My good friend, Matthew, called and said his wife was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. My friend was beyond himself in bewilderment over his wife’s unusual state of mind. His wife, Marianne had always been what everyone considered a high performer and super competent. She had an MBA and ran a successful bank. She had raised two kids while working full time and never seemed to miss a beat. She was the one who would deliver a hot meal after someone had a baby. Matt traveled frequently as a consultant and it never seemed to bother Marianne. She would carry on and manage the many demands of her life as if she were a professional juggler.
I asked Matthew how he was feeling about this new twist in his marriage. He said, “I feel terrified. What in the world is going on?” He nearly shouted into the phone.
Matthew and Marianne are like so many couples. He believed that to be a good husband he needed to accommodate his wife at all costs. He had always worked so hard to please her. He came from a family where his mom left his dad because he didn’t please her. Matthew had internalized that loss and vowed he would please his someday wife, so he wouldn’t be alone and abandoned like his dad was. He didn’t want to become his dad—sad, sullen, and drunk most nights, sitting in a dark room.
Marianne learned early in life to please. Her dad was a demanding perfectionist who had risen quickly through the ranks of the military. He was precise and exact and demanded that his wife and children perform at his level of expectations. His lack of warmth created an anxious brain inside of Marianne, but up until this point, she had been able to keep all of the balls in the air and make it look effortless.
You can see how their background set them both up to please one another in marriage and to accommodate each other. The problem with accommodation is, it sets us up to become dependent on the other for validation that we are pleasing and performing well. When inevitable times of stress and disconnection come in a marriage “accommodation” can cause tremendous anxiety if the pleaser fears they aren’t pleasing.
When we are dependent on others for validation and approval––approval that our performance is making them happy and they are applauding––then we stop bringing our true self into that relationship. At the core of humanity, we have to ask ourselves, was I created to perform or to be a genuine human being, a person?
If we feel like we can’t please our spouse, or whomever we need approval from to feel sufficiently validated, then instinctively we don’t allow ourselves to be known. We start hiding our true self from our spouse. We hide our fears and insecurities and try to cover up by performing and making sure the other is happy. We can’t let the other see who we really are and then there is zero potential in the relationship for authentic knowing.
God said that Adam knew his wife, Eve. God refers to this knowing in relationship to himself and Abraham. God designed us to be known and to know others. If we get stuck in the performance trap then we sure aren’t going to open up our hearts and let anyone in. We aren’t going to know ourselves and if you don’t know yourself, how can you invite your husband or wife to know you?
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. affecting 40 million adults, age 18 and older. We are an anxious culture. Imagine, if you believe that you must perform to a certain, mostly unknown standard, and internally you know you aren’t measuring up, how can you not hide and isolate from others?
If you remember the Genesis story, it was all so good, until that fated day in the garden when Adam and Eve decided to cross the one and only boundary God set for them in the garden. After they did, their first sinful instinct was to hide. The intimacy he and she once shared with one another and with God vanished. The freedom and peace they once so freely enjoyed turned quickly into shame, and shame says you are not enough and you never will be. Our human response is to cover ourselves with the proverbial fig leaf and try to look good even though we are terrified the truth will come out––we aren’t adequate and everyone can really see that.
In some ways, we all feel naked in this world. Instead, of being okay with our vulnerabilities and bringing those inadequate feelings into marriage, we have been trained to put up a front. Instead of marriage being a place to be known and loved and inviting our spouse into those scary spaces inside of us, we put on our armor and keep them away. Or we accommodate and try our hardest to make them happy. Neither option creates an intimate marriage. Instead, it creates an anxious marriage.
You may be thinking, “OK, so there is a lot of anxiety in marriages and I’m relating to some of this, what is the solution? What do I do?”
It’s not like I have a one, two, three and this is all going to be better. There is a mystery to marriage and it takes a lot of grace to allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn different ways of being together. It’s not a one, two, three processes, I could tell that’s what my friend Matthew wanted on the day he called me with desperation in his voice. To recover from a marriage that has been based on accommodating one another and pleasing the other takes time. It’s like we need rehab for pleasers. If I were to lay out a framework, here is what I would suggest.
- Recognize and grieve your losses. What I mean is, Matthew had a huge loss in childhood. His mom abandoned the family. Marianne had a huge loss as well; her dad never saw her as a person and didn’t take time to know her. All he wanted was for her to perform.
- Begin the process of learning how to stand on your own two feet. Stop demanding the approval of your spouse.
- Turn your focus away from taking care of your spouse’s emotions and focus on your own. I don’t mean, stop caring about your spouse emotionally, I hope you never do that! What I mean is, stop trying to manage his or her emotions. Let them feel what they feel and notice what you feel. Give empathy to them when needed, but don’t pick them up like they are yours to fix. Fixing causes a ton of anxiety because in all truthfulness, you can’t fix your spouse’s feelings. Whatever they feel is what they feel. You can care, you can meet needs, but you cannot fix them.
- Stop needing them to be okay for you to be okay. When you need someone to be okay for you to be okay, you have to step away and center yourself. You can’t lean into someone like you are a tripod and you can’t stand on your own two feet. You can! I’m not saying you don’t want to be close, hopefully, you do. But closeness is diminished if we insist that our partner be a certain way for us to be okay. If that is the pressure, you can see why your spouse wouldn’t want to show up as an authentic person.
Let’s face it, a continual, steady, and united love doesn’t come instinctually to any of us. Although love takes work to cultivate, it isn’t something we can “work up” within ourselves. Remember, love is not a performance and it does not originate from us. God is love. To become a great lover we must first receive the extravagant love of God and become secure in that love.