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Why hurt people hurt people

Posted October 20

By Kimberly Giles and Nicole Cunningham

Question:

My wife continues to bring up all of my mistakes from the past with any little issue in our marriage. No matter how many times I apologize and try to make amends, it seems that nothing is ever good enough for her. I’m trying to be patient and hope things will change, but everything is always my fault. We have some really big issues in our marriage which I want to solve, but how can I even begin when she says I am the problem and she isn’t? There is fault on both sides.

Answer:

In order for you to get some peace here and learn to communicate with your spouse without fighting, you must first see her and your behavior more accurately.

We all hurt people when we are in pain or fear. No matter what the circumstances are, it is only from our pain that we attack others. This means that attacks are really more about the attacker and their fears than they are about you, the victim. Think about that for a minute.

To understand your wife (and her need to continually bring up the past) I encourage you to look deeper into her life and heart, with a greater level of compassion. When she brings up the pain she has experienced and holds it over your head, it’s just because she is still hurting and scared. She also finds it necessary to cast you as the bad one, because seeing her own faults would be more painful than she can emotionally handle.

All bad behavior comes from two core fears, the fear of failure, not being good enough and the fear of loss, being taken from or losing out. When you can clearly see which fear is in play with your wife (and it could be both of them) you will see the attacks differently. You will also have more compassion, because you will see her as scared more than mean or bad. When you see her bad behavior as fear, you will begin to disassociate yourself from the attack and experience more compassion for her and yourself.

There is an Understanding Your Marriage worksheet on my website that can help you delve deeper into the fears that are showing up in your marriage. I encourage you to fill it out and be really honest with yourself.

It takes a brave, rational and objective person to be able to disassociate from their pain and fear, and see the ways they have contributed to a problem. Most of us are not good at this. Instead, we exhibit a lot of blaming, projecting behavior.

There are several ways you can bring more compassion and love into the conflicts and confrontation you experience in your home:

1) Choose to see every attack as a request for love. People who attack you are in pain, because of their fears for and about themselves. If they have a fear of failure they need reassurance and validation that they are still worthy of love and understanding. They need to be reminded that all people have the same value. If they have fear of loss, they need reassurance that things will work out OK. I tell my spouse and children, if I get mad or upset, just remind me that I’m good enough and that God’s got me safe in his hands, and I will probably calm right down. (I only get upset when I have forgotten these two truths.)

2) Choose to see meaning in everything. I love to read about the strength and optimism of Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor. He was the first to discover that when you see meaning in every experience, even the most brutal ones, you will suffer less. I choose to see life is a classroom and believe we are here to learn and grow. This brings meaning to every interaction with my spouse, because I see it as today’s lesson on love. When I see every interaction as a lesson, I naturally challenge myself to be more mature and show up with more love. This small perspective shift will allow you to suffer less in the problems.

3) Focus on improving yourself. Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This is one way to face negativity, criticism and fear. Take them as a challenge and rise above the attacks and choose love anyway. When you refuse to take the bait and join in the fight, it also highlights your spouse’s immature behavior and she can see it better. She would prefer you to sink to her level and behave badly back (this would give her more ammunition to cast you as the bad one). If you refuse to sink to her level and calmly show up with grace and kindness, she will be forced to see that she’s the one who is in the wrong. Don’t do this from ego though, to show you are better than her. Remember you have the same value all the time, you are just learning different lessons.

4) Healthy communication — Accept responsibility that you are 50 percent of the problem in your communication. Even if the way your spouse behaves is not heathy, you can still create change and be more respectful and loving. It’s not easy to stay respectful when you are being attacked, but you can do it with some new tools and practice. There is a worksheet on mutually validating conversations on my website. It involves being willing to see her as the same as you (not casting her as the bad one) and being willing to ask questions and listen first, before you ask her to understand you. When someone is in fear and attacking you, what they need most is validation and reassurance to calm their fear. Only when their fear is quieted will they be capable of hearing you.

5) Focus on the future, not the past. Too often we drag up the past and use it to toxify the present. When we bring up the past we are also talking about things the other person can’t change, and it makes people frustrated and defensive. Make the decision to keep the focus on future behavior, not past behavior. They have control over the future and we can make changes there. Be prepared to ask your spouse if she would be willing to let the past go and focus on what you are both willing to do differently moving forward.

(You might want to each write down on paper all the things in the past you are still hurt about. Agree to let them go and forgive, so you can both do better moving forward. Put these papers in a box and bury them deep in the backyard. Make an agreement that you won’t bring up those past mistakes ever again, unless you are willing to go dig up the box first to do so.)

Healing relationships takes time and takes commitment. See if your spouse wants a better relationship than the one you currently have, and explain that you can’t create happiness at the same level of thinking you were at when you created the problems. You must learn something new.

Find a course, coach or counselor who specializes in dealing with fear and upskilling your communication, and preferably one who works with each of you independently. We find that couples do better when each person works to fix their side of the problems on their own first.

Despite all of the pain and the uncertainty, remain in trust that this is your perfect classroom. This set of circumstances has shown up for a reason (to help you grow) and it is exactly where you are meant to be. You always marry your best teacher and when you choose to see her as your teacher (who is meant to push your buttons so you can work on them) it will change how you feel.

You can do this.

Kimberly Giles is the president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is the author of the book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and a popular life coach, speaker and people skills expert.

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