago I made the decision to stop initiating contact with my friendships. This was primarily an inner exercise to challenge my need for validation and approval of others, but it was also an experiment of sorts to see how many of them would reach out to me, and for what reason. Several did not respond to the silence, another handful did but had something specific they wanted, much of little to do with relationship. A precious few sought me out in service, inquiring how I was doing and expressing concern and appreciation for the friendship. It is with this last group that I continue the friendships today, learning and challenging each other in the continual journey of healing. And as the proverbial door closes, a window opens and I have discovered a whole new set of friendships and relationships that are enriching and offer a further healing and lessons to be learned.

Inasmuch, there is deep wisdom in relationships and what attracts us to them, and them to us. They speak to us – drawing out what we have to learn from the other. When we recognize this then question becomes, are we prepared to accept the brutal truth of what the relationship tells us about ourselves?

Nine Twenty Four Fourteen


Am I standing too still,

or moving too fast

to capture the moments that speed past me?

Today is our 26th wedding anniversary, and I am deeply thankful for my wife and the relationship we have forged between us. Forged is such a perfect word, because forging is an outcome of heat and pressure – very relevant to our experience. As I steep in the satisfaction of the day, I am painfully aware of how much work our marriage has been for both of us. It causes me to wonder, is it this much work for everyone’s marriage? Or have I just complicated things because I have never been satisfied with status quo? Honey, you should have married a librarian…

Life stands between will, and willing

Frozen by the questions

of what matters,

and what makes a difference

Our marriage is like a film, spliced from a million fragmented moments of hardware store errands, poopy diapers, exhausted intimacy, choir concerts, teacher conferences, football games, track meets, camping among the Redwoods, laughing, crying, boredom, and regret for hurtful things that cannot be unsaid. Like Michelangelo and marble, I have mastered the art of apology.

Suddenly the simple seems complex,

and the complex incomprehensible.

The more I see my life from the perspective of the observer, the more I recognize it is of my doing, and it scares me. What and who I am is manifested of all that I believe myself to be, or not. And that frightens me more than it encourages. I fear that as I grow older, my non-beliefs outweigh my beliefs and suddenly Don Quixote’s quest doesn’t seem like such folly.

Rain returned today, soon turning golden grass green

And to peel paint on neglected railings on this monstrosity 

of a thirty something’s ego.

The Love They Have to Give

I have spent too much time in my marriage seeking the love that I thought I wanted, rather than accepting the love my wife was giving. This has been made especially difficult given that I grew up believing in the wrong message–that marriage is about finding the perfect spouse and being in love would always mean experiencing a blissful union. Wow. Was I not prepared for reality.

Marriage is about enduring

The truth is, my marriage has been more about letting go and enduring, than blissful moments. Not that there hasn’t been bliss. There are moments I recall distinctly when we have experienced it: Witnessing the birth of our three children. A particular dinner we shared at one of our favorite restaurants celebrating the start of my business. Huddling next to each other under cold sheets, amazed at the softness of her skin. These, and many more.

The challenge has been, however, that all of these are overshadowed by the imaginary image I thought marriage would be, and worse, the blame I put on either myself or my wife over the inability for us to achieve it. It wasn’t until I became so tired of trying to achieve something that was unachievable, that the truth of our marriage emerged. I was ready to see that the love my wife has to give has always been there. Waiting.

My wife is not demonstrative like I am. Thank God. She shows her love in the small things. Like the sweater she bought for me this week. The dinner she cooked last night. The thousands of meals she has prepared for our family. The flannel pajamas she sewed when the kids were little; the Halloween costumes she made from scratch; the house she painted all by herself with a 5 inch brush; and on, and on, and on.

The love my wife has to give has always been there. We just had to outlast the imaginary image, suffering the indignities of unmet expectations along the way until we learned to appreciate what we had to offer each other. And the strange thing is (I can’t believe I am saying this…), I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. This is not to say I don’t have regrets. I do…over things I have said and thought that were about me and the image. Even so, I just can’t imagine that I would have the appreciation for her, no, the deep respect for her if we hadn’t gone through what we did.

I shared this with her awhile back. “Honey, even if I didn’t love you, I have so much respect for you for staying with me all these years.” The response the image would have expected would be to have her jump in my arms and gush over the acknowledgment. She just looked at me with a wry grin and said, “You’re welcome.”

Now THAT is love!

All to say, when I am feeling particularly unloved in my marriage, I take the time to observe her in the small things she does for me and others. And when I recognize it, the question becomes, am I willing to accept it?

Know What Is In The Backpack

So, my brother in law is a clinical psychologist and we have had a number of conversations about projection and transference. At the risk of turning this into a debate on the merit of these behaviors, a basic understanding of the concepts are helpful. The bottom line is we carry a lot of stuff around in our backpacks. Stuff that we began collecting from the time we first opened our eyes and began absorbing the world around us. Some of it is good. Some, not so much.

Know what is in your back pack

It is imperative we have self-awareness of what is in the backpack because we unwittingly transfer and project much of what is in there on our spouse. Marriage is difficult enough without the confusion of all the needs, wants and desires that can be subconsciously thrown into the relationship. The simplest example I can share is this: My dad had an undiagnosed bi-polar disorder and a such, he self-medicated with alcohol and prescription drugs (or other) for much of his life. Needless to say, growing up in our household was a wee bit outside the bell curve compared to most of my friends families. He could never settle down, hence we moved a lot and oscillated between the brink of poverty and instant wealth. Neither of it lasted though which became the enduring “burden” that I learned to carry in my backpack, and ultimately project into my marriage. Though on the whole, our financial picture has been much more stable, it hasn’t felt that way emotionally. I have oscillated over the years between confidence and fear, of which my wife has had to bear the brunt of the dramatic swings in emotion.

Notice that I suggest know what is in your backpack, versus fix what is in your backpack. I don’t believe you can fix something if you are not in relationship, bounded by the obligations of marriage (admittedly, I’ve don’t have the experience of a lifelong companionship that did not have the formality of marriage. It’s hard for me to envision, however, though I am sure it happens, if rarely). I also believe in the grand scheme of things, that marriage is about healing through learning to put your needs and issues behind those of your spouse. For someone like me, that has been a lifelong work and if anything, has allowed me to become really good at apologizing…

How you do this? Well, that is a life-long work. For me, it’s been through therapy, painful mistakes, prayer, meditation, metacognition, and an over inquisitive mind that is fascinated with the cause and effect algorithms of the human psyche.

Regardless of how you travel this road, travel it. Get to know yourself. Know what is in your backpack and begin the work of healing with your spouse.

You Are Not Responsible For Their Happiness

My wife and I recently celebrated our twenty fifth wedding anniversary, and I’ve been giving thought lately to the lessons I’ve learned in our marriage. Many of them were hard fought lessons, further complicated by the fact that my parents weren’t necessarily the ideal role models. Married just over twenty years (that actually doesn’t tell the whole story and probably for another time but suffice to say it was the second of three marriages for my dad, each lasting over twenty years), they never imparted any particular wisdom to prepare us for a lifelong commitment together. Further, now that our three kids are entering adulthood and will hopefully be finding lifelong companions for themselves, I am feeling compelled to do what my parents did not–provide advice on how to prepare for a life in relationship.

As such, following are the key lessons I’ve gained along the way that have helped me in sustaining our marriage thus far:

You are NOT responsible for your spouse’s happiness

Of all the lessons that would have helped me early on, this is the one that would have saved us a lot of angst. There is so much to say here that I am not even sure where to begin. Perhaps with the moment it became painfully aware to me… It was about five years ago a number of things conspired to bring things to a boil for us:

  1. The business I had started a couple of years prior was on life-support and the financial pressure it had created in our marriage was virtually unbearable. We were living off the equity in our home with no foreseeable change in the future. Further, I was the only income earner in the household.
  2. The menagerie of unfinished house building projects hit overload with my wife–especially after the latest equity loan was diverted from finishing the addition to paying for living expenses due to the aforementioned lack of business income.
  3. The impact of having lost my parents in 2002 was finally becoming apparent and I felt more alone than at any other time in my life.

I’m sure there were a few other things going on but they were not as central as these. At any rate, there was a clarifying moment while in marriage counseling when, after hearing my wife relate how many times I had promised her that things would get better, and after they never really turned out like I had assured they would, it became clear to me that the root of all this was my insecurity and need for her approval.

If, on the other hand, I had just simply believed that she would be happy and content to be with me as I was, accept me for who I was, it would have lifted an immense burden on our relationship. This was not her doing–it was mine. My own hyper-need for validation that created the space for over-compensation in the relationship. I realized at that moment in the therapist’s office that I could never, ever, achieve all that I had promised her because it was for all the wrong reasons.

It was what came next that was perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever said to my wife. “I am not responsible for your happiness.” Truth be told, I’m not sure that is verbatim of how it went down and I am certain she would have a different version. But that is how I remember it.

My mom used to remind me of the refrain, “when the student is ready, the teachers will appear.” Certainly in this case, it was true. Subsequent to this confession, the resonant messages began to appear, essentially communicating the same thing: happiness is an inside job. I am responsible for my happiness. You are responsible for yours. We can rejoice in the other’s acceptance of responsibility for our own, but we cannot adopt the other’s. And like many things I have learned, it comes down to letting go. In acknowledging that I don’t have control over most things that happen to me, let alone to someone else.

From this place of owning your happiness, and not someone else’s, and your spouse doing the same, you will focus on the important things from a much more grounded, and pragmatic place. Just the simple act of asking yourself, “why am I doing this?” allows for a different conversation. One that, between two people that love each other, leads to mutual and beneficial outcomes.