The scene was a comedy, and at the same time it was a tragedy. On one hand, it was humorous to see only Fred’s eyes peering cautiously over the top of the pillow that covered the rest of him. His wife, Sally, totally disappeared behind her cushion. All I could see was Sally’s small hands nervously clutching the turquoise pillow.
The couple was amazed at their responses to my request. In their marriage counseling session I had asked them to place their pillows in front of them symbolizing a possible wall that they had built to protect them from being hurt. Both of them had no idea how scared they were of getting close to each other, scared of intimacy even though they were married thirty-two years. That was the tragedy.
The husband and wife were communicating better and resolving many of their problems. However, when I asked Fred and Sally at the beginning of each session how they got along during the week, their response was always negative. Their feelings towards each other can be described as frustrated, angry, and hopeless.
With that feedback, I knew that we had to find out why they were sabotaging themselves from having the loving relationship they desired. They now had the tools. Why were they not using them? The “wall process” gave us the missing piece of the puzzle. With Sally’s and Fred’s walls so high, with them being so scared of intimacy, they could not even get close enough to use the tools with each other. In fact, most of their energy was being used to keep their distance and to protect themselves from getting hurt. Both of them admitted that they felt safe but not satisfied behind their barricades.
I found this debilitating phenomenon with 99% of my clients. They were saying consciously, “Come close, I want to love you.” But unconsciously they were sending the message, “Stay away, I’m scared that you’ll hurt me.” Or, “I’m scared that if I let you in, you’ll realize that I’m an imposter-I’m not really lovable, worthy or good enough. In fact, I’m a bad person (I don’t deserve a loving relationship).”
With these mixed messages, we drive each other crazy. It is not unusual for couples to have a wonderfully intimate time together only to pick a fight with each other a few hours later or the next morning. It got too close. It felt too good. It became scary.
I have come to the conclusion that we need to earn a “degree in intimacy” before we are going to allow ourselves to have the fulfilling relationships we deeply desire. Only when we can like, love, and accept ourselves unconditionally, will we be able to let down our walls and allow ourselves to relate intimately with others.
The wife and husband succeeded in coming out of hiding. They both came in for private sessions and we focused on healing the scared inner child, on letting go of the illusions that they were not okay. Typical of all the clients, they had made negative decisions about themselves and others during their developmental childhood years. They had their brick walls of protection built way before they even met. (Other clients described walls of concrete, wood, iron, or glass.) With these emotional barriers, they never had a chance to be close and to be happy together.
Both Sally and Fred were finally convinced of the truth-that they are good enough, lovable, worthy, and good people. They accepted that they deserved a loving relationship.
In our last session I said, “Remember the important fact that what people say or do is a reflection of them and not of you-that you’re okay no matter how the other person feels or behaves.” Fred and Sally breathed a big sigh of relief. What a wonderful thought to behold. We concluded our counseling hour with a mock marriage ceremony.
The husband and wife realized that they were married legally all these years but now they were ready to be bonded emotionally too. Their twenty-year-old daughter, Beth, held the blossoming flowers as she witnessed the divine ceremony. She also passed the tissues around as everyone, including myself, had tears of joy trickling down our happy faces.
What a gift it was for Beth to see her previously troubled parents finally happy together. What a gift it was to learn by example of what can happen, of the bliss you can experience when you have a “degree in intimacy”.