You’re a mess, your partner’s a mess, and that’s a beautiful thing

If I only ever learn one thing, it’ll be this: everyone has issues. People come into my therapy space who seem very well put-together: well-dressed, good job, living in a nice house with a picture perfect family to boot. These are the people that everyone sees as the model of success and good mental health. Then they start to tell me all of the deep dark secrets that they struggle with on a daily basis. I love it! It’s such a relief to know that we’re all struggling with something.

The Perfect Couple

One couple I worked with seemed to have a lot going for them: young, successful, good-looking kids, etc. But they felt like there was this growing divide between them, and each time they tried to talk about their disagreements, they just ended up hurting each other. Their main disagreement was about a fairly common issue that many couples have to deal with, but for some reason the discussion would always lead to accusations and criticisms, and then someone would storm off.

Through therapy, they learned how to create a safe space for each other to open up and go a bit deeper. The big breakthrough came when the husband started sharing some of the terrible experiences he had had as a child, which had led to him making some regrettable choices as a teenager. He talked about his shame, and also his fear of his own children going through the same thing. This helped explain why he felt so strongly about his side of the issue. The wife the shared her own experiences as a mother, comparing herself to other mothers, and her fear of failing to live up to expectations. This helped explain her strong position on the issue.

This was a powerful moment, because although they still disagreed (and probably always would), they deeply understood each other, and when they discovered their partner’s suffering, they felt a desire to support them, and suddenly the issue didn’t seem so big anymore. Each expressed a feeling of relief, like a weight being lifted off of their shoulders, and also more confidence in their relationship being able to support them through difficult times.

One of the main goals of relationship therapy is to help couples (1) open up and (2) learn to be ok about the messy details of their lives. The pursuit of perfection, individually and as a couple, can feel impossible (which, of course, it is!) and adds a lot of pressure to the relationship. Over time, stresses build up, especially if there are kids, but a lot of people try to cover those stresses up. Men especially often try to be the “strong, stable” one in the family, and so they don’t want to admit to their own fears and insecurities and they bottle them up instead. I’ve also seen many cases of people not feeling safe to open up because they are afraid of their partner’s reaction: they may have felt criticized or attacked or ignored in the past, and don’t want to go through that again.

If both partners can learn to really listen to each other and just be there for each other, things will get much better. We just have to be willing to open up and share.

The House Full of Secrets

Often in couples therapy, I use a metaphor that helps to clarify what we are dealing with here:

Imagine that your life is a house. Every room, cabinet, and drawer is filled with your past experiences and different aspects of who you are. You don’t usually let people into this house, because it is mostly private. Mostly you just invite them into the front room which is neat and presentable and filled with things that are safe to talk about.

Then, one day, you fall in love with someone and invite them into your house. You give them the tour, but leave a few things out. They move in, and both of you enjoy the arrangement. Then, one day, they ask “what’s in this room with the locked door?” You reply, “it’s nothing, don’t worry about it”. Okay, they say, but you know they aren’t satisfied. Later, they ask the same question about a locked drawer here, or a locked cabinet there, and you give them the same reply: “nothing, no big deal, don’t worry about it”. But you sense that they are still not satisfied, and are perhaps a little hurt, or even fearful about what may be hidden there.

The truth is, these rooms, cabinets, and drawers are filled with ugly things. They are filled with things you aren’t proud of, or experiences that may have damaged you in some way.

Eventually, you realize that you can’t go any further in this relationship until you open some of these locked doors. So you muster up your courage, and nervously unlock the door and let your partner see what you have been hiding. This might be the scariest thing you’ve ever done. You have no idea how they’ll react.

But here’s what usually happens: they see the mess, they see the pain and the shame, and they look at you with tears in their eyes, and tell you how sorry they are that you had to go through that. They tell you that it hurts to see this, but they still love you, and they want to help you deal with it. And at this point, you will feel closer to each other than you have ever felt before.

Made Strong Through Weakness

I remember watching a movie a long time ago called D.A.R.R.Y.L about a human-looking robot boy who escaped the facility where he was created and was discovered in a small town and adopted by a family. At one point, the mother was complaining to a friend that she felt she was unnecessary – the boy did everything right and never needed any help. Of course, the boy overheard this with his supersonic hearing and at his next baseball game, struck out on purpose. He went to his mother, visibly upset, and allowed his mother to comfort him. He understood that she needed to do this to help her feel closer to him – and he was right.

This story came to mind as I started working with families and couples – it teaches a powerful principle about relationships. Strong relationships aren’t created by perfect people – they become strong when we are willing to drag all of our imperfections out into the open and say “here I am, in all of my mess, can you still love me and stick with me?” This is the glue that holds a relationship together, needing someone, and feeling needed at the same time. When we hold back the messy parts of ourselves, we are actually missing the opportunities to connect in the most important way by showing trust for our partner’s capacity to love us unconditionally.

And here’s the irony: It feels so great! Trying to push on by ourselves is just miserable, and so is living with someone who doesn’t truly understand us. But there’s no better feeling in life than knowing that someone here on earth loves you exactly as you are, warts and all! It makes the burdens feel a bit lighter, and it feels like life isn’t so bad after all.