We live in a day and age where if you have a good reason for what you are doing, especially if it involves your own hurt or fear, it’s okay. The sensitive thing for others to do is to try to really understand where you are coming from. If they do, what you have done will make sense and not be harmful. If they don’t make efforts to “understand” you or don’t agree with your actions, they are judgmental.
In practice, operating this way in relationship is like swinging a sledge hammer at the people around you and then being upset when they complain about you hurting them. After all, if you weren’t so afraid, you wouldn’t need to swing a hammer at them to begin with. It’s called lashing out from the victim position, and it’s a prime example of selfishness driven by fear in relationship. Let’s take a look at an example of a couple dealing with this problem.
Setting: Marital therapy session. Jim and Sarah have come to counseling to sort through a variety of relational issues. Today, Jim has come in really upset. He doesn’t believe Sarah is making the relationship a priority and it is consuming his thoughts.
Jim: I am only upset because she is not spending enough time with me and the kids. I mean, I am her husband, we are supposed to have a relationship!
Therapist: Okay Jim, sounds like you are really bothered by this. Why don’t you tell me about what happened that got you thinking about this problem.
Jim: It’s not what happened, it’s what keeps happening! Sarah does what Sarah wants to do, that’s it! She doesn’t think of me or our children. I have sought help from trusted friends and our pastor to see if I am out of line, and they all agree she is hurting the relationship.
Sarah (As Jim talks, she sits quietly, not making eye contact. She looks sad and like she does not agree, but doesn’t dare challenge him. After all, last time she took that chance, he made her pay by lecturing her about it for an hour and then not talking to her for the next 3 days. The kids kept asking her what was wrong with dad.)
Therapist: Jim, I really want to be able to understand where you are at, but when you speak in generalities it’s hard to do that. Could you tell me about a specific time recently where this has occurred?
Jim: Sure, that’s easy. About three months ago, she was talking to some of her girlfriends at church about our marriage. Sarah calls it getting support, but I call it gossip. She tells them about problems we are having and makes me look like a bad guy!
Sarah; (speaks up for the first time): I told them we were having issues, not you specifically. I told them I knew I was a part of what wasn’t working.
Jim: (continues talking as if he has not heard Sarah): With these women knowing about our stuff, I feel judged all the time. I told Sarah how badly this hurts me, but she simply doesn’t care!
Therapist: Jim I am curious how you know what your wife is feeling? Can you read her mind?
Jim (annoyed ): It’s obvious. She isn’t changing.
Therapist: What is it she is supposed to change?
Jim: I told her I want us to associate with a different group of friends. We go to a large church and there are a lot of great people to connect with. It shouldn’t be an issue for her to set some healthy boundaries with those women and move on. It is time she decided whether her husband is a priority or these friends! (Jim ends his statement triumphantly, sounding like a man who has made a definitive argument, invulnerable to challenge).
Therapist: Jim, I wonder, do you think Sarah feels cared for right now?
Jim: (taken aback by the question): What?
Therapist: Do you think Sarah feels like you care about her right now?
Jim: I love her, she knows that.
Therapist: That wasn’t my question, Jim. I am not asking you if you love her. I am asking if you think she feels cared for right now.
Jim: I guess so . . . I mean I hope so.
Therapist: Sarah, I am curious if, while Jim has been talking, if you have felt cared for?
Sarah: (Tears forming in her eyes): No, no. . .
Therapist: Jim, that sounds like a real problem to me.
Jim: Well, you asked me what is bothering me, and I told you. I guess I should just keep it to myself.
Therapist: No, Jim, that sounds like a terrible option. Instead, I think we need to define this problem better. What are you afraid of in this situation? What ultimately causes you discomfort?
Jim: Well, two things I guess. First, I am afraid of what others will think of me. Those women probably look down on me and I just can’t stand the thought of that. Second, my wife is choosing her friends over me.
Therapist: I like that you have identified your fear of how others will think of you. However, that second statement about your wife choosing her friends over you, I am not sure that’s true. It’s the story you are telling yourself about what is going on.
Jim: Then what am I afraid of?
Therapist: Jim, I don’t want to disrespect you by assuming I can read your mind, so I will just give my best guess. I think you might be fearful of what others would know about you because you have shame about yourself. To deal with this, you try and control very carefully what others know about you and Sarah broke the rules.
Jim: What rules?
Therapist: She is not supposed to tell others things you do not want them to know. Unfortunately, she has and you have to do damage control. To help you not feel your own fear and discomfort, you want her to distance herself from her friends. She doesn’t want to do that, so you set it up as a choice between you or them. It plays into your hand because she can either choose you and leave her friends or be a wife who is not really committed to her marriage and family.
Jim: Wow. That sounds really bad.
Therapist: Yes. Does it sound crazy or far fetched?
Jim: (looking a bit sheepish): No, not really.
Therapist: How would you describe what you are doing?
Jim: It’s really manipulative & selfish.
Was that painful to read? Every time I sit with a couple like this, my heart hurts for the “Sarah” in the room. It’s critical the fear of the partner be exposed, along with his selfish means of dealing with it. My experience is sinful behavior often has roots in people’s fear. It’s why people feel justified in what they are saying and doing to their spouse. After all, if others understood what they have to deal with, what they are doing to their spouse will be seen as reasonable.
It isn’t. It never is. We must all learn to keep close watch on our own fears, turning them over to the Lord regularly. Failure to do this makes sin attractive, as it offers a corrupt solution to our problem. The sin response is to focus on our fear and the intentions we have, while ignoring the other person’s heart.
In other words, people spend all their time explaining and justifying their destructive actions while never acknowledging the impact on others of what they are doing. It’s especially devastating in the context of a marriage or family. We are all faced with the problem of fear and have a choice about what we will do with it. Choose well.
If you or someone you know is struggling with fear, there is help. At The Relationship Center, we have skilled counselors experienced in helping.