By Jennifer Lehr LMFT
After years of struggle and a slow spiral into death, at the age of 46, I gave up on my first marriage. From those ashes of grief, new life emerged. I wrote a relationship educational program. Would it help me in my next true love relationship?
Relationships had been my Achilles heel, at least relationships with people. I was fine with dogs, cats, horses, goats, ducks, and cows. Good with rabbits, and guinea pigs too. I loved them. They were safe. But people….
I was a sad and lonely child with no close friends. No hugs or I love you’s in my family. Mom was on the Asperger continuum. Dad caught in his own demons, was dangerously explosive. Both were capable of inflicting severe emotional abuse. I saw people as dangerous and hurtful.
Not fully formed, I couldn’t say no to others, stand to disappoint, nor ask for what I wanted. In my teens, I ran from interested others. When I was 22, I began my first romantic relationship. Starving for love, I wasn’t the best judge. He became obsessed with me. I was his everything. But on a quest to find my purpose and career, I wasn’t ready to settle down. Eventually, feeling caged in, I ended it.
I was living in a world where consciously, I valued my career, but unconsciously, I was desperately seeking human connection. It was a conundrum and required me to shift before I could balance both.
After I failed at a few more relationships with addicts, alcoholics, and others who, despite their beauty, couldn’t fully participate, I realized I had some serious issues. I fell in love, but when our differences emerged, when the “in love” feeling left, I would become captivated with a new special person and end the previous and now colorless relationship. I was addicted to the “in love” neurochemicals. Knowing tenacity, courage, and empathy were essential in a love that could make the long haul, was not part of my awareness. Still, I knew I needed to stick it out with somebody and not give up when the dopamine waned. Overcompensating, I swung to the other side of the pendulum, staying in the next two relationships much longer than I should have.
The first, a passionate man with addictions to crack, sex, alcohol, cheating, a man in and out of rehabs, with me desperately trying to fix, help, save – this relationship put me on the self-growth path that became my life. The second, was the man who would become my first husband. When I met him, I knew I could marry him. He felt Solid. Dependable. Serious. It was a thorny bond. We triggered each other constantly. Yet, we expanded each other. I encouraged him to follow his dreams (my strength), and he supported me financially (his strength) through graduate school. Early in our relationship, after he humiliated me for struggling when hiking in ill-fitting old boots he had loaned me, I gave him an ultimatum. Couples therapy or I can’t do this.
He chose therapy, reluctantly. I stayed. We struggled. I fought for us, fought for him to look inside as I was. The uncovering of lost memories and feelings. The seeking to understand how we continually upset each other. If he would just do this. He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to look at the hurt and shame he had suffered as a child and covered up with his angry acting out. He resented me. I didn’t yet know I needed and deserved a cooperative partner. I was used to doing all of the work myself.
Despite the vast distance that had grown between us, I was finding myself. I was changing. After years of self-help and workshops, of individual therapy and couples therapy, of graduate school and training, of working with individuals and couples, I finally gave up on my first marriage of eleven years. By then I was a licensed marriage and family therapist. I was immersed in self-transformation and helping others find the ground under them. This was my gift, where I excelled.
Eventually, I found ‘the one.’ We fell head over heels. We were pretty fantastic together. But, as one can expect, issues began to arise. Like the time he picked me up to go to a party, but he had left the cat door closed, and my cat Hank, was locked out of the house. I had visions of cat murders by coyotes. He thought I went nuts when I freaked out. I thought he was insensitive and obtuse. What we didn’t understand about each other; the pain he’d been caused by crazy people. And the pain I had experienced from traumatic events with pets and people who didn’t care. We didn’t know how to get underneath our fight to these deep stories. We each recoiled into our respective corners and suffered alone, unable to bridge the gap between us, our hearts wounded and closed.
In my work, I saw how mired couples often were, how they reacted to each other, how little space they had to listen to each other, how much they each needed me to see their side. I experienced how difficult it was to slow them down, to delicately peel the layers to the hurt and needs under their reactions, to build understanding, empathy, and vulnerability within and between them. I saw how few tools they had, and how despite claims of ‘good’ childhoods, they hadn’t seen, realized or metabolized the gaps between the nurturing they needed and the nurturing they received. I was steeped in their pain and struggles.
From a lonely fragmented girl, I moved into my empowered self, with a desire to alleviate some of the relational pain that had also been mine. I glimpsed something new. Something that had never been done before shimmered at the edges of my vision. Could an e-learning system teach couples what I had learned and applied to my life, as I took training after training, year after year? I breathed, dreamed and wrestled with the question, “How do I create a learnable journey so relationships can bloom – even without a therapist?” “Could it even be done?”
I moved into action. We were a team now, with a third coding partner. I developed content to teach couples skills they would build on as they traversed through a process of learning, looking within, and communicating: creating an openhearted, more connected and less conflictual relationship. I wrote and organized. My husband to be became my editor. We talked, haggled, discussed. I explained, insisted, argued. With every deep discussion, whether about the project or our lives, our relationship got better. We began to delve more deeply into what happened between us. Why did his stomach ache after we fought? Why did I feel paralyzed, as if I was lost in a dark cave, all alone, with no ability to reach towards him and bridge the gap? I learned from the outside as a therapist, and from the inside as a vulnerable member of a couple. By the end of 4 years, I finished the content. It was amazing. Our relationship was better, fights shorter, recovery quicker.
We taught each other. Me, with my nose to the grindstone. Him, with his trust of the universe, uncannily knowing whatever he needed would appear. He was happier than me. I was more astute about relationships with brilliant ahas. He learned to show up more fully, to listen and learn. I learned to play more and grab onto more joy.
We were ready to get our project out into the world. Did I believe in myself enough? Just as my husband and I opened each other up to growth and a stronger we, so my relationship with this project insisted I grow. I had to learn to ask for help, to decide I was worth helping. My cry became “help me.” Not once, not twice, but over and over. I reached. I demanded. I confronted beliefs. Beliefs that said, “why you?” Beliefs that did not support me saying, “I can do this.”
I said to my husband (we married in the middle of this process), “help me do this.”
I uncovered my inner bag lady. I had seen hints of her before, an aspect of me that felt I wasn’t safe, would never have enough, who believed I could die homeless and alone on a street. I explained to her, we weren’t going to hide in the dark alone. We were coming out to join with the great energy circulating the planet, enlivening, enlightening. We would trust being part of the world. She would merge into me, instead of keeping me hidden, disconnected and not trusting. I would release the part of me desiring a monastic and isolated life. I knew this was not my path, would not bring me to my greatest empowerment. I knew I had to step into my magic and ask for what I wanted. The asking itself was the alchemy that would allow me to be fully empowered.
The gold wasn’t the project, but the process – who each of us turned into, how our relationship grew and how we each grew as individuals. How we learned to support and nourish each other, to turn towards each other. How our deep friendship allowed us to continue to look at places where our connection would rupture, where other loyalties sometimes intruded. How we learned to share our tender hearts.
I taught my husband to look at himself, to deepen, to explore. I showed him relationships included listening, tending, paying attention. I saw relational patterns clearly. This was my talent and gift. He taught me to trust, to play more and to know life is an abundant exchange of energy between each of us and our world. This was his gift. In our work together and in our creation of a connected and beautiful life together, we called each other to our greatest selves and our greatest relationship.