There was a time when “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” was a common mantra. Now we know better: words can indeed cause deep psychic wounds. And when uttered by people we love and have presumed love us back, they pierce even more deeply.
I used to believe that if a couple was getting along and behaving in a loving way to one another, hurtful and even cruel words would naturally fade into the background. But I’ve frequently seen couples in which hurt spouses may forgive their partner for the harsh words spoken in anger, but nonetheless remain haunted by some biting comment that continues to sting long after the argument is over.
My work with Alyssa and Caleb seemed to be going well. They’d been married 20 years and were a good team when it came to parenting their three children. Caleb worked in IT for a bank, and Alyssa had recently started her own small business.
Four months ago, Alyssa had persuaded Caleb to come to couples therapy despite his belief that they’d been lucky in life and had “nothing to complain about.” Alyssa was concerned about how much they were bickering, and the fact that they occasionally had big blowups. She said that they once felt like each other’s best friend and confidante, but it didn’t feel that way anymore. When they had sex, she added, it was “very good,” but at this point, those times were few and far between.
I presented the possibility that they could have an even more gratifying marriage. Soon both he and Alyssa were talking about what they longed for and what more they could do for one another. Their bickering diminished greatly, and their big blowups ceased entirely. So we spoke about cutting back on the frequency of the sessions, with the aim of stopping entirely fairly soon—and then we hit a wall.
The next time I saw them, they looked slumped: not deflated completely, but not as full of the hopefulness I’d become accustomed to seeing in them. When I asked about it, they reported that they’d had an argument. On the plus side, they noted that unlike arguments they’d had before, this one had not escalated to days of sulky withdrawal. Still, Alyssa was left deeply unsettled. “I can’t stop thinking about what Caleb said to me when he was mad,” she told me. “He wasn’t yelling like he used to, but that makes it even clearer that he said what he really feels.”
Caleb suddenly jumped in: “I told you I didn’t really mean it. I’ve apologized. I lost my temper and said something stupid. You know how I get. I feel really bad about saying that. What do I have to do? Go down on my knees and beg for forgiveness?”
When they finally told me what he’d said—”Why is this about you? It’s always about you!”—I found myself surprised and thinking, Really? That’s not so bad. It’s not a nice thing, of course, but not terrible. Yet for Alyssa, his words were extremely hurtful, since he’d said things like this in the past. “One time, about eight years ago, he said I was narcissistic,” she explained. “Another time he said that I don’t really care about anybody but myself.”
An exasperated Caleb replied, “How many times do I have to tell you that I didn’t mean that?! You never let go of anything!”
“Because I know that’s what you really believe,” Alyssa shot back. “Whenever you’re mad, your true feelings come out—and it’s always about me being self-centered.”
No matter how many times Caleb apologized and asserted that he’d said something he didn’t mean, Alyssa repeated that it was when Caleb was angry that his true feelings emerged. Stalemate!
It was important for Caleb and Alyssa to understand why Caleb’s accusation would be particularly hurtful to Alyssa, even if someone else might not be as upset by it. When couples are stuck in this way, I often start by zooming in on their understanding of each other’s family history, as well as their own, to explore how legacy issues influence their current perceptions and sensitivities.
First, I asked Caleb how he understood the depth of Alyssa’s hurt. This gave him an opportunity to show empathy, make his apology more meaningful, and be more mindful in the future of the pain his words could inflict. I said, “Caleb, I know you’ve apologized and said you really didn’t mean the things you’ve said, but I wonder if you have some thoughts about why Alyssa is so deeply wounded by your comments.”
“Well,” he answered. “I guess maybe Alyssa thinks that I’m saying that she’s like her mother.” Turning toward Alyssa, he added, “I know how hurt you’ve been that your mother doesn’t seem to be interested in your life or our kids. You’ve said that when your parents got divorced, your mother hardly noticed how awful it was for you; it was all about what she was going through. The last thing you’d ever want is to be like your mother in that respect. I don’t think you’re like your mother.”
I then asked Alyssa to tell me what she knew about Caleb’s background that would have some bearing on why he might be inclined to make that kind of comment, even if he didn’t mean it. She thought for a few moments, and answered, “I guess nobody looked after Caleb when he was growing up. His brother and sister had serious learning difficulties, and his parents were preoccupied with the two of them. Caleb was the kid who could be counted on, so I think he holds a lot in and never asks anyone for help. But when it gets too much, he explodes. I think deep down he believes that he has to take care of everything, and that I only think about myself. Even though I get where it comes from, it doesn’t change how hurt I am that he sees me that way.”
For an understanding of the family history to really take hold in Alyssa’s psyche, I needed to find a way to mobilize Alyssa’s ability to believe Caleb’s explanation—that he was angry and didn’t mean what he said—instead of telling herself that this was Caleb’s true feeling. To do this, Caleb had to be more convincing in his assertion that he didn’t see her as self-centered, and Alyssa had to get in touch with the part of her that believed him.
Ellen Wachtel, JD, PhD, is in private practice and gives workshops across the country and abroad. She’s the author of We Love Each Other But…, as well as a new book for therapists, The Heart of Couple Therapy: Knowing What to Do and How to Do It.
This blog is excerpted from "Storm Damage: Angry Words Can Sink a Relationship," by Ellen Wachtel. The full version is available in the March/April 2019 issue, The Missing Piece: Embracing a More Embodied Psychotherapy.
Illustration © Sally Wern Comport
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