controlling behavior, loving behavior
When Zach and Tiffany started consulting with me, they were on the brink of divorce after 16 years of marriage. Neither of them wanted to end the marriage, but both were unhappy. Both of them believed that their suffering was caused by the other person, and both could articulate what the other person was doing wrong.
“Tiffany is so detached and indifferent most of the time, and when we are together, she is so critical of me. It seems like I can’t do anything right in her eyes. I try really hard to please her, but no matter what I do, it’s not enough.”
“I just can’t get along with Zach. He’s a really nice guy, but I just don’t feel anything for him. I feel annoyed with him a lot and I really don’t know why. He just annoys me. I feel like he always wants something from me and I just don’t like being around him. And he’s damn good! What is wrong with me that I don’t like it when someone is so good?”
I immediately realized that the main problem with this relationship was that both Zach and Tiffany were stuck in various forms of controlling behavior, but neither was consciously trying to control.
Zach was the caretaker. He tried to control himself by being a “nice guy” and doing whatever he thought Tiffany wanted, including cooking dinner every night, doing laundry, and taking care of the kids, even though they both worked. He secretly believed that if he was nice enough, he could control Tiffany loving him and arousing him. What he didn’t realize was that his courtesy actually “pulled” Tiffany, and that was one of the reasons she kept her distance. Deep down, Zack was very afraid of being rejected and tried to control Tiffany without rejecting him.
Tiffany tried to control Zach primarily with her criticism. She was critical every time she felt Zach wanted something from her that would make him feel safe and loved. She had a secret hope that if she criticized him enough, he would stop pulling her for affection, sex and attention. Unconsciously, Tiffany was very fearful of fulfillment and tried to protect herself from Zach’s absorption and control. Also, Tiffany couldn’t figure out who Zach was because he was putting himself aside to please her. She couldn’t connect with him until he was truly himself.
Everything Zach did to protect against rejection was due to Tiffany’s fear of takeover, while everything Tiffany did to protect against takeover was due to Zach’s fear of rejection. The more Zach pulled kindly, the more Tiffany pulled back, and the more Tiffany pulled back, the more Zach pulled. What was the way out of this protective circle?
Both Zach and Tiffany needed to learn how to lovingly take care of themselves rather than trying to control the other. Zack had to learn not to take Tiffany’s behavior as a personal ill will. He needed to see that her detachment was due to the engulfing fear he was using, but he wasn’t the cause of her fear. She had this fear long before meeting him. Zach also needed to start loving himself instead of being “nice” to Tiffany. He needed to learn to take responsibility for his own well-being, and not depend on Tiffany. By learning to take care of himself, he will naturally stop pulling Tiffany out of self-respect and safety.
Tiffany needed to learn to tell the truth without blaming or judging. Instead of withdrawing and criticizing, she needed to stand up for herself and set limits to love with Zach in order to overcome her fear of being consumed. She needed to learn to say things like, “Zach, I appreciate the dinner you made, but I feel like you made it expecting me to love you now, not because you wanted to make dinner. I would prefer that you do not cook dinner, unless you do it because you really want to and without any expectations. I feel like I’m being pulled, and that’s not good.”
Zach and Tiffany decided that they should learn to love themselves and then see what happens to their marriage. Fortunately, because they both dedicated themselves to learning to take full, 100% responsibility for their feelings and needs, they were able to move out of their protective, controlling circle into the circle of love. As they learned to take responsibility, their love for each other gradually returned.