In a counseling session with Jeremy and Rachel, one would blame the other, and the other would fire right back. This particular match was about "his irresponsibility," as Rachel termed it.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"He always lets me down," she said. "Every time I depend on him, he doesn't follow through, and I am left with some situation that is awful and I have to clean up the mess. He keeps doing it over and over."
The "situation" she was referring to this time was kind of a big one. Jeremy had forgotten to pay the electric bill, and the lights had literally gone out. She was not happy.
Jeremy was at no loss for a retort. "I do a thousand things right, and all you focus on is the one thing I forget," he said. "There is no winning with you. I provide for you, I take care of you, and I'm there for the kids, and one thing goes wrong and that's all you see." He had about the same level of anger as she did. They went on, pointing fingers at each other with phrases that usually began with "but you" or "that's because you." Each saw the other as the one who was causing the problems. I saw that this blame game was going nowhere, so I interrupted.
"Rachel, stop for a second. What are you feeling?"
"I feel like he is just so irresponsible and doesn't care. . . ."
"Stop." I said. "I feel like he is not a feeling. What is it that you feel when the lights go out?"
"I feel like he should . . ."
"Stop! I feel like he should is not a feeling, either. What are you feeling? Just stop for a second and see what it is you are really feeling when that happens."
"Well," she said, "I guess I feel angry."
"Nope," I answered. "You stay angry a lot to avoid what you are really feeling. You erupt in instant anger, and that is a reaction, not a feeling. If you were not angry, what would you be feeling? You get angry to keep from feeling something else. What is it?"
"I don't know," she said.
"Well, just sit with it. Let's see."
In a flash, her chin began to quiver and tremble. It became difficult to talk.
"What?" I asked.
"It's just like it was," she said, beginning to sob with the words. "It's just like it always was." As she spoke, her words gave in to sobbing, and she could barely speak.
"Tell me," I prodded.
Rachel then recounted how what was happening was just like what she had experienced a thousand times in a thousand ways while she was growing up. Her mother was bipolar, and her father was an alcoholic. She was used to the "lights going out." In a home filled with chaos because her parents often failed to show up for meals, parent-teacher conferences, sporting events and many other areas of parental responsibility, she was used to being disappointed.
As she went on, she began to sob more deeply. As she did, something happened with Jeremy. His entire countenance changed, as did his posture toward her. He scooted down the couch toward her and reached out his arms and held her while she cried.
"I never knew I made you feel like that," he said. "I am so, so sorry. I never knew."
Vulnerability and love
From there we began to unravel the mess that Jeremy and Rachel found themselves in. He would make some blunder, forgetting to follow through on something he had promised he would do. She would react with anger at him for being "irresponsible," and he would react at her for being so "controlling" and not seeing what he did right. She felt justifiably enraged; he felt unjustly accused.
The cycle was interrupted by one thing — what I have come to see as one of the most important things in any relationship: vulnerability. It took my interrupting Rachel's anger to get to the vulnerability underneath, but when her heart opened up, the most powerful force in the universe was set forth: love. When she began to show how vulnerable she was, Jeremy responded with love. As soon as she stopped being angry, powerful and judgmental, he was empowered by empathy and began to move toward that vulnerability with love.
Here is the key: A marriage is built on trust, and vulnerability is required for trust to do its work.
It is interesting that when Jesus was asked about divorce (Matthew 19), His answer revealed the reason Moses had permitted divorce — hardheartedness. When people hurt each other, if their hearts can get back to a soft place, a hurt relationship can be restored. The problem is that when people hurt each other, they often seek to protect themselves from further wounds by hardening their hearts. This makes connection and trust impossible.
So, the lesson in all of this is to make a covenant with each other that you will not harden your hearts. Never hold on to old wounds or be closed to working out your disagreements. Get vulnerable again.
Having a soft heart does not mean that someone remains open and vulnerable to abuse, attack, unfaithfulness or addictive destruction. Those require strong boundaries. Boundaries are ways of limiting danger and hurt when another person is in denial and not owning his or her side of the problem. Everyone needs that kind of protection.
Boundaries and limits are not the same as hardheartedness. A hard heart is one that has moved past feeling and refuses or is unable to be open when it is safe to do so. A soft heart offers forgiveness and openness and desires to work through the hurt of a conflict.
So, in your marriage, work on becoming able to do what Rachel did. She calmed her anger and began expressing her vulnerability, the hurt underneath. And that opened the door for Jeremy, as well. When couples are angry at each other, they are assuming a position of power, not vulnerability. It took a third party in the room to defuse the anger and get Rachel and Jeremy to a vulnerable, softhearted place.
I would suggest that you and your spouse talk with each other about vulnerability. Talk about when it is difficult for you to be open — which painful situations seem to close the doors of your hearts. A closed heart will look for comfort somewhere else, either in aloneness, an addiction, an affair, work or hobbies. So keep your hearts open to each other.
An uncooperative spouse
Some of you are asking, "What if my spouse is not open to that conversation? What if my spouse won't be vulnerable?" Good questions. The answer is for you to do two things. First, avoid a hard heart that refuses to be loving or open to working out issues. You can do that by being honest about your pain and allowing others to help you with it. You can also set boundaries to avoid further hurt or abuse.
Second, be clear about your expectations for your spouse. He or she must be willing to own his or her destructive behavior, express remorse for it and acknowledge an understanding of how that behavior is affecting you. Your spouse must then commit to a process to do things differently. That is basic confession and repentance. It keeps a relationship moving forward and involves a soft heart on both sides.
If your spouse does not get to that kind of softheartedness, you can still do the two things mentioned: set boundaries with an open heart and require a change in behavior before trusting again. That is a stance you can sustain, as it does not invite or allow future injury, but names the hurtful behavior for what it is while being open to reconciliation.
Hearts become hard because of hurt and sinfulness. We sometimes close down to one another because we have been wounded or because our spouse touches on an old wound that has not yet healed. That is normal. But we are called to deal with that and not allow it to turn to bitterness. We also close down because we rebel against God's requirement for us to humble ourselves and forgive others as He has forgiven us. If we keep our hearts soft, strong and protected, it will serve our marriages well.
Dr. Henry Cloud is the author of Never Go Back: 10 things you'll never do again.