“I know she is capable of offering deep care, but there are moments when I don’t feel she actually listens to me,” my husband Michael says to our marriage counselor. I smile nervously at the irony that he’s married to a professional counselor who at times struggles with listening.
My husband begins by describing a situation that occurred the previous day involving one of our daughters. She crawled under our comforter after her sisters fell asleep and confessed that she had been feeling lonely on the playground. I felt compassion for her while simultaneously feeling anxious as scenes from my own life slowly surfaced. Suddenly, I was back in the middle school cafeteria feeling panicked as I looked for a place to fit. With my daughter, I was able to track with her, listen thoughtfully, and lovingly attend to her needs despite being triggered in some of my story.
Later that same day, however, my husband and I took a walk, and my ability to listen and simultaneously contain my own story was far more hazardous. When he began to describe how this conversation with our daughter reminded him of a memory from his childhood, my heart rate began to rise. As we rounded the loop of our neighborhood, I suddenly felt like the bottom was falling out from under us; my brain started to feel dizzy and my stomach nauseous. Scrambling internally, I began throwing out solutions to him and reframing his perspective to try to make him–and myself–feel better. His face looked forlorn and disappointed by my quick fixes. While I knew at some level I was missing his need to be joined in a place of hurt, I found myself scrambling to soothe. I frantically sought to reassure him as if my safety depended on how well I could mitigate his pain and thus soothe my internal world.
When I reflect on that moment, I realize that I didn’t have it in me to care for him that day. I wish that I would have kindly said, “This sounds really important, but I am exhausted and taken out by my own story right now. I can’t really honor what you need.” In these places where someone close to me is experiencing unrest, I have noticed a compulsion to pull them out of their negative feelings. Suddenly, I have a sense that the train is leaving the tracks, and I have to keep the locomotive safely in motion or danger will ensue.
Sitting in the marriage counseling session, I realize that the terror that I felt over my husband’s trigger is connected to my own story. As a girl, I perfected the art of scanning a man’s emotions for any stressors, shame, or inadequacy. Every night at 5:35 p.m., I would read my dad’s face as he walked through the door, noticing whether his face or body looked tired, carefully scanning for any agitation at my mother or noticing any undertones in his voices. I would work to soothe his stress before his anger escalated to rage.
As we describe the scene to our counselor, my body begins to shake. I notice the pressure that I felt as a little girl. The tears come as I utter the words, “I can’t….I can’t….I can’t…bear the weight of his pain anymore.”
In the last few weeks as we’ve reflected on this conversation as a couple, I have asked my husband for a do-over. When I sense his stress, I am trying to pause, notice the panic rising in me, and consider my choice to offer care. When I don’t move quickly to caretaking, I am left to sit in my own pain.
In the past, I would extend care to keep myself safe but not always out of a gospel love that involves freedom and choice. While I have needed this strategy for my survival, today it is a recipe for resentment, and as I’m reaching over to try to carry someone else’s cross, my actual need gets buried.
True love is allowing ourselves to experience our own pain and suffering and allowing others to bear their own cross as well.
This enables us to open ourselves to experience God’s comfort. Just like our daughter was brave enough to come to us for comfort when she was hurting, we need places to fully experience our pain and where redemption can happen as we are joined in those places by God and others. To live a life of love, without trying to protect, rescue, and manage others, we must allow ourselves and others to feel the sufferings and loneliness of this life, trusting there is One who is greater and stronger, who has experienced the most extreme isolation and betrayal, and who can be perfectly present with us and ultimately soothe, comfort, and mitigate our pain.
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.