Saturday, July 29, 2006

He Scares Me So

Friday was an emotional crucible for me.

I spent part of Thursday night and Friday mid-day reading the first four chapters of The Five Love Languages, which was recommended to my wife and me at our first counseling session. If you're not familiar with the premise of the book, you can get a good summary at the author's website.

Although my learning on this subject is far from complete, I can see how his model might explain why our marriage is having such big difficulties. As the counselor suggested, our primary love languages are probably not the same.

My languages are Words of Affirmation and Physical Touch. Hers are most likely Acts of Service, Quality Time, and Receiving Gifts. Although I was not aware of it, I've learned to speak to her through those channels over the course of our relationship.

I'm not always consistent, though. I've gone through phases where I've lessened my willingness to communicate along those lines. Quality time suffered the most as she started doing more and more stuff with her best friend, for example. At times, I've been less than enthusiastic about performing Acts of Service. Last year was an angry spell because of The Drought, so I didn't put as much thought into gifts for her.

On the other hand, she has been not only neglectful of my love languages, she has been openly hostile about expressing them. She says that I'm just being needy and insecure. This realization came to me Friday morning as I was getting ready for work. I also wondered if she would be sincere in becoming more fluent in those love languages. If the past is any indication, probably not. Getting my love tank replenished from her is like try to refuel a diesel truck at the unleaded pump. My gut tells me that our marriage will come to an end if that is true. My heart tells me to give her the chance to prove herself. I'm going to listen to my heart.

I wrote up my thoughts and shared them with an online friend who is in a similar marital situation. We've been good for each other because in our ups and downs, we manage to see the bright sides of our plights. The end result is that we talk each other down from the ledges of rash behavior. In her response, the friend cautioned that the stresses of raising small children may make it impossible for me to get definitive answers to the questions I have posed to my wife, and that I might have to seek other outlets to bide my time until the kids got older.

The thought that this may be a process lasting several more years touched a very raw nerve in me. I had struggled with this issue for the better part of my ten year marriage. I finally had developed a vocabulary to express my perspective of the marriage. Affirmative steps were being taken to finally figure out whether this marriage would survive. It was as if a prisoner had just learned that his next parole hearing was 5 years away, instead of 5 months away.

The anger boiled inside of me during the late Friday afternoon. It was an intensity that I don't ever recall having ever felt.

I kept a good game face at dinner with my family and the wife's best friend's family, and I was able to keep it going up through the 45 minutes we spent with the kids at the park. When I got home, I isolated myself from the house to avoid flying off the handle and saying something I might regret.

My wife could sense my anger. I told her that I was in a bad space, but it wasn't until several minutes later that I broke down and told her what was bothering me. I sat down on the floor with her and spoke of what I had learned from reading our counseling materials. I identified the areas that were most likely our love languages.

I then told her that I felt that she had neglected reaching out to me in my primary languages. Moreover, the disdain I heard in her voice in the past and at the counseling meeting toward learning and practicing those languages hurt me. I told her I feared that she would not be serious about doing the work needed to become conversant in those languages.

She teared up and told me that she didn't know want to do. I soothed her and told her that I didn't want her to do anything right now. It would take time for us to figure out a way to heal. All I needed from her at the moment was a willingness to listen.

I also said that I needed to learn to better show my love for her in her own languages. I admitted that there were times I resisted meeting her through those channels.

I closed the conversation by taking her hands into mine and telling her that I loved her and that we would find a way through this together. I felt much better after having told her what was bothering me. It took a lot of work to force myself into owning that bilious boullion.

To this day, it amazes me that I have to work so hard to let my true feelings flow when they are negative. It was almost twelve years ago that I began to develop an awareness of the damage that my bottled anger had done. I have never been prone to violence, but I had done my share of destructive things by not letting go.

Therapy in the late 90s helped me trace the environment that made me want to hold things in.

My paternal relatives, with whom I was closer, had severely broken communication skills. Seldom did anyone come right out and express dissatisfaction. They just stopped talking and interacting. It happened when my dad remarried. It continues to this very day with my dad and aunt quarreling over their deceased mother's estate. No one dared cross my late grandfather, whose temper was supposedly legendary, but I had never seen in full force. I likened it to nuclear warfare. One didn't have to engage in it to know that it entailed a dire aftermath.

Another problem was with my mother. Because I was an advanced child, she put me on a pedistal as a kid with a bright future who would go on to "make lots of money and support" her. Never mind that I wasn't bonding with my peers. These things didn't matter to her because I had "so much going" for me, and those who made fun of me were "riff raff" anyway. My feelings weren't valid. I wasn't allowed to express fear, anxiety, sadness, or anger.

I never really got to see what it was like to handle anger in a constructive manner. Better to not express it because it would result in bad things. It was something to be feared and hidden. Maybe it would decompose over time if I buried it deeply enough, like degradeable biomass.

I have made progress in developing an awareness of anger when it strikes me. However, it's still all too easy for me to make excuses to defer acting on it. I think there is still a fear that doing something in the present will result in catastrophic results. For example, if I tell my wife I'm angry because I feel she has treated me unfairly, will she retaliate with hostility? Maybe I don't trust my character well enough to handle the expression of that anger constructively.

The title for tonight's post is a reference to the lyrics of the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The sentiment expressed in that phrase, "He scares me so" is the essence of my reflexive response to anger. But unlike the angst of Mary Magdalene, I am not struggling over a relationship with a messianic figure. Anger is a good oracle for telling you when something is wrong, but only a fool would place his faith in it for salvation.
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