Mike was shaken by the questions asked by his couples therapist:
“Do you want to lose your family? Do you want to spend Christmas alone, or hear about your kids going to baseball games with their new stepdad?
“This is what will happen if you don’t change…”
For the first time, Mike really felt sadness and fear, waking up to this potential future. His anger and self-centeredness were driving his wife Katie away and creating resentment with his kids. Katie had clearly expressed that she was near the end of her patience. Finally, he was connected to the consequences of his behavior and was motivated to change.
He was in trouble, and if he wanted to avoid the scenario laid out by his therapist, then he needed to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
So, what does this work look like?
First of all, Mike needs to recognize his basic stance in the relationship. He was operating from what Relational Life Therapy (RLT) dubs the “1-up” or grandiose position—in essence, unchecked ego coupled with entitlement. This manifested as a lack of humility and a habit of casting contempt on his wife.
In this vein, he might say, “Yes, I did yell at you, because you made me angry and you deserved it.”
In terms of healthy relating, this statement is a loser. Anything that has the phrase you made me… signals a righteous-victim stance that diverts self-examination of one’s actions through blame. It’s inherently noncollaborative and blocks any effective communicating.
Such a statement is also devoid of accountability, empathy, and vulnerability—three qualities necessary to create an environment of love, safety, security and vibrancy.
After some coaching, Mike’s statements began to change:
“I’m sorry my anger made you feel upset. I know it’s really hard on you and the kids. It’s something that I’m working on.”
This statement is a breath of fresh air compared to his years of prior disrespect. It has two important ingredients: accountability (“I’m sorry”) and empathy (acknowledging how it must have made his wife feel).
In speaking with sincerity backed up by action, his marriage and relationship with his kids can begin to change for the better.
Mike also needs to learn to express his wants, needs, and frustrations without anger, in order to communicate more effectively with his wife and kids.
Vulnerability is observing and then sharing what’s underneath the anger, what his anger had been protecting all those years. This means acknowledging wants and frustrations in a manner that can be heard:
“I feel sad when you nag at me and don’t acknowledge what I’ve done for our family.”
This vulnerability gives his wife something she can connect with. In the past, he would have led with a wall of anger, making his wife defensive and creating more distance and resentment in their relationship.
Now Mike is in relational recovery.
Before he enters his home after a long day’s work, he centers himself. He cultivates a mental framework of appreciation, acknowledging what Katie does for their family and grateful that she has chosen to stay with him.
Now, before Mike speaks, he has a voice inside him asking, “How is what I’m about to say going to land?”
He has space between his reactions and his behavior. He has a new way of being in relationship.
Nowadays Katie is more at ease and has room for giving Mike physical affection, something he had missed dearly. His kids have started to express interest in him more, turning toward him when in the past they would have turned away.
Too often individuals cling to their resentments and ego and end up damaging the relationships most important to them. Earnestly engaging with relational work can be difficult, but it can both preserve and heal your family and provide you with a new sense of inner well-being.
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