It seems as if we live in a society full of surface dwelling people in every sense of the phrase. Avoidance and rationalization are our first forms of defense. We especially do not like to go deep below the surface, especially when it comes to our relationships and psychological health. However, this seems to be where life was meant to be lived. We all ideologically know that relationships make or break our quality of life, yet we choose to focus on external things like career, money, and experiences that are temporal in nature and only touch on a part of us. These things make parts of us come alive in temporary instances, but do not seem to have the staying power to positively impact our self-worth like healthy relationships. On the other hand, we seem to expect relationships to just work out naturally and if there is conflict it must mean that the relationship was not meant to be or that we have not found the right person. We know that in this life, “You can’t take it with you when you go,” is a true enough statement, and the value of legacy is more about who you are then what you are, but still we stay on the surface. Why?
Relationships require the ability to relate to others who are different from us. That is a simple, undeniable fact. This ability is a developed skill and does not come easy, especially in a culture that values individuality over the collective group. Our culture of divorce, sex-first relationships, social media, and marketing does not help the cause either. We seem to have no idea how to do relationships. Although there are good models out there, we are in a continual search of any way to have relationships that do not involve us being vulnerable and we are failing. One of the ways we fail to get below the surface is our quick judgement of people’s behavior. We are quick to judge behavior as right or wrong and draw a line quickly based on our judgement. We are simple minded in that we make a judgement about a person simply because of some behavior that is aversive to us. This is very apparent in marriages and other monogamous relationships, and especially in those involving a victim of trauma and complex childhood trauma. Take the case of Samantha who was sexually abused as a child. Samantha is an adult now who does not like sex, but she has had a lot of it. Each time she does, she relives her shame by falling into a submissive role. In other words, Samantha is living out her self-value in a reenactment of her trauma. On the surface, this behavior can be interpreted as “slutty” or “sexually liberated” but below the surface we see a wounded individual starving for a fulfilling identity that doesn’t involve her being used.
If someone is not willing to “go deep” and understand Samantha’s behavior empathetically she will continue on this repetitive shame cycle which ends in a place she learned to accept a long time ago in her childhood. Although Samantha is an obvious example of bad behavior misinterpreted, we all are guilty on some level of both “acting out” and misinterpreting other’s “acting out.” When we fail to recognize with empathy the meaning behind other people’s behavior we cease to be empathetic. In turn, we place that person in a box labeled “bad”. In other words, we have failed to relate skillfully. There is not a marriage or relationship that ends up in therapy that is not guilty of these mistakes. In the case of marriages involving trauma survivors, it is often the survivor who is labeled “crazy” while their partner seems to be the one who is suffering because of this person’s acting out. The trauma survivor is often told by professionals that they need to go get some individual work done before they are able to work as a couple. Why can’t the relationship itself be a healing place? Why must the survivor be put in their shameful place as the one with the problem? In many cases, it is indeed advisable for someone to get individual help, but in a lot of cases I do not see that as being the case, especially when there are people in their lives who are willing to connect and work through the relationship with them.
In the case of Samantha, her behavior hit an all-time low when she cheated on her husband. She returned from a night out in tears, full of shame and sorrow knowing that she had just validated her own value based on her being used. Samantha and her husband ended up in my office hurt, scared, and angry. Samantha was shut-down and ashamed. Her husband was insecure and angry, lashing out at the nature of her offense. Rightfully so he was devastated, and sure enough she owed him some answers. Throughout the progression of therapy it became evident that the nature of her acting out was not rooted in some sexual escape and was not even related to any conflict in their marriage. Quite contrarily, her acting out was rooted in her not feeling worthy of the love her husband and family had for her. Her acting out was a deep seeded need to be in a familiar place. This is why childhood is so important, it creates our familiar places. If you were raised in a neglectful, abusive environment, it is likely you will seek these out in your adult relationships.
Samantha knew she needed the love and connection of the healthy relationship her husband offered, but the sense of intimacy was overwhelming. She ran from that closeness, knowing she was on a bad road to shame, but unable to stop herself. She completed her cycle and woke up on the verge of losing it all. As her childhood wounds were exposed in the therapeutic environment, her husband was able to reinterpret her behavior. He was able to see it as behavior that was actually more harmful to her. He was able to see her through empathetic eyes. This connection raised the safety level in the relationship. Her husband’s ability to “go deep” and see the trauma allowed for communication and trust development to ensue. Her husband could have taken society’s free out and divorced her as is customarily accepted with infidelity; however he chose to tend to the underlying emotional needs that were being expressed in her behavior. As they were both able to acknowledge these needs they were better able to communicate them in appropriate ways. In turn, they were able to clearly hear each other’s needs and give their partner a chance to respond appropriately.
Healthy relationships are a dying commodity in our culture. People do not trust each other and the world is increasingly being viewed as unsafe. One expert in describing our culture coined the phrase “Empathy Deficit” and I think this is observably true. However, we need to consider the ramifications of living on the surface and failing to “go deep.” If we refuse to be vulnerable and listen rather than just stop our understanding at the behavioral level, we will never achieve the level of connection that is necessary to sustain a truly quality life of health, well-being, and legacy. Understanding that we are all wounded, some deeper than others, puts us all on the same boat. No one is better than another, and everyone is in need of connection. Start by offering a listening ear and understanding with empathy why those who frustrate you are actually acting the way they do. You might be surprised how much you have in common.