Knowing how to save a marriage isn’t easy but as this case shows it can be done even if only one partner is willing to try harder.
And oh my love remind me, what was it that I said?
I can’t help but pull the earth around me, to make my bed
And oh my love remind me, what was it that I did?
Did I drink too much?
Am I losing touch?
Did I build this ship to wreck?—Florence and the Machine, “Ship to Wreck”(link is external)
Amy had repeatedly asked her therapist why she chose Tom, her first husband. Finally her therapist let her have it between the eyes.
“Actually, you chose him because he wouldn’t budge — for you or anyone else.”
Amy gaped at her therapist.
“After Tom blanked out and left, you began to have your misgivings. But you were still going to be the heavy. Well, the little bit of ‘give’ you perceived in Paul was enough to reassure you that he’d let you have your way in everything.”
“WhatEVER,” said Amy sarcastically.
Amy went into therapy when she began to believe her relationship with her second husband, Paul, was slipping beyond her control.
Amy was a 34-year-old Latina who grew up in New York’s Lower East Side, as the youngest of five children. Her parents separated shortly after she was born and her father moved to another state. She’d had little contact with him since.
Blue Chip Performer
In irrelationship terms, Amy was a blue-chip Performer. After her divorce from Tom, she sank into a depression that made her willing to question how she had always approached relationships with men. This was enough for her to consider a relationship with Paul, an Audience who “might be hard to manage” as opposed to Tom, who had been “impossible to do anything with.”
Several years into their marriage, Amy had come to realize that her Performer routines were not going to elicit from Tom any appearance of interest in their relationship. As a result, when she married Paul, she redoubled the intensity of her song-and-dance routines, but still didn’t get the return on investment she felt she should. She complained to her therapist that “Paul’s the one who should be in therapy;” “If Paul would just open up..;” or “If he would just do something — anything — to show me he cares!”
Amy had consistently chosen men who joined her in setting up a relationship that would fail. Paul, however, carried a wild-card: he was genuinely interested in Amy — so much so that he persistently looked for an opening in her performance routine that would allow him to engage her. It was tough going for Paul because her routine didn’t let up, which often made him feel invaded. Despite that and despite Amy’s complaints that they “weren’t getting anywhere,” Paul didn’t give up. In time, he spotted openings in Amy’s routine that allowed him to communicate to her that he wasn’t interested in her routines: he was interested in her.
Disarming Performance with Presence
Paul’s disclosure of his simple desire to be with Amy disarmed her, and, over time, neutralized her song-and-dance routine. It also revealed why her marriage to Tom had failed: presence was missing. They had constructed a defense system — irrelationship— that neutralized emotional threat by sidelining any possibility of presence. In contrast, Paul’s tactic of refusing to collude with Amy’s strategy ultimately disarmed Amy’s performance routine.
Amy’s former blunt-instrument idea of presence had stood in the way of Paul’s giving her the reassurance she wanted. But with his measured, frank disclosure of his desire to be with her, she became able to step back from her demands for what she thought she wanted from a partner. Paul’s quietly spoken desire for her presence became the wedge between Amy and her song-and-dance routine.
In place of the unhappiness each felt from the other’s “absence,” Amy and Paul became increasingly excited with one another as they built presence into their marriage.
Paul: Honestly, Amy, how did we even live like that? I was so frustrated, I knew I loved you all along, but couldn’t find a way to get it across to you.
Amy: I know. I can’t believe now how righteous I felt. I was always thinking, If you would just listen to me, everything would work out. Thank goodness that isn’t what happened!
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