ERP 381: When Your Person Is Leaning Out & What You Can Do About It — Dr. Jessica Higgins Answers A Listener’s Questions

By Posted in - Podcast July 18th, 2023 0 Comments

In this episode, the Empowered Relationship Podcast deviates from its usual format of interviewing experts to provide dedicated attention to addressing a listener’s thought-provoking questions.

The question centers around a familiar dynamic often observed in relationships, where one partner finds themselves leaning out of the relationship while the other remains invested and leaning in.

Listener’s Questions

  1. “How do you come to terms in a marriage of holding true to your commitment of loyalty for life, sticking through the “for worse”, and being able to trust your judgment at the time you chose your spouse? Specifically the self-blame of trusting yourself on the decision of who to marry, and/or breaking your own promise of being true to your word at the time.”
  2. “Understanding wife say I just want to be roommates, we work great as a team co-parenting kids and taking care of the house, and what this means coming on the heels of an affair?”

Quick Story

In the initial wake of the revelation, I thought wow I was an awful person as she brought up things I didn’t do or when she felt hurt, but through a year of discussions with a psychologist and an independent therapist I realized a lot of these are coming from her insecurities and anxiety and attempts at justifying her affair. I’m not without fault – I was not emotionally available as much as I needed to be for her and during our marriage she felt like I did things that made her feel like she needed to change things about herself in order to be someone who she thought I wanted her to be. (If that makes sense?). I’ve learned a lot of tools I can use, but a lot of them seem to work within the confines of making the marriage better, but right now she’s not there yet.

My wife came clean about an emotional affair she had and exhibited all the traits of limerence by blaming me for it, rewriting our history into a negative sentiment override, “I care for you but not in love with you”, and now maintains the position that she felt like we were roommates before the affair,  so she wants to keep living like that now while she works on herself. She’s been clear that she doesn’t want any deeper emotional discussions (unless it’s about the past), zero physical affection in any way, no “I love you’s” or pet names, etc.


We did 5 sessions of MC and got to the point where the counselor said we have a lot of great things between us but if she’s not committed to the marriage,  then it’ll be hard to do the work. The most striking line he said to my wife was “The problem isn’t with your husband, the problem would be with whoever happened to be sitting in this chair. ” She acknowledges she’s broken, gave too much of herself, and lost who she was as a person, but she’s in a highly stressful job and doesn’t want to seek a therapist or help on her own, she has said she just needs the space to figure out who she is and what she wants. She seems to want/expect feelings to come back naturally if it’s meant to be while we remain in this “friend” state and doesn’t want to force things between us.

I appreciate the work you do in helping couples and look forward to your podcasts each week.”

In this Episode

7:40 Listeners’s questions on how to come to terms with a leaning out spouse.

13:57 Coping with the pain and uncertainty of a partner pulling away.

17:00 Identifying the relational cycle and understanding the underlying dynamics in your relationship.

22:47 Embracing ambivalence: Discovering new paths through discernment counseling.

32:34 Rediscovering commitments and finding meaning in marriage.

43:18 The importance of developing fresh approaches to relating with your partner.

Dr. Jessica Higgins’s Recommendations

Disclaimer: Please note that the insights and feedback provided by Dr. Jessica Higgins are based solely on the information provided by the listener. Assumptions have been made regarding the listener’s willingness to work on the relationship, the duration of their partnership, and the absence of specific clinical diagnoses. As each individual’s circumstances are unique, the guidance offered should be considered general and not personalized advice. Dr. Jessica Higgins will do her best to address the listener’s question given the available information.

Acknowledge the Pain

Discovering that your partner has been unfaithful and witnessing their emotional detachment from the relationship can be an incredibly painful and disorienting experience. It’s natural to feel a wide range of emotions, including shock, anger, desperation, and sadness. During this time, seeking support from a therapist or therapeutic coach can be immensely helpful in processing these emotions and providing stability for both you and your children.

Identify the Cycle Together

Understanding the dynamics of your relationship is crucial to finding a way forward. In the aftermath of an affair, it’s essential to recognize that there may have been underlying issues and unmet needs that contributed to the breakdown of trust. This might include the experience of limerence, a state of infatuation or fantasy that can cloud judgment and lead to emotional affairs. By exploring these dynamics together, through exercises such as those found in the book “Hold Me Tight,” you can gain insight into each other’s perspectives and work towards rebuilding trust.

Make Room for Ambivalence

In situations where one partner expresses a desire to be roommates and wants to focus on personal growth, it’s crucial to create space for ambivalence. Discernment counseling, a specialized form of therapy, can be beneficial in helping couples gain clarity and confidence in determining the future of their relationship. This process allows both partners to explore their true desires and intentions while relieving the pressure to make immediate decisions. It also presents an opportunity for individual self-reflection and personal growth.

Do Your Work 

Throughout this journey, it is vital for both partners to engage in self-reflection and personal growth. This involves examining your own contributions to the relationship dynamics and acknowledging areas where improvement is needed. While it may be tempting to place blame, it’s important to take responsibility for your own emotional availability and commitment to the relationship. This introspective work can pave the way for creating a healthier and more fulfilling partnership moving forward.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Seek support to process and navigate the emotional impact of your partner’s actions and the current dynamics in your relationship.
  • Consider exploring the underlying cycle in your relationship and how protective moves from both partners contribute to disconnection.
  • Read “Hold Me Tight” by Dr. Susan Johnson for exercises and insights to help identify and understand the cycle in your relationship.
  • If possible, consult with an EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) therapist/practioner to expedite the process of identifying and addressing the cycle.
  • Make room for ambivalence and consider engaging in discernment counseling to explore individual feelings, desires, and the future of your relationship.
  • Take responsibility for your part in the dynamic, reflect on your emotional availability, and understand the reasons behind your protective moves.
  • Prioritize self-care during challenging times, ensuring you get enough sleep, nourishment, exercise, and support from loved ones.
  • Revisit and reevaluate your commitments and vows in the context of your evolving selves and relationship, considering regular check-ins to align with your current values and aspirations.
  • Focus on personal growth and developing new ways of relating, creating a different dance with your partner, even if they continue their current patterns.

Mentioned

Identify The Cycle – free pdf document

Hold Me Tight by Dr. Susan Johnson (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

*EFT Therapist Finder

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

ERP 015: Do You Have a “Unity” or “Journey” Mindset in Relationship?

ERP 058: Beyond the Wedding. What Is Marriage Really Like?

ERP 372: How to Work Together in Relationship for a Strong, Secure Connection — An Interview with Dr. Stan Tatkin

ERP 373: How to Embrace Ambivalence When Making Big Relationship Decisions — An Interview with Rachel Zamore

Discernment Counseling

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

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LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

In today’s episode, I’m going to be responding to a listener’s question, which was submitted via email. I want to encourage you, if you’re recognizing you have a lingering question that you perhaps haven’t heard me speak about on the Empowered Relationship Podcast, and you’re wanting to get some general input, I’d be happy to do my best to respond to your question. I have done this several times in the past, more when I was producing and providing the curriculum and content myself. I know most of the time in these current episodes, I’ve been interviewing other experts. So I’m taking a moment of pause on those interviews to answer this listener’s question. 

This listener is requesting to remain anonymous, therefore, I will not be reading their name. They’re giving some context to the question. I’m hopeful that some of my input or feedback would be helpful to many of you who are experiencing some challenges, or even experiencing this dynamic where one person is leaning out of it and the other is leaning in. This can be on a smaller, more subtle sense. and it can also be in a much more extreme sense, where one might be even contemplating, the person that’s leaning out, ending the relationship, or really in ambivalence about the relationship. 

I’ll read this listeners question. “I’ve listened to your podcast over the past year, and I enjoy it immensely. I think I’ve gotten through almost every episode.” Which on an aside, I want to just say, thank you for listening, and also, that is not a small thing. As I mentioned, we’re doing Episode 381, and I just appreciate your investment and really engaging in developing and growing yourself relationally. 

“I have two questions and/or suggestions for a show. It seems like you’ve had episodes on different parts of these topics, but not necessarily together. First, how do you come to terms, in a marriage, of holding true to your commitment of loyalty for life, sticking through the “for worse,” and being able to trust your judgment at the time you chose your spouse. Specifically, the self-blame of trusting yourself on the decision of who to marry, and/or breaking your own promise of being true to your own word at the time. Second, understanding my wife saying: “I just want to be roommates. We work great as a team co-parenting kids and taking care of the house,” and what this means coming on the heels of an affair.” 

They continue. “Quick story. My wife came clean about an emotional affair she had, and exhibited all the traits of limerence by blaming me for it, rewriting our history into a negative sentiment override: I care for you, but not in love with you. And now maintains the position that she felt like we were roommates before the affair. So she wants to keep living like that now, while she works on herself. She’s been clear that she doesn’t want any deeper emotional discussions unless it’s about the past, zero physical affection in any way, and no I love you’s or pet names etc.” 

Just on an aside, if you haven’t come across the term limerence, I will provide a couple of podcast episodes for you to learn more. 

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“Limerence, in a nutshell, is a heightened state of that romance phase, and it can be incredibly overwhelming for the person that’s feeling limerent. Typically, this can look like what we might see with unrequited love; this crushing in a really significant way where it almost feels obsessive, thinking about the personal, being overly consumed with them.”

Again, this can happen in those early stages of romance. However, researchers and theorists are still trying to distinguish how this is different, and they’re learning that perhaps certain people are more prone to this. Sometimes introverts who have had a rich inner world, and maybe they don’t always check out their thinking or their experience with others, might be more prone to feeling strongly for someone and allowing that to develop before checking that out with the other; reality-checking, or even disclosing one’s feelings. Also, they’re learning that a percentage of people that might have a disposition or even the makeup for being more obsessive compulsive in their thinking patterns, or even a little bit more addictive, or this high anxiety that there’s this compulsive nature to that that they’re recognizing, might be correlated. 

There’s so much more I could say about limerence. But I don’t want to go too far. I’m going to refer to the episodes that I’ll put on today’s show notes, if you’re interested in learning more. I think for today’s purposes, just recognizing this heightened state that can be quite consuming. 

On another aside, I’ve had many clients and even people give feedback that this term has been so helpful for them to encounter, to give language to this very intense experience. It doesn’t quite relate to that romance feeling. It’s much more heightened and much more extreme and intense. 

So continuing with the listener’s question. “In the initial wake of the revelation, I thought: Wow, I was an awful person as she brought up things I didn’t do or when she felt hurt. But through a year of discussions with a psychologist and an independent therapist, I realized a lot of these are coming from her insecurities and anxiety and attempts at justifying her affair. I’m not without fault. I was not emotionally available as much as I needed to be for her, and during our marriage, she felt like I did things that made her feel like she needed to change things about herself in order to be someone who she thought I wanted her to be, if that makes sense. I’ve learned a lot of tools I can use, but a lot of them seem to work within the confines of making a marriage better. But right now, she’s not there yet.” 

“We did five sessions of marital counseling and got to the point where the counselor said we have a lot of great things between us. But if she’s not committed to the marriage, then it’ll be hard to do the work. The most striking line he said to my wife was: “The problem isn’t with your husband; the problem would be with whomever happened to be sitting in this chair.” She acknowledges she’s broken and gave too much of herself and lost who she was as a person. But she’s in a highly stressful job and doesn’t want to seek a therapist or help on her own. She has said she just needs the space to figure out who she is and what she wants. She seems to want/expect things to come back naturally if it’s meant to be, while we remain in this “friend” state, and doesn’t want to force things between us. I appreciate the work you do in helping couples, and look forward to your podcast each week.” 

First of all, I want to acknowledge how incredibly painful and scary this is, to have your partner be turning away. I’m sure many of us, I will say for myself, when my husband in the past has felt distant or has had difficult feelings he’s been negotiating, and I felt like I wasn’t sure where he was at, it is unsettling and can be even a rattle. I’m confident that many people can resonate with the experience of feeling the distancer and pursuer dynamic. I recognize the person that submitted this question is in a current phase in the relationship where things have evolved and escalated. I can appreciate how painful it would be to hear that your significant other has had an emotional affair, is wanting to be roommates and co-parent, and not be intimate. To feel that wall and that divide, and how scary and painful that could be. I just want to acknowledge, it would make a lot of sense if you were having waves of different emotions, whether or not it’s shock, panic, anger, desperation, disbelief, indignation, embarrassment, shame, guilt, grief, sadness, fear, etc. There’s so much that might be at play here. So just wanting to encourage you to get support, and to help you be able to process all of this emotion in the current dynamics. This additional support, it will say, in whatever form or fashion that comes, if you can get that support to process some of these emotions and find some stability and clarity that will give you more groundedness, for your children, for your home, and for your marriage. 

As I proceed in giving some feedback, as it relates to this question, I recognize I don’t have all the information. and there’s some assumptions that I’m making here, that the person that submitted this is wanting to work on things. I did hear the question about the decision, and how can I uphold that decision in good faith when I made that decision so many years ago, perhaps? So that’s another assumption that this couple has been married for a number of years, and have been together for a number of years. Also, I’m making the assumption that your wife does not have a clinical diagnosis of a personality disorder of narcissism or some other thing, and also is not dealing with extreme or significant substance abuse or concerns in that matter. I just acknowledge again, there’s a lot of parts here that I may not be speaking to. So I’m just going to respond to the best of my ability about the things that are coming up for me as I read this question. 

So I want to really recommend the process of identifying the cycle together. The fact that your wife is open to having emotional conversations about the past, to me, that indicates that she’s got a lot of questions about the dynamics, how she has evolved or arrived at this place, having given so much of herself, having lost herself, so to speak. Likely, whatever emerged between her and the person she had the emotional affair with, that illuminated something in her; that awakened or really helped her recognize some deep longings that perhaps she was avoiding, suppressing, or denying. So I’d actually don’t think that in of itself. 

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“Yes, I don’t condone affairs by any means. However, when we can come in contact with parts of ourselves that we’ve lost contact with, that can be incredibly important. Because we’re not looking at how to just maintain relationship at all costs, we’re looking at bringing our full self into relating, and how two people, if we’re looking at a monogamous relationship, are co-creating together. That means bringing parts that might feel unwelcomed or a partner might not like, and that can be difficult. So that does perhaps sound like a part of the process.”

So to this point, being able to identify the cycle, meaning the places that partners lose each other, lose contact with each other. A real simple way to frame this is, we have our inside parts that are our attachment needs, our longings, our primary emotion; the things that are vulnerable and really authentic and genuine. Both people have that. When we look at how we relate to others, and if we’re going to look at an intimate relationship, how we relate to our significant other, this is incredibly vulnerable to share, and we all have ways in which we protect ourselves. This happens often beneath and behind the field of awareness. So this is happening subconsciously, unconsciously. That we protect ourselves, and we have certain ways that we do that. Typically, each person’s protective move hurts the other in those deep, vulnerable places. 

I’ll give an example here. But what I want to really just describe is, on many different interactions, that the way in which Partner A is protecting themselves lands with Partner B on a deep level, and when Partner B is feeling that hit, they’re going to be protecting themselves and have a protective move, and that protective move typically will hurt the other. So let’s just use the classic pursuer and distancer. Now, the distancer is often looking at how to feel some level of regulation, how to feel some level of okayness, feeling safe. So in the pursuer, they’re looking for more a sense of being together, are you there, and wanting to feel that sense of connection. However, the way that they might initiate that connection, in a protective way, is to ask questions, is to seek and seek understanding, to seek where are you. It can even feel a little bit attacking at times. It can feel critical at times. It can feel even interrogating at times. Again, without the intention. That’s not the intended result that they’re looking for. 

I’ll raise my hand here, I definitely in the past, and definitely still sometimes, have that pursuer tendency, where my genuine felt experience is, I want to understand or I would like to know more, and I want to feel connected and contact with you. Perhaps, sometimes if I’m feeling anxious on the inside, or I’m feeling fear, and I don’t show that vulnerability. I just go to protection, which might be my intellect to ask a question. Even if it’s not in a harsh tone, just that two signals of feeling some rattle in me or that anxiety, and then to feel a question, it might land with my husband as if something’s amiss. She’s asking me a question that’s pointed at me. Thus, I feel like I’ve done something wrong; I’ve let you down, I’ve failed you or it’s not good enough. That vulnerability exists. 

Instead of revealing not vulnerability, his protective move might be to get quiet, go slow, maybe even shut down, or maybe even distance. That that’s a way for him to calibrate. It’s a way to try to regulate the situation, to try to not feel so on his heels, feeling that defensiveness or that feeling like: Oh no, I’m not good enough. Or that shame, or something that might emerge. I’m not necessarily speaking for my husband, I’m speaking more in general terms of this distancer-pursuer. But those very protective moves of turning a little bit away, or even getting quiet or shutting down or slowing down, could feel distancing. So for the pursuer, those protective moves are going to land, with again, Partner A that’s a little bit more of the pursuer, in a way that could be even more triggering around: Oh, you’re leaving me, you’re not with me, I’m not assured that you’re still wanting to work on things or that we’re okay. Then again, it feeds into the cycle. So it could intensify, it could just continue to perpetuate. 

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“The thing about this cycle is there’s really no beginner or end. Meaning, any person could use a protective move that’s going to ignite that cycle, and it just continues to perpetuate. Both people feel pain and feel disconnected, don’t know how to find each other, and feel threatened.”

So in this instance, when we’re looking at this particular person and their relational dynamic, this could be extremely fruitful to look at, with perhaps support. Or you could even work with this individually. I would recommend using some curriculum. One really great book to work with would be Hold Me Tight by Dr. Susan Johnson. In that book, she provides many exercises, and that would be very supportive and starting to identify the cycle. To help, I will also put, on today’s show notes, a visual and some written out description, and an opportunity to journal and taking notes, a way to start to identify the layers in the cycle, as well as the way in which the cycle plays out; the direction and the moves in the particular partnership. Again, I’ll have that on today’s show notes at DrJessicaHiggins.com. You can click on Podcast. You’ll find today’s episode, which is 381, and on the show notes, you’ll find this download. I will title it Identifying the Cycle. Although, getting support from someone who’s trained in EFT, Emotionally Focused Therapy, will likely expedite, help the process be that much more efficient and productive. So if it is at all possible, I do recommend getting the guidance of an EFT therapist on today’s show notes. I’ll also put a link to how to find an EFT therapist, and that will give you the listings in your area and help you in your search. 

To further describe the helpfulness of identifying the cycle, is that neither partner is at fault. It’s looking at how each person moves through the world relationally, based on the experience they’ve had in their lives, likely their childhood and their life experience that lends to these protective moves, these relational strategies. The way that these two people relate, create a dance, and that dance, when both people are feeling hurt or triggered or threatened, and the way that they protect themselves, that particular dance creates disconnect and creates this feeling of pain. So when we can start to identify that, that can be incredibly liberating to see: “Oh, okay, this is starting to make more sense. When you are trying to please me, by being who you thought I wanted, there were parts of yourself that you weren’t able to bring, and thus laid dormant or felt suppressed, or didn’t have expression or didn’t feel welcomed or loved. So you did your best to be who you thought I wanted, and that likely landed with you in a particular way.” 

Now, again, I don’t have enough information to lay the whole cycle out here. But that pleasing, for some, can feel nice that I get what I want, or it feels like things are smooth and harmonious. But it also can feel a little unnerving. Everything’s great. I’ve had people that I’ve worked with it that are dating, and they will have some complaints about someone that they’ve been dating around: “Well, everything’s great. There’s no real indication of what’s challenging, there’s no variation.” So it’s harder to trust that great means great. It’s like, everything’s great, so there’s not a lot of diversity there. So it can help create this feeling of like, “I don’t know if I can fully trust you, or I don’t know if this is really safe.” Now, I’m totally making that up in this situation. However, the person that wrote this question, they did say, on the outside, one of my protective moves is to not reveal a lot emotionally. I wasn’t very emotionally responsive, or available, or engaged. Likely, that more reserved or contained way of expressing, maybe landed with his wife in a way where she felt concerned and had to please, and thus, the cycle perpetuates, and neither one feels particularly close or connected. 

So there’s relational dynamics here, there’s a couple system as we’re looking at this cycle; there’s a background to this, and there’s a development of this, and it’s escalated to a certain place. So to be able to look at that and look at the pieces can help start to make sense of how we got to where we are, and to give a lot more clarity and understanding to each individual’s experience, and also, a real indication perhaps of some of the work that could be helpful to do. 

One additional thing I want to say, as a potential reframe of her hesitancy of being close or affectionate, is that she’s really trying to focus on connecting to herself, what she’s experiencing, what she’s feeling, so that she can relate more genuinely more fully and authentically. I imagine, on a bigger level, that’s what you would ultimately want, is that she’s in on the relationship in a way where she is able to be vulnerable with you, and that the two of you can make contact with each other in deeper, more meaningful ways. 

My next point of feedback, honestly, could be my entire answer full stop, as it feels that important, which is to make room for ambivalence. If you didn’t check out the podcast with Rachel Zamore, I want to encourage you to check that out. That’s Episode 373 titled: How To Embrace Ambivalence When Making Big Relationship Decisions. This has so much to do with discernment counseling, and this is when one partner is leaning out and the other partner is leaning in, because they call this mixed agenda partners, which likely is why you got feedback from the marriage counselor that it’s difficult to work on the relationship and marriage when one person hasn’t fully decided or is not fully committed. So this is why the discernment counseling can be extremely effective to do before concentrated couples’ therapy. 

When I looked up discernment counseling, and Bill Doherty is the one that really founded and established the model of discernment counseling, the goal of discernment counseling is to give a lot of room and space for each individual. So likely each individual will get time, separately individual sessions, and will be able to explore a lot of the feelings and experiences and ambivalence, and to give that lots of room, so that there is a deeper level of understanding. Because what happens is if we feel pressure or we feel forced, it tends to support a resistance or a pushing back feeling, or feeling like we need to be defensive. So the process takes the pressure off, and the pressure of change is often the option for honesty, and clarity can really happen and it can emerge. So it’s really welcoming all feelings, so we can make that greater contact with what is true, what is genuine, and their real experience there that hasn’t maybe had the time, space, air to breathe and to be expressed, particularly for your wife and the way that she’s talked about losing herself, losing contact with what matters to her, what she longs for, what she’s afraid of or feels threatened by or insecure about. That that has been held on the inside. 

Also, if I think about this possibly even for you, that if you’ve not been as emotionally available, then there’s perhaps parts of you that you don’t make welcome, or that you deem unacceptable, or not relevant, or not safe to fully bring. So in some ways, this could give a lot of room and space for both of you to explore a deeper understanding, clarity, and real desire, what you would like to cultivate. In discernment counseling, they’re really looking at: do you want things to be the same, do you want to get a divorce, or do you want to create something new and different? So really giving some room and space around buying into the process, but giving lots of room around how to arrive to what choice do we want to make. 

The last point of feedback that I want to bring into today’s episode is to do your work. Now, as I’m responding to those listener’s question and the scenario that’s been laid out, I did hear that he was describing his wife blaming him, creating false narratives about the past together, and also distancing and setting some walls and boundaries and limits. This can feel threatening, it can feel scary, as I already identified some of the emotions and the waves that might come around this experience. That being said, that there is still choice. I think, in general, we can make much more informed choices when we have been able to get clear on our experience and understand all the layers. 

Now as we discussed in the Identify the Cycle and the process that can be had there to look at: what have been my moves, what have been my perceptions of my partner, what have been my secondary emotions, my primary emotions? All of these things can help us recognize the things that have been alive, and our motivations, our longings, our needs, our insecurities, our fears, and also the ways that we deal with that, that basically creates that dance with another as they’re also having their own experience. So the more that we identify our experience and how we participate, and how we contribute to the dynamic, we’re going to be able to choose more intentionally and mindfully. This also includes, how am I experiencing the current dynamic; what are my needs, what are my longings, what are my fears, and also, what are my limits and boundaries?

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“As cycles escalate and develop in negative ways, these dynamics can actually be very toxic, and we don’t want to participate in this; we don’t want to continue to perpetuate the dance of this disconnect cycle. So there can be ways to consciously choose, I’m no longer going to participate in this particular dance, here’s what I am willing to do.”

In some ways, it sounds like your wife may be attempting to do this in some form or fashion. I just want to encourage that this listener also can set some limits and boundaries for the health of his well-being. 

As I proceed around aspects to have deeper inquiry about, and some of this relates to his question around self-blame, vows, how could I have known who I was choosing when I was much younger? I’m going to be speaking to some of those specific questions. But I also want to comment that these questions can be coming from certain places. So one possible place that those questions might come from is a sense of: “This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t what I want. this isn’t fair. It’s not what I expected, and here it is.” So there could be even some sense of protest, being upset with self or being self-blaming. Or even like, how is this even designed that we’re choosing a life partner, and we’re making this decision when we’re way younger, and how does that work? So there could be, understandably, some upset here, and just questioning those vows, questioning that sense of what am I being loyal to, what am I committing to here? So the situation and the scenario is painful, as I already acknowledged. It’s crappy, it’s humiliating, it’s awful, it’s traumatic, it’s shattering, what was. 

With this, there is an opportunity to turn towards some of those difficult feelings, and I already addressed that. But really making a lot of room for these difficult emotions, that that will help bring some organization and relief often to have some acknowledgment of these very difficult feelings. 

The other thing that might be happening in some of these very specific questions around vows, commitments, the loyalty, it can be a way for people to try to give structure to things that feel very chaotic. It can bring some sense of clarity, and to have direction, to have some sense of discipline, or even, as I mentioned, organization that can create a sense of, I wouldn’t say comfort, but it can give some footing to what can feel very uncertain and scary and unknown, and chaotic, as I mentioned. So understanding, what am I following here; what is the commitment, what are my values, and am I still in service of those? Really having question around that, where’s my framework here? So that would make a lot of sense. 

So I’m just going to go through some of these opportunities for contemplation, that with some time and deeper inquiry, could be giving more meaning and purpose to the current evolution of things, and what’s possibly still developing and emerging. So we are not who we were 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago; we are different people, and so are our partner. So it can be difficult to still feel resonant with old commitments, old vows that came from a certain place of awareness and consciousness. As we evolve and develop, this is why people recommend it can be helpful to revisit vows, renegotiate, recommit, and to have a process of some level of frequency, whether or not it’s once a year, but to be able to touch in and to check in around: do these vows, do these agreements, and the way that we take care of each other or the way that we take care of the health of our bond? Are these still true, do they still resonate? That can be really, really helpful. 

So when you’re asking the question, if I’m talking directly to this listener, about loyalty for life, and really questioning that, I want to also invite what it is that was included in the vows. So likely, it wasn’t just one thing, which is the “for worse.” Likely there are many things that you were both aspiring to be devoted around and committed around. 

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“That’s part of the challenge with marital vows, is they’re often very aspirational; they’re not necessarily actionable, and they aren’t necessarily always that doable. So if we can make them more accessible, that can be something to work with, again, on a more frequent basis.”

I would recommend, if you haven’t listened to Dr. Stan Tatkin’s episode on his latest book, In Each Other’s Care, he does really break down difficult scenarios and helping people learn how to have rules of governance, and shared principles that the couple is actively engaged in. This would be one way of making our commitments actionable, doable, and that they can be revisited. That can be a process to really look at. 

With this, it can be helpful to even revisit what marriage means to you, and the definition of that, and where that still has heart and meaning, and value and purpose. Even in the midst of chaos, uncertainty, and upheaval, to try to find that place of centeredness around the heart and the meaning. It’s vulnerable, I can just even feel it myself, to really say: “I want you, and I want this to work. Here’s how I’m willing to show up, or here’s how I want to participate in holding ground for us. Even though you’re really asking for something that doesn’t appear to be in service of our connecting right now.” 

Similarly, in addressing the part of the question around how to stick through the for worse time, this can also be almost a guiding light, if you will. Again, I want to just acknowledge the upheaval and the discombobulation, even perhaps feeling disoriented around relationship and marriage. What does this all mean right now? That if we can really tune into, again, not only where am I finding purpose and meaning right now, and the sense of what matters to me, how do I want to show up, where is my principal in this moment? I mean, yes, it can be helpful to go back and look at, what were my commitments in the past, and also what’s true for me right now? This doesn’t even need to be vocalized. It can just be acknowledged, and given some space and attention. That can give ground to what is true, that can, again, help us make choices that are a little bit more informed that help us know how to negotiate these times. One way of also looking at this, sticking through the worst times, is the identifying the cycle. One of the things I heard in this listener’s question is the tendency to be not as emotionally available. So when we look at doing our own work, sometimes the hardest times can be the doorways to transforming, evolving, and up-leveling. 

So if we’re willing to lean into that, and what this might be able to teach us, that there can be so much to be gleaned and learnings in that. So if there is any acknowledgment of whatever part that you feel willing and able to acknowledge, and less about what’s happening in the cycle for the relational dynamics and that system, but more of what do I know about not being emotionally available, or how I might hold back, withhold, or not show my emotions to others? Has it been turned away from in the past, perhaps in childhood? Has it not been safe? Have I been mocked, made fun of, told it isn’t okay? 

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“There might be a lot of reasons why one chooses to not be emotionally available. Or perhaps in certain environments, we’ve learned that our intellect is going to be more responded to; that’s what’s more valued or appreciated or approved of.”

So we can look at the underpinnings of that, and that’s where some of the book, Susan Johnson Hold Me Tight, or even working with an EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) therapist can be very helpful in being able to unpack these layers even individually. So being able to look at: “Oh, this is a way that I protect myself, and I recognize how it makes sense, and there might be another way that I can relate with others that supports me and my need to feel safe, and my need to feel okay or valued or approved of, whatever the things are that are painful or even scary underneath. How do I perhaps take care of myself that also allows me to be emotionally available, so that I can be more connected, feel more contact with someone, like my wife or my spouse, and I can deepen in intimacy with my significant other?“

Once we have insight and awareness and understanding about this, we can start to develop new moves, and those new moves create a different dance. Even if your partner was to operate in the exact same way, it will be a different dance if we’re showing up differently. So that can be a way to approach this current scenario, in that: “I’m going to look at my part. I’m going to look at my tendencies, my moves, to understand where that comes from. How I can perhaps show up in a better way that takes care of my needs, and is in alignment with where I’m at and what I need, and also is perhaps being more available to the type of relationship we would ultimately desire or that I would ultimately desire.”

Lastly, I want to comment that whether or not the two of you engage in discernment counseling, again, giving a lot of space and support to the ambivalence, and really understanding what the two of you want to choose as far as what you want to work towards. There’s typically a timeframe for that, and allowing there to be space, but also that it’s not endless. Because as I’m hearing your wife, perhaps propose, is that there’s this organic, natural, evolving. However, it’s difficult to do that when you’re doing the same dance. So if you’re going to get support or operate differently, you want to give that some time, and you want to also put some frame on that. So that you can make some decisions that are somewhat like touchstones or anchor points. Some people choose six months, other people will choose, depending on where they’re at. So I also want to recommend perhaps that there are some times. It doesn’t have to be: “Oh, we absolutely know everything around how we want to move forward.” It could be: We’re making a point, this is a check-in point, and we’re going to try to make some decisions. If we need to renegotiate that, we can. But we have it intentionally in our mind that there’s a frame on this.” 

Then lastly, lastly is just to please take impeccable care of yourself when we’re in very chaotic and even moments of crisis; the self-care around sleep the best that we can, eating nutritious foods, movement, exercise, getting support from loved ones, friends, family, to feel that connection and that sourcing of relating, that perhaps we’re not going to be feeling in our primary relationship. I really want to encourage. Even if it’s hard, being able to just do it. I’ve known, just even when somebody’s feeling just so shattered in the grief of losing a loved one, that even eating is difficult, sleeping is difficult. So just tending, even if it’s drinking a smoothie, or some broth, or something that has a nutritional value and some calories, so that your system is getting that type of support. 

I realize there’s a lot here, I could talk a lot more. If you’re needing more support, I encourage you to reach out, whether or not it’s to me or another helping professional, to get some assistance and guidance. Again, we talked about how to just acknowledge the pain, identifying the cycle in the relationship, making room for ambivalence, most notably engaging in discernment counseling, and also being able to do your own work. Again, you can find today’s show notes where there’ll be a transcript, there’ll be key takeaways for you to work with. There will also be the download, Identifying the Cycle, that will help you have some journaling prompts, and also, the visual of this cycle that helps you be able to hopefully recognize and start to identify some of these aspects.

Again, you can find many more ways to get support on DrJessicaHiggens.com, as well as the show notes that can be found on the Podcast page. Again, today’s episode is 381. Thank you so much for listening, and until next time, I hope you take great care.

Signing Off

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching