The Civil Wars

We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.
–Louise Glück

A few months ago, my husband and I lay under our down comforter, which felt far too heavy for a mild Florida winter. I felt empty and bored after a long day with the kids, so I roused an argument with Michael as an attempt to connect with him. I gripped and accused, firing bullets for all the ways he hadn’t been thinking of me. My assaults turned Michael into a cold wall of aloofness and dismissive rebuttals. I rolled towards my nightstand, refusing to offer another word. I wanted him to feel the impenetrable shield of my back.

I can trace these types of encounters all the way back to the beginning of our relationship, when we used to engage in monthly civil wars. I vividly remember one morning, only a few months into marriage, when a fight erupted about a ring of coffee that I left behind every day, despite countless reminders by my new husband that it bothered him. Before I could even think, the words “I hate you” spewed out of my 27-year-old mouth. 

As I shared with a mentor about these monthly civil wars, she said, “You two are like a lighted match and a puddle of gasoline.” Thirteen years later, after spending many hours working with couples in the counseling room, I’ve observed that we are not alone in this recipe for a perfect explosion.

I find comfort in knowing that love and hate are veins in the same heart.

My work as a therapist has taught me how the safety and intimacy of marriage can trigger emotions and body sensations that have been tucked away for decades. Time becomes irrelevant as trauma and attachment wounds inflicted against our younger selves surface in the present moment. At an unconscious level, we select a spouse as an attempt to resolve the pain of our childhood.

According to psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, “Many traumatized people expose themselves, seemingly compulsively, to situations reminiscent of the original trauma.” This process, called “re-enactment,” is covertly at play during the dating phase. My husband had no idea that when we signed our marriage license, I was also giving him sole custody over several “little girls.”

As a child, I learned that verbal barrages could get my blood pumping and make me feel alive in a desert of emotional needs. Still today, I feel a strange sense of calm and euphoria when grenades are hurled, and I actually feel panicked in the midst of distance and withdrawal. My little girl has high attachment needs and lives with voracious desire. Michael bears the brunt of my insatiability. 

On the contrary, when Michael’s amygdala senses fear and danger, his heart finds safety behind a brick wall that he constructed as a young boy, a creative strategy to preserve a tender and brilliant boy with rich desire. When Michael is hunkered behind his wall, I feel an insatiable desire for connection. Rousing an argument actually soothes my system.

That night in our Florida bedroom, after rolling away from Michael in bed, he tenderly whispered a prayer, inviting me to turn back and look at him. In soft words, he humbly asked if I would try to connect with him in a different way. His invitation disarmed my stubborn and exhausted soul. My little girl, covered in jagged shrapnel, had to strategically weigh the exhilarating power of her personal gridlock against the profound loneliness she felt inside. Minutes felt like hours.

Then, like the rumblings of a small earthquake, I inched toward him muscle by muscle, barely squinting at his soft brown eyes. As I took a deep breath, I gazed at the same eyes I looked into on our wedding night 13 years ago. My hands felt his skin, more dappled and rough now, with gray flecks in his beard.

“That was a holy roll” he said with tears in his eyes.

We prayed together that night, enveloped in the secure attachment of each other’s arms, thanking God that He would bring together this perfect storm to heal, satiate, and teach us to love and be loved.

Sometimes, in the midst of working through childhood stories, I feel a sense of impatience, wishing the body and heart would heal faster so that we could drink more deeply of the gift of marriage. In these moments, I draw on the words of my kind counselor, who would remind me, “We have all the time in the world.”

I’m grateful for the second-chance that marriage offers us to re-enact our childhood hurts and create a different end to the story. I’m realizing that I have all of eternity to redeem my little girl and her one precious look at the world. 

Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her three little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks.   She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael cofounded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty, and redemption.