If you loved me…

by Claire Maisonneuve

“If you loved me, you would agree with me and you would want what I want and think like I do.”

That’s what many of the distressed couples I see in my practice equate with love. These couples tell me they feel connected, loved and supported when they have minimal differences between them, when there is no disagreement and when they have the same level of desire for closeness.

When there are differences and disagreements, people complain of feeling invalidated, unloved and misunderstood. However, what gets in the way of most people having a good relationship is not their differences, but rather their inability to manage the fears and anxieties that arise when another thinks differently and has divergent desires, likes, wants and opinions. There is a deep existential anxiety that gets triggered in people when they realize their partner, child or another close to them is a different person and not an extension of themselves.

Jealousy is a prime example of differences being intolerable. There is no acceptance of separateness or boundaries. Part of the reason for this is that when differences arise, they are often experienced and interpreted as an assault. They are taken personally to mean that one of us must be wrong and/or we don’t care about the other person.

Although Abbey enjoys her in-laws, she doesn’t want to take every holiday with them. When she shares this with Stewart, he interprets this as Abbey not caring about him because she should know his parents really matter to him. He’s unable to hear about her desires and wishes because he feels so hurt. He also feels distressed because of his own thoughts and interpretations that Abbey doesn’t want the same thing.

Rhonda and Dylan have always enjoyed their nightly reunion with a glass of wine and updates of the day. Now, five years later, with Rhonda’s new lifestyle changes, she’s giving up drinking. Although Rhonda still looks forward to and delights in their nightly rituals of connection, Dylan is becoming increasingly sarcastic and ridicules her choice to stop drinking. This is creating conflict. The truth is Dylan is afraid. He fears that Rhonda’s new habit is the beginning of her moving away from him. He worries she would not want him as much if he doesn’t change the way she did. Unless he faces his fears and insecurities, Rhonda will withdraw from him, not because of his drinking, but because of his sarcasm and meanness towards her.

Unless we can accept that our partner or others we love are different from us, we are not really loving them. Rather, we are using them to meet our own need to be validated in order to satisfy our own insecurities and to receive the unconditional love we may not have received as a child.

When we need agreement in relationship, our love becomes conditional and is really more about co-dependency, emotional fusion and collusion. It says, “If we agree, I’ll support you, but if we don’t, I’ll withdraw.” It is a connection that does not allow for individuality. It’s more like a dictatorship than a democracy.

The challenge of marriage is the constant juggling act between preserving our individuality and sharing greater intimacy. Between holding on to who we are as we evolve and fulfilling our desire for togetherness. Between connection and separation.

True connection requires emotionally distinct people. Having clear boundaries and not being afraid to speak your truth is what allows you to move closer. When we are too afraid to disagree, face conflict, speak our truth and hold our own, we lie, play games and become dishonest.

This is usually when couples show up for therapy. One partner is simply trying to find their way towards reclaiming or establishing a stronger sense of individuality while the other partner does not want the change because the increasing differences feel like a threat.

I try to explain to couples the struggles they are going through are not indicative of a bad marriage or incompatibility. Instead, it’s the normal, natural evolution of their relationship. They are having challenges in juggling the need for autonomy and intimacy. It’s normal.

Sadly, however, many couples miss the point that their relationship is a laboratory to help through the growing pains of basic human challenges. This challenge includes the need to be respectful, kind and considerate of people’s differences.

When Abbey first tried to express her desire to Stewart, she did it with criticism and judgment. She would ask, “Do we really need to have your parents with us again?” Or she would say, “I can’t believe I have to put up with this. I didn’t sign up for this.” None of which were clear expressions of her desires or her ongoing love for Stewart.

When she learned to speak to Stewart in a way he could hear that she cared about him, but she wanted something different, they were able to negotiate their different desires. What she said sounded something like this: “I know how much your parents mean to you and this matters to me because I care about you. I’m happy to have them come on holidays with us sometimes. But I would really like some quality time with just you and our children. Let’s figure out a way to navigate both our desires.”

Notice what happens for you when someone you love wants something different from you. If you notice any resistance or negativity, you might want to examine the thoughts you have that may be creating fear. Then ask yourself, “Does what they want really matter to me? Am I willing to make space for their differences to show them I care about them?”

Claire Maisonneuve, MA, is a registered clinical counsellor and the director of the Alpine Clinic in Vancouver, www.anxietyandstressrelief.com

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