I’m Still Here

Posted on July 17, 2016

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Often in therapy, one partner will question whether the other still loves him or her.  The frequent response is, “You should know that I still love you because I’m still here.”

As a therapist, I read a lot into the fact that you are both sitting here.  Charming as I am, I assume that most people are not going to pay my hourly fee just for the joy of talking to me.  Additionally, I usually want to talk about the things that hurt (what can I say? It’s my job.), so I don’t think you are here for the good time.  Therefore, I conclude that you are both here because this relationship is really important to you.  The relationship is important to you because you love your partner.  This is the person to whom you are attached.  Consequently, you are willing to go through the process of therapy to try to improve the relationship.

When you are in conflict, your partner is less likely to reach the same conclusion.  This is particularly true if you are prone to criticism or contempt when you two are fighting.  The last message your partner is likely to take from your treatment of him or her is “I love you desperately and want you close.”

On trial.  There is an old cliché in Christian circles that asks the question, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Let’s commandeer that one for our examination of marriage.  If you were on trial for being in love with your partner, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

John and Julie Gottman have been the leading researchers in couple relationships over the last four decades.  They have a “love lab” in which couples are invited to stay in a furnished condo and have their relationship observed.  If your home were the love lab, what would an observer see about how you interact with your partner?  If your first thought was “I wish they could see how poorly my partner treats me,” then you are thinking about this backwards.  You cannot control your partner, nor are you responsible for partner’s behavior.  You can only control you.

You are charged with being in love with your partner.  The jury is looking at the tapes of your interactions.  Are they going to convict?  Do you say things to affirm your partner?  Does your tone of voice say “I am interested in talking to you,” or does it say, “You are incredibly annoying?”  Do you graciously do things to serve and support your partner?  Are you a source of comfort to your partner?

The Love Dare (Kendrick & Kendrick, 2013) is a 40 day challenge to attempt to express unconditional love to your partner.  It gives day by day instructions of things you can do to show your partner love.  Day 1 is simply “do not say anything negative today.”  With one highly conflicted couple that I worked with, the husband quit therapy despairing of the relationship improving.  When the wife continued to come, I ran the idea of the love dare by her.  The next week she reported that by day 3, her previously depressed husband was getting up singing in the morning.  He did not know that she was just following instructions in a book, but he felt the shift.

Betrayals.  Couples in therapy are often coping with betrayals in the relationship (e.g. affairs, secrets, boundary violations).  If you are the betrayed spouse, you will be hurt, sad, fearful, and angry about it.  You should expect that your partner would be working to help you heal and to rebuild trust with you.  Generally, couples need help from a therapist (or therapists) to work through these issues.  Betrayed spouses are often traumatized by the discovery of what their partner has done.  If so, the trauma needs to get resolved.  However, to get to a place of real healing in the relationship, there needs to come a point where there is more evidence that “I love you” than “I am still here.”

This is not to say that you are not entitled to your feelings.  It is also not to say that you need to expose yourself to the same hurt again.  If you choose to stay in the relationship, you want to know that your partner understands and cares about how devastating this was for you.  That is a necessary part of the healing process.  You want to see that your partner is keeping appropriate boundaries to protect you and your marriage.  At some point, the resentment has got to go.  John Ortberg wrote that “resentment is like drinking rat poison yourself and waiting for the rat to die.”[1]  The right response to true repentance is grace, not only for your partner’s benefit, but for you and your marriage.

This is not about giving a pass to a cheating spouse.  It is about what is best for you, your partner, and your marriage.  This is also not an easy thing to do.  It is difficult to extend grace when the person who promised to protect your heart has wounded you so deeply.  If you stayed in spite of all of the pain, there must be a reason.  If that reason was purely financial, YAHOO (you always have other options).  If that reason is love, it would be powerful to have your partner have a felt sense of your love despite all of the hurt.

 

“I’m still here” can sometimes feel more like “I am still here because I want to punish you for how you have treated me for all of these years.”  Your therapist may accept “I’m still here” as evidence of your continued love.  Your partner needs more evidence.

Let’s try just for today.  Let’s assume that the jury just saw your interactions from today.  What we want to hear is, “We the jury find the defendant guilty of loving their partner.”

[1] I am not bothering to look up the reference.  You can search for it on the internet if you really want to know.

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