After a recent men’s group meeting, I woke up the next morning realizing I hadn’t spoken about a phenomenon that I saw ready to occur for a man: Inevitably, as we do our work, our relationships change. As our relationships change, our partners change.
Many years ago Chip, one of the best psychotherapists I’ve ever known, told me: “I don’t need to do couples therapy, I just need to work with one person and the relationship will change.” Chip was one of Milton Erickson’s students the famous psychiatrist and hypnotherapist students. Erickson understood how powerful the unconscious mind is when used as a change agent.
I continue to see how one person’s change ends up changing his or her partner, too. As a person deconstructs his or her physical and emotional structure, they often unconsciously do the same with their relationship. Dozens of times—maybe even hundreds of times—in thirty years, I’ve heard stories of how partners were affected by a person’s change.
A man deconstructs his relationship
John arrived at our group with back pain, unable to stand erect as he hoppled into the meeting. My back started hurting watching him. As with most acute back pain, John’s back went out because of some mundane act. In his case, John was reaching down to tie his shoelace.
As John spoke, it was apparent that stress had caused John’s body to tighten. The stress was the ongoing tension in his marriage. Barb, John’s wife, wanted John to be more emotionally present, like he’d been when they met. It was obvious John loved Barb, but it was as if Barb was asking John to speak a foreign language he’d never heard. The harder John tried to do what Barb wanted, the more frustrated both of them became.
In the course of the weekly group meetings, John’s body and back released. He felt twenty years younger. That was the easy part of the change. As John’s body let go, so did his emotions. The frustration and repression that started from an abusive father started coming out. Barb got what she wanted… sort of. She got to experience an angry side of John she’d never seen before the men’s group. After a month of bouts of anger, the sadness and depression replaced the anger.
Out of the sadness came vulnerability. John began sharing how lonely he felt. Immediately Barb’s heart opened up. She felt connected to her husband for the first time in more than ten years.
John was on a roll, he wasn’t going to stop with being vulnerable. He began telling Barb he wanted her to be more vulnerable, too, and share her feelings and wants. He wanted to hear what was behind her upsets. He wanted to know her connections to her past. He also wanted to deepen their relationship.
Barb was elated. She had a man who engaged her emotionally. Yet when John began to raise the bar by asking for more than her reactions to him, Barb started to get scared; no one had ever asked her to go deep into her feelings, let alone be willing to be there when she did it. From learning to let go and accept his emotions, it was easy for John to do that for Barb.
John’s patience and acceptance was the most frightening part of the new relationship for Barb. It was the polar opposite of who he was before joining the group. As undesirable as it was, Barb grew accustomed to John’s aloofness. It was predictable and allowed her a lot of freedom to do what she wanted.
John’s continued presence gradually melted Barb’s fears. There were a few months when both of them were learning this new dance, and neither was sure of its outcome. Their wiliness to let die what was no longer serving either one or the relationship brought an innocence much like they’d had when they fell in love.
The same pattern of women leading the emotional evolution of a relationship, pushing if not threatening a man to grow, occurs regularly in groups. This leads a man to take risk he never would have taken because he doesn’t want to lose his partner.
How your change impacts your partner
As you change, you shift the dysfunctional parts of your relationships. As you begin to show up more, speak up more and accept more, your partner starts to do the same. We see men’s partners that never spoke up get mad for the first time in their lives. That is a good thing.
Your courage to get off your ass and join a men’s group, and then show up every week doing your work, models for your partner to speak up and show up in a new way. Often in the beginning, your new emotional vulnerability is celebrated. As you continue to go deeper and address issues that were in you before the two of you met, she may feel pressure to change. She frequently becomes scared, and possibly angry. As dysfunctional as your relationship was, it was a known issue. You’re in new territory now.
Realize as with you, many of her charges and issues were there before either of you met. The stirring up of buried issues can send her into a panic, because unconsciously your changing shifted the status quo, which causes her to reach for her coping mechanisms. Because you are different, those old established ways of her dealing with stress don’t work.
One of the most common behaviors we see from partners is their expression of anger. More than men, women have learned to suppress their anger. Our culture and all our male institutions unintentionally perpetuate capping women’s anger.
When you begin to express, and thereby demonstrate, that the space of your relationship is safe, she will begin expressing. Once she starts sharing a little of her anger, the genie is let out of the bottle… and can’t be put back in.
For a while, you might have an angry partner. It’s an unintended consequence of your past shut down shutting down your partner. Realize that some of her anger was there before you ever met. Now because of your work, courage and the new safety you created, she is empowered to start showing up more fully.
Surfing the emotional tsunami
You get to experience what David Deida speaks about in his Superior Man. You get to experience the emotional tsunami that your partner has held back for years. You get to build that muscle of Assertive Vulnerability where you maintain your center and open heart as all the shit hits the fan.
In the vast majority of cases, both of you come out of this free and renewed. In a few cases, the relationship ends. When it does end, know that it would have ended anyway. If it ends, you will end friends from traveling down this path together.
There will be times when you are sitting in the middle of this feeling that the relationship will end. In those moments, you get to go deep into yourself, feeling all that can you feel, staying open, standing in your love and commitment for yourself, her and the relationship. This exercise is what makes us a MAN more than any other experience.
If your relationship in some way is not being shaken up, then ask yourself: are you bringing it all? What are you holding back? Are you freeing yourself, deconstructing your world for a better world?
Certainly, your relationship does not need to exist in a constant state of shake-up. It may need to go through a purging if either one of you aren’t getting what you want.
If you are one of these men who is stepping up, bring it to your group or at least a close friend who is walking a similar path. Let the men who have gone through this support you. This process might be one of the scariest experiences of your life. You might feel your whole life is disintegrating around it. Your whole life might not be, but your limiting past is. Liberation is powerful for all.
How are you deconstructing your relationship to get what you really want?
First published on The Good Man’s Project.