The “bully spouse” is encountered with some regularity in couples counseling. This partner could be male or female. The key characteristic among bullies is that they do not listen to or heed their partner’s feelings, point of view, preferences, or needs. Specifically, bullies interact in a number of ways:
- Bullies see only their own point of view.
- Bullies do not reflect fairly their partners’ point of view before stating (or re-stating) their own.
- Bullies interrupt their partner’s attempt to explain their point of view, feelings, wants, or needs. This, even if the bully had asked their partner, “Help me understand.”
- Bullies respond to their partner’s point of view, feelings, wants, wonders or needs with sarcasm, mockery, minimizing, or diminishing their partner’s feelings or needs in comparison to their own.
- Bullies insist on seeing the worst in their partner, not granting them the benefit of the doubt, judging their hearts and motives, and refusing to hear or believe their partner’s explanation.
- Bullies put self-protection first, out of balance with protection of their partner (emotionally, physically, through allocation of resources, etc.).
- Bullies lack empathy.
- Bullies blame their partner for the couple’s interactive pattern, refusing to take some responsibility or quickly minimizing their own part in comparison to their partner’s more egregious part.
- Bullies are quick to complain and slow to compliment; noticing what their partner does “wrong,” but rarely what their partner does “right.” (In Gottman terms, this is one example of Negative Sentiment Override).
- Bullies play the victim, bypassing whatever hurt, inconvenience, disrespect, or injury their partner noted, and turning the conversation back to their own pain, inconvenience, injury, etc., making their own experience the sole issue.
- Bullies “blow up” conversations before mutual understanding is achieved, through escalation of harshness, volume, crying, yelling, etc.—for which they blame their partner—followed by hijacking the meeting and bringing conversation to an abrupt end’ perhaps even storming out as they complain they “just can’t take it anymore.”
- Bullies gaslight. Gaslighting is psychological manipulation that twists another’s correct observations to make them question their own senses, or even sanity.
- Bullies insist upon being granted grace for bad behavior because they’re “not perfect,” but do not grant grace to their partner for the same infractions.
- Bullies “listen” to their partner’s disappointment over a past incident, but when a similar scenario unfolds, they forget what their partner asked for, and do as the same as they’ve done before.
- Bullies insist upon their own way.
- Bullies build alliances with other family members & friends by painting a one-sided narrative that vilifies their spouse and turns others against their partner, often in contexts where the partner has no voice.
- Bullies continue to employ past offenses as weapons, even after understanding has been reached, a sincere apology made and received, and reformations made.
Bullying exists on a spectrum. To identify with one or more of the above, or to see one or more of the above in our partner, does not a bully make. Some of these are employed as a matter of course as we navigate life as self-interested persons. The key is the ability to balance self-interest with the interests of others.
On an extreme, bullying can be seen in people with low Emotional Intelligence (EQ). EQ was coined by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, and popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. Healthy EQ refers to “…a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” (Salovey & Mayer) On an extreme level, unhealthy—or extremely low EQ—is evidenced in the lives of people who meet the clinical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder or for Borderline Personality Disorder. While these personality disorders result from abuse in a persons’ pasts, it is hard to summon compassion for people who suffer from these disorders, since the outward expression of these disorders is experienced as self-centered, or outright selfish behavior.
But before you label your partner a bully, or selfish, or a Narcissist or as suffering from Borderline tendencies, look in the mirror (or watch yourself on video, critiquing yourself, never your partner). Experience yourself from your partner’s eyes. This is important because projection is the tendency to see (and be irritated by) behaviors that are our own. We see them in others and dislike them; others see them in us and dislike them the same. This is why Dr. John Gottman commends employing the Assumption of Similarity, especially during a conflict with a partner. The Assumption of Similarity is the practice of also seeing in ourselves a negative quality that we are ascribing to our partner, and vice-versa; and of also seeing in our partner a positive quality we are attributing to ourselves. This keeps us from forming an exalted view of ourselves and a contemptuous view of our partner. Jesus even warned of this when he said, “Judge not, lest you be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
What does one do with a bully? The solution to the bully dilemma is, first of all, to make sure that we’re not a bully. Make sure you’re not doing what you’re asking your partner to not do. Bullying back is not the path to peace. The Apostle Paul wrote, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
The ideal is to model non-bullying behavior for our spouse. Help them understand that you are with them and for them, willing to protect their emotions, preferences and needs in balance with your own. For the Narcissist, reassure them of your respect; for the Borderline, reassure them of your love and loyalty. That is, help them understand that they need not resort to bullying to be protected.
If your efforts to protect your partner are not reciprocated by their protection of you, then establish self-protective boundaries, even while continuing to love, respect, protect, and care for your partner. Boundaries establish what you will not accept (name-calling, physical abuse, yelling, profanity, etc.). The same Apostle Paul who said, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone,” also allowed himself be lowered in a basket through a window to escape people who were intent on doing him harm. (Acts 9:25) The best way to establish boundaries is to voice in the positive the behavior that you find protective, and that will gain and keep your engagement. For example, instead of “Don’t be such a b****! You’re so mean; no one could live with you,” say, “I want to talk about this with you; I’ll be back when we can talk about it calmly.” Instead of, “You’re so selfish,” say, “What’s important to you is important to me, and I need to know that what’s important to me is important to you.” Instead of “I can’t live with a liar,” say, “I want us to be able to trust each other.”
Finally, the best antidote to poor communication and conflict resolution is good communication and effective conflict management. The Gottman Institute—and likely any counselor specifically trained in couples therapy—will have tools designed to help partners understand each other’s differing points of view, different emotional responses, different pasts, different values beneath a conflict, and one other’s different needs. Specific to the Gottman Institute are its exercises: Talking it Out exercise, Aftermath of a Fight exercise, and Gottman-Rapoport conversation guide. In a nearby blog post, I also offer my 5 Rs for Understanding, which guide communication toward understanding and mutual protection.
New ways of communicating take practice, of course, and practice is often most effective when we have a coach to walk us through new skills. Don’t hesitate to engage a relationship coach or counselor trained in research-based couples therapy to guide you through healthier patterns of communication.
Doug Burford, DMin, LPC
In restaurants, you can tell the dating couples from the married couples. The dating couples are talking to one another; the married couples frequently are not. Why is this?
As with most marriage-unfriendly behavior, the reason for silence is self-defense. Defense against what? For women, it is often defensiveness against feeling unloved when not heard by their husbands. For men, it is often defensiveness against feeling disrespected when he hears what he interprets as criticism and control. Neither partner sets out to make the other feel these things; each is simply doing what comes naturally to their own gender, who would not take offense.
Research from the Gottman Institute identifies a principal underlying happy, long-lasting marriages; it is that of “accepting influence.“ Decades of data shows greater marital satisfaction among couples where men accept influence from their wives. This corresponds to the tendency of women to have their “heart heard” by husbands in order to feel loved, honored, and respected. The chapter in Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that elucidates this principle seems imbalanced in favor of men, compared to the parity of the other principles. As such, it runs the risk of fomenting as many relationship problems as it solves. It is certainly true that marriages are happier when men accept the influence of their wives more than might be a man’s natural tendency; however, the chapter is very light on whether women need adjust their own natural tendencies, as men are called to do. The truth is, couples are more likely to talk to one another if both genders adjust their natural tendencies, making it easier to accept influence from one another.
There is another noteworthy book that commends this balanced acceptance of influence; it precedes Dr. Gottman‘s book by about two millennia. I like to call it the New Testament. In it, Paul pens: “…submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Ephesians 5:21) and “…husbands love your wives; wives respect your husbands.“ (Ephesians 5:25). Here, both husbands and wives are called to equally adjust their natural tendencies. It was for good reason that Paul did not say, “…husbands respect your wives; wives love your husbands.“ He was asking men and women to do the opposite of what comes naturally to them, in order to meet the relational need of their spouse. This prescription recognizes that women tend naturally to extend love; while men tend naturally to bestow respect. It is the language each knows best; it is how they communicate with their own. But it doesn’t work as well in inter-gender relationships. What seems perfectly clear is a foreign language to one’s spouse. Women long for love; men long for respect. Scripture calls men and women to yield to how the other gender typically feels valued in relationship. Marriage is a journey of discovery into exactly what the alien gender means by these words, and how these are felt.
Typically, a woman feels cared for, honored, and loved when her husband patiently listens to her. She is more likely to engage in conversation over the dinner table if she has a husband willing to hear what she has to say, without finding fault in what she says, or impatiently offering fixes in order to be done with the subject. And for the man? Is there anything a woman can do to help him be more conversational? Yes. The most common complaint I hear from men in unsatisfied marriages is that their wives are “critical and controlling.“ Women want to offer ideas, make suggestions, ask devil’s advocate questions, and generally have influence in decision-making which he, longing for respect, hears as a lack of confidence in his intelligence, competence, strength, or ability to handle things on his own (i.e., without her help). Obviously, these are directly in conflict with one another at all times, and quickly become conversational barriers. What we have here is a perpetual problem, and thus a couple’s learning opportunity. Men want to competently make decisions that will heroically fix things, and protect and serve their wives and families. Women want to participate in issues is at hand, not because they doubt their husband’s competence, but because problems are opportunities to draw close; to connect; to practice mutual dependence and thus foster togetherness.
What this looks like in everyday conversation is that a woman will bring up some thought or idea, and the man—instead of hearing her heart—will key in on an error in syntax, some logical inconsistency in what she said, or some financial, philosophical, mechanical, or scheduling problem inherent in her idea. He will point out to her these problems. In a woman’s world, this is highly unloving. A woman would disregard a syntax problem and affirm the heart of her sister’s idea, using kind, emotional words. Her focus would be on connecting, and discussing the challenge-at-hand together as a bonding experience. Only incidentally and later might she ask about problems with the ideas. When a man fails to do this, it feels to her like a lack of support and a failed emotional connection. So, she shuts down. Then there is the opposing scenario common to the male experience. When he brings up an idea, his wife—in an effort to come alongside—will ask questions of his plans, pose devil’s advocate scenarios, and wonder out loud about things that might hinder the success of his idea. She may suggest modifications or alternatives that bear little resemblance to his original proposal or decision. To a man, her effort to connect feels to him like criticism and control. The male mind interprets her input as questioning his intelligence, doubting his competence, and overtaking his idea with her own. When a man feels this way, he misunderstands the advice to “allow his wife to have influence” and hears instead the call to abdicate his authority, give her her way, and let her “wear the pants” in the marriage.
What is at issue here is the different meaning men and women ascribe to the sharing of ideas. Dr. John Gray says that women share ideas in order to connect; men share ideas in order to compete. To women, the sharing of ideas and the asking of questions is a way to show caring. To men, to share ideas and ask questions is a to challenge whether another man knows what he is doing. It is questioning his intelligence and competence. Men, of course, don’t see their comments as a rejection of connection; and women do not regard their input as critical or controlling, or demanding their way. But such is the interpretation of their partner; it is one reason that married couples sit in silence. The woman fears that whatever she says will be met with some “ridiculous” objection or demeaning comment. The man fears that what he says will be met with questions and competing ideas, resulting in a hostile takeover. Neither has the energy for that conversation, so communication ends before it starts.
What is the answer to this stalemate? Step one is simply to recognize it. Women and men cannot expect their spouses to communicate in the same manner as members of their own gender. Translation is necessary. Pausing and considering the needs of the other is always necessary in relationship, and especially true when relating to a gender with which we have no direct internal experience. We need to adjust our natural tendencies. Men need to hear their wives, allowing women to “think out loud“ more than men typically do. He needs to come alongside and listen to her like a friend. This is not debate class. Surrender the grammar police badge. Let her share her thoughts and be with her, not against her. Likewise, wives can respect their husbands by scaling back the devil’s advocate questions, alternate ideas, and voiced doubts, instead granting him—at least first of all—what a man yearns for from his girlfriend – confidence, admiration, and encouragement. Neither men nor women want critics or managers; both want a cheerleader and a romantic lover, but to different degrees.
This understanding and mutual yieldedness will get us through most days. But how do we handle marital gridlock, where yielding to the other’s need for love or respect doesn’t get us past self-canceling desires, such as one spouse wanting another child and the other not. Or one spouse wanting to move to another state upon retirement and the other wanting to stay put. What then? Even in gridlock—perhaps especially in gridlock—a woman needs to feel heard and protected; and a man needs to feel respected, not controlled. In addition, three other things enter in when gridlock threatens a united decision.
The first, Dr. Gottman identifies as “becoming a dream detective.” Rather than spouses rehearsing their own viewpoints back and forth until exhaustion sets in, the wisdom here is to stop, identify, and articulate the other’s hope, value, dream, and desired outcome. This can stop a conflict in its tracks as the tone changes from self-defense to other-defense. One reason fights persist is that parties have not felt understood by each other. That’s why they keep explaining their point of view and desires over and over again. The way out of this gridlock is to articulate to the other’s satisfaction what we understand is important to them in the matter at hand. Identify and concentrate on the larger areas in which you agree, rather than upon the isolated areas in which you disagree.
Secondly, remember that relationships live on the level of attachment needs and primary motions. In partnerships, the bottom line (attachment needs) includes feeling accepted, secure, safe, respected, affirmed, love, nurtured, comforted, and protected. When these attachment needs are met, we are at peace in the relationship, even when in conflict. When these needs are not securely met, negative primary emotions surface, such as fear, hurt, sadness, and shame. Our view of our spouse becomes negative and that negativity overrides our sentiment toward and interpretation of everything he or she says or does. So, in other-centeredness, step one is to understand the source of primary emotions (hurt, sadness, fear, shame, joy and peace) that are being masked as secondary emotions (anger, frustration, irritation, jealousy, etc.). What attachment need is its source, and how can that attachment need be met by me as spouse to my partner? If I can defend that, then my partner may be able to let go of self-defensiveness.
This brings us to the third point with respect to gridlocked issues. Ask yourself, “Is this issue important enough to divide us as a couple?” Maybe it is, but hopefully such issues are few and far between. If we can take our eyes off of winning the argument, or getting our way, and focus instead on protecting one another and on the relationship as victor, then we can relax on most issues. Can we pause and switch sides – defending our partner’s position for a moment, rather than our own? If we are protecting each other as diligently as we would protect ourselves, then we have a safe relationship in which conversations happen more easily. What if a couple spent their time vying for what was important to the other rather than to oneself? Wouldn’t that be a refreshing fight? This is Dr. Gottman’s approach to overcoming gridlock when he suggests the afore-mentioned “becoming a dream detective.” When each partner is intent on discovering what is important to the other, and defending that, then we trade other-defensiveness for self-defensiveness and a vast array of new options open up to us. We become focused not on “my way,” but on “our future” that incorporates both our dreams.
The invitation here is for couples to change their view of what constitutes a “win” in marital discussion. If discussion is a debate or a contest wherein one partner walks away the “winner” by having the last word, or emerging superior in debate skills, or getting his or her way while the other feels defeated, then the relationship has lost. We do well to change our view of the “win“ such that is is measured by whether the conversation drew us closer. Was it a tool for connection? Did it make “deposits” into the relationship, rather than withdrawals? Did it improve the overall ratio in the marriage of feel-good to feel-bad interactions? Did positive emotions outnumber negative emotions? Were the attachment needs of both spouses recognized and protected, no matter the topic of discussion? Did other-centeredness prevail rather than self-centeredness? These are the things that make conversation safe. These are the things likely occurring at the table where the dating couple sits. These are things that can be practiced by the married couple, as well.
We can know everything there is to know about marriage—intellectually—and still wind up with a bad marriage, or even divorced. Information about what makes marriage work isn’t enough. Conversely, people relatively ignorant of academic research and intellectual insights into marriage can have mutually endearing and enduring marriages, regardless of their life circumstances. What makes the difference, then, if not knowledge? It comes down to other-centeredness.
Other-centeredness… is that even a thing? (I have to hyphenate it so my spellcheck doesn’t object.) Yes, it must be a thing, because its opposite—self-centeredness—is a thing. And when it comes to marriage—and nearly all relationships—other-centeredness is THE thing. Bad behavior that creates or contributes to bad relationships is not mysterious. Bad behavior is simply self-centeredness in motion. Where it comes from is as individualistic as the individuals involved. But whatever its source, and whatever its more legitimate cousins—self-actualization, self-preservation, and self-protection, for example—its focus is on self, not the other. And self-focus (self interest at least, self centeredness perhaps, or selfishness at worst) usually doesn’t feel good in a relationship. It feels less than loving.
Other-centerdness is actually my definition of love. In scripture, the apostle Paul begins his chapter on love by remarking that a person can fathom all mysteries and have all knowledge, but have not love, and thereby be nothing. (1st Corinthians 13:2) That’s a strong verdict, especially in our culture that idolizes information. Yet, in the world of relationships, nothingness is what becomes of us if there is not love (other-centeredness). Listen for that term under all the words the apostle Paul uses to describe love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1st Corinthians 13:4-8) You might have noticed that there is not a self-serving word in the entire list. Everything that Paul commends as love would only be done for the benefit of someone else. After all, why be kind; what’s in it for me? Answer: It’s not about me; it’s about blessing someone else. Why be patient if I’m feeling impatient? Answer: for the sake of another. Why not be a braggart or envy others who have what I can’t have? Answer: Because other-centered love can be happy for others who have what I don’t. And we could go through the entire list this way. The point is, everything love does, it does for the benefit of someone else; that’s what makes it love.
Notice, too, that Paul’s list is devoid of feeling-words. Love is not an emotion. Love is a combination of attitudes and behaviors acted on regardless of how we feel. In fact, often, love is about doing the opposite of what we feel like doing. Love summons self-control so that we are not controlled by what our emotions tell us to do or say. It’s how responsible parents love their children. This understanding of love may not sound very romantic, but it is a relationally safe way of love that is the most solid foundation for romance. Romantic relationships are built upon the foundation of a ratio of “feel-good” to “feel bad” interactions. We are drawn to, and remain drawn to, people who make us feel good. Obviously, being affected by another’s self-centeredness feels bad; being gifted by another’s other-centeredness feels good.
Research by Dr. John Gottman has identified seven principles that undergird successful, mutually satisfying, long-enduring loving relationships. The first of these principles he calls “Love Maps.” A Love Map is detailed knowledge of a partner’s world. It is familiarity with what is important to one’s partner—their likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, disappointments, fears, anticipations. It is knowing what relaxes our partner, what stresses them, what angers them, what makes them feel supported, etc. It’s good information to know; but, as we noted earlier, knowledge is not enough. Knowing these things about our partner is like knowing French. What good is it, if we don’t use it? To quote Bob Goff’s book title, “Love does.” Love (other-centeredness) takes what we know about our partner (Gottman’s Love Map) and uses that knowledge to make our spouse feels protected, important, remembered, respected, and honored. It takes our partner’s likes and dislikes; preferences and anticipations, and includes them on our shopping lists, personal calendars, and to-do lists. Love looks for opportunities and invents ways to use the Love Map to make our partner feel good. Remember doing this when you were dating? It’s what many couples stop doing once they get married, and maybe start doing with someone who isn’t their spouse—their eventual affair partner. Affair partners learn each other’s preferences and build those into their interactions; they remember what is important to each other; they carefully govern their words and go out of their way to speak kindly; they listen and express understanding, rather than arguing their own point of view. In other words, they practice other-centeredness, like husbands and wives used to do when they were dating.
The hope for marriage is the recognition that both partners do indeed have Love Maps. It is further recognizing that partners’ Love Maps are not going to match. That does not spell incompatibility; it spells opportunity to understand what this entirely-other-human-being needs to feel loved. Hint: it won’t be what comes naturally to us. Our partner is not us; they’re them. Other-centeredness learns what feels good to them; love doesn’t insist that they like what feels good to us. Love is about learning a new map. This education will not come from a book. It will take other-centered focus to notice and remember what makes our spouse feel loved, respected, safe, secure, nurtured, supported, honored, comforted, protected, accepted, and liked. It is on the basis of such feelings that a ratio (feel-good to feel bad interactions) will be built that becomes strong enough to feel like love. Love is about knowing our spouse better than does anyone on the planet, and using that knowledge to make our spouse feel all of the things just listed. And to know how to do so better than anyone else on the planet. When our spouse is also—with other-centered love—meeting those same needs for us (but according to our different Love Map), then there is a solid, safe relationship.
Again, other-centeredness is not natural. Self-centeredness is natural (survival of the fittest). It can be a struggle to get beyond ourselves and empathize with someone else. Ideally, we experienced this kind of love from our parents. If so, it’s easier to replicate. If not, then we need a reparative experience or experiences from which to draw. If those experiences don’t come from safe people in our life, then God offers what people might not. That which we may not have been given to us by humans is available to us by the Holy Spirit. For free. The heart that humbles itself to Christ as Lord, and calls out to the Holy Spirit for help, will be graciously given awareness of God’s loving presence within and alongside it, always. One work of the Holy Spirit is to transform self-centeredness into other-centered love, like the love of God toward us. It was this love that drove him to visit earth, love the unloved, serve like a servant not a king, and die like a criminal so that we wouldn’t have to. That’s other-centeredness. That’s love. It’s what God has in his heart for us, and what he wants to form in our hearts for others. Just ask him for this gift. He will answer and grant you his heart.
Phenethylamine (fiːnaɪlˌɛθɪlˌəˈmiːn). You may not have heard of it, but you’ve drunk it. At least, your brain has. It goes by the nickname,“the infatuation drug.” It was secreted into your brain in Middle School when that one girl or guy walked into class, took a seat two rows down and to your left, and you didn’t hear another word the teacher said. You were in love. This person was perfect. Life with this person by your side would be the definition of bliss every day; that was clear. The only thing unclear was how to get from “two rows down and to the left” to “down the aisle and into your cool loft apartment with your two perfect kids.” Remember her or him? You may not remember their name, but now you know their nickname: “Phenethylamine.” Or more accurately—their real name.
Phenethylamine is an hallucinogen. And a nomadic one (not romantic… nomadic). It distorts reality, such that what you see is not real. Don’t get me wrong; that person in seventh grade was cute; real cute! But you’re now old enough to know they also had flaws. (Every person has flaws because our strengths are our weaknesses; a person with no weaknesses is a person with no strengths.) But you didn’t see those flaws; there wasn’t a weakness within fifty rows of that seventh grade chair. That is, until Phenethylamine moved on; and it always does. It has a shelf-life of a few weeks to a maximum of two years. If your dream-date’s facade is terribly misleading, your Phenethylamine “high” might last only as long as your first conversation.
But there’s good news. In fact, much better news. The promiscuity of Phenethylamine is trumped by the faithful permanence of the bond of Oxytocin. If Phenethylamine is the chemical reaction behind “puppy Love,” Oxytocin is the chemical reaction behind real love. It’s the feel-good chemical that washes over the brain when we connect with another human being in a way that feels secure, safe, comforting, loving, nurturing, and accepting. It says, “I want to be with this person” not because one has fallen in love with a hallucination, but because one has experienced authentic, safe, caring human connection. In that sense, it is a much more reliable guide to a good mate. After all, how we make one another feel will go a lot further in a relationship than pretty eyes and skin-tight jeans. Oxytocin also trumps—in the area of worthy criteria on which to build a relationship—another brain chemical that can lead us into trouble: Dopamine. Dopamine is released when we get what we want. It is a motivator. It is an adrenaline junkie that loves pursuit; it’s a fan of the hunt—whether the reward of the hunt is “to get the girl” (or guy), or win the tournament, or seal the business deal, or even find the next high (all addictions are ultimately Dopamine addictions; the pleasureful reward of getting what one craves rides in on a wave of Dopamine). But there could be volumes written on the woes of following Dopamine into a relationship. That’s why sex is a terrible way to start a relationship. A relationship motivated by and rewarded by a cerebral Dopamine bath is a shallow and uncertain relationship. In fact, speaking of books on Dopamine disasters, there is a chapter of that “book” as old as the Bible. This relational-Dopamine-letdown is behind the tragic story in chapter thirteen of 2nd Samuel, of the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, Amnon. He had long nurtured an obsession with “having her.” Once he “had her” (by force), “he despised her.” His Dopamine satisfied, he was not interested in a loving relationship; he was off to the next conquest. And for Tamar? What chemical washed over her brain? Certainly not Oxytocin; not even Dopamine—but Cortisol—released by the hypothalamus in response to threat, fear, and danger. Thus, the Dopamine-fueled dream of the sexual conquerer was the Cortisol-fueled living nightmare of the conquered.
But I said there was good news, didn’t I? Back to Oxytocin. Oxytocin is relationship superglue. It is the brain’s bonding chemical. It is that which creates bonding between mother and newborn, as the infant is placed on the mother’s bare belly and suckles for the first time. This becomes the child’s first experience outside the womb of caring, comfort, safety, acceptance, belonging and love… the first building block of a chemically-reinforced association of relationships with safe reliability. The more positive, pure, safe connections a person has throughout life—especially in early life—the more capacity one will have for secure attachments, or safe, trusting relationships. Oxytocin is released in moments ranging from plutonic to romantic. It shows up when we’ve been “tended or befriended.” It is secreted when a human interaction has felt good—safe, accepting, nurturing, and comforting. It’s in the cradled lullaby; the nonsexual touch of a friend; a good massage; a hug when we’re sobbing; holding someone’s hand when afraid; snuggling with a parent or spouse; the empathy we see in the tear-rimmed eyes of someone who has listened—really listened—to our story; it’s as public and low-level as holding candles in a Christmas Eve service, and as private and intense as front-to-front sexual orgasm in a relationship of committed love. And that committed love is, again, the difference between the secretion of shallow and short-lived Dopamine, or a Phenethylamine hallucination.
So, the heart bone is indeed connected to the brain bone, in both adaptive and maladaptive ways; ways that help, heal and protect us, and ways that hinder, wound, and damage us. And that’s the gift—and curse—of relationships. Our hearts are vulnerable; our brains are vulnerable; relationships are vulnerable. Love, trust, and commitment are vulnerable. But where would we be without that relational vulnerability? Alone. We’d be alone. And that is the most wounding existence of all. The alternative is to be for others a safe, accepting, respectful, comforting, loving, protective presence and—if we choose wisely—experiencing the same from someone else.
Your spouse is not your enemy. And your spouse is not your god.
Those are two extremes couples often take toward each other. The first—regarding our spouse as our enemy—makes marriage a contest. One or both spouses feels that they have to defeat their spouse in order to get their way. Rather than a cooperative team, husband and wife have become opposing teams. Marriage is a sparring contest; words are offensive weapons spoken in harsh, sarcastic, unkind, or even threatening tones. Kindness is reserved for others.
The opposite extreme is couples who marry as if another person will bring meaning and fulfillment and purpose to their lives, overcoming their deficits; eliminating loneliness and sadness forever. That is to regard one’s spouse as one’s god. Of course, we know that our spouse is not actual deity. But, the expectations are beyond mortal fulfillment. A human can’t make us whole, give life purpose, or be our constant companion. These are the things of God! Anyone who expects a person—even a spouse—to fulfill them is riding a wave of idealistic distortion that will eventually crash.
Our spouse is not our enemy, and our spouse is not our god. Our spouse is an imperfect companion through life. Marriage is the commitment of two imperfect people to unconditionally love each other despite it all, till death do them part. We are friends; best friends who have good time and bad, and find our way back to good after things have gone bad. We come together and spend years trying to understand each other, so that we can support one another and take care of each other, whether rich or poor, sick or healthy, as long as we both shall live. Marriage isn’t about getting our way (singular); it’s about forming our way (plural); it’s about forming a “we” out of two “me’s.”
Marriage is not a contest. And marriage is not salvation through a mortal being. Marriage is a team of two on a journey toward unconditional love for each other, empowered by the unconditional love of God.
There are people you count as friends. There are people whom you most decidedly do not count as friends. What’s the difference? Around your friends you feel good; accepted; nurtured, protected, maybe even loved. You trust your friends; you presume they’re there for you, as you’re there for them; that they’ve “got your back,” as you have theirs. “Enemies” by definition are not for you, but against you. They don’t have your back, they’re stabbing you in the back. And for those of us not in third grade, anymore, we probably don’t count anyone as an enemy, but there are people we don’t number as “friends,” either. We just don’t feel special around them; there’s not a connection or bond we’re going to seek out when we need nurture. There are others—friends—that we trust to meet those needs, or at least to wallow with us in our neediness.
That’s it. A friend doesn’t even have to be successful at meeting our needs; they just have to really, really want to, and feel really badly when they’re not able to. That feels great! We feel cared for; connected; nurtured; not alone. There are people in our corner. Friends.
Marriage is more about friendship than about romance. In essence, we get married because we feel good around this person. They make us feel better than does anyone on the planet. In fact, they make us feel so good that we want to make that feeling permanent. Sure, there’s romance, but romance without friendship is just sensual. It’s emotional and maybe physical, but as enjoyable as those are, they won’t sustain a marriage. Marriage is sustained at the level of attachment needs. And attachment needs have more in common with friendship than with passion.
What are attachment needs? They are identified in Attachment Theory as “the bottom line” of human relationships; even of human formation. Ideally, our attachment needs are met by our parents or primary caregivers. They include acceptance, safety, belonging, nurture, comfort, love, and respect. That is, we don’t have to “be more like our brother” in order to be loved by mom; we are accepted for who we are and who we aren’t. We have a secure sense of belonging the family; we’re not threatened with abandonment, or cut lose to fend for ourselves. Our primary protectors actually keep us safe; they don’t endanger us. We find nurture and encouragement to become who we’re wired to be. When we’re hurt, or sad we find comfort in these human relationships. It is in such emotionally and physically safe relationships that we discover love and respect as a human being. From this base of human attachment, we have a place from which to launch and replicate other healthy relationships.
That’s where relationships live. All relationships—parents and children, spouses, friendships, neighbors, co-workers. All relationships come down to this… feeling good. Do we make them feel good? Do they make us feel good? “Feeling good” comes down to feeling attached to someone who is safe to be attached to; someone who is there for us, not against us; someone who accepts us, nurtures us, comforts us, loves us; someone who will be there in our time of need. A friend.
Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington has observed couples in relationship for forty years and concluded that if there is one thing that holds together a marriage more than anything else, it’s friendship. That’s not very sexy; it’s not filled with “romantical” images. But a lover who isn’t a friend is a dangerous playmate. If we’re going to superglue ourselves to someone for life, better that someone be friendly than merely sexy. Attachment will soon become more important than attraction. In fact, attraction will grow stronger with attachment, as what could be more attractive than someone who is safe, nurturing, accepting, and comforting? Relationships come down to that.