We all need opportunities to let our hair down, to be weak, to be sad, to be childish, to be crazy – sometime, somewhere, with someone. That place, hopefully, is at home, with an intimate. A sound relationship permits a range of expressions from anger to affection, without fear of condemnation. Thus, we can be as we really are: weak when we feel weak, scared when we feel confused, childish when the responsibilities of adulthood become overwhelming. Relationships that cease to provide sanctuary are those in which weaknesses are used as weapons, so that acting “out-of-character” is quickly suppressed.
Take Pam and Arnold, a couple living very traditionally. Arnold doesn’t acknowledge Pam’s existence unless she behaves in a certain way. The desired behavior is not clearly defined, although Pam knows that what Arnold wants – “an understanding housewife who is efficient and charming’’– isn’t always how she feels. When Pam insists on being herself, which is sometimes needy, inefficient, and not-so-charming, she is told by Arnold, “You’re mistaken. You’re not the way you think you are. I know you. Deep inside you really are anon-demanding housewife.”
Actually, a non-demanding partner may be a dream wish for some of us, but it does not exist. At times all of us are going to be needy. It would be ideal if we could easily and without consequence let our hair down in our primary relationship. The reality is, intimacy – being able to be fully transparent with a loved one – is something most of us want in life, but it can be stressful. That stress can be overcome before it overcomes us and our relationship. Confronting yourself through your own reflection and expression, as well as through the eyes of your love partner, will almost certainly call on you to draw from your inner resources. No one is without vulnerability, anxieties, and problems.
The most important principle of growing – and this applies whether or not the relationship is supportive – is self-empowerment. Each of us is in charge of our own growth. Taking charge involves turning inward and accessing your own resources to steady your emotional balance. This is called self-soothing: your ability to be in control of your emotions, to comfort and care for yourself without excessive indulgence. It is the process of putting the change and growth that is going on with you – which can be frightening – into perspective.
Indeed, managing our emotions is something of a full-time job. Much of what we do – from reading fiction or watching TV to choosing our friends – is in the service of making ourselves feel better. The ability to soothe ourselves is a fundamental life skill; most of us in the psychological professions view self-soothing as one of the most essential of psychic tools. In fact, it is difficult to envision being able to survive without the ability to withstand the emotional storms that are part of a deep love relationship. The emotional tool for managing relationship stress is self-soothing.
Self-soothing does not involve overindulgence, emotional regression, or bingeing on food or substances. It does involve taking care of yourself while you’re stretching the boundaries of openness and honesty with your partner. Self-soothing permits you to quiet and calm yourself; it’s self-care, but not self-indulgence. The process requires that you not give up on yourself, or tell yourself it is too hard to settle your emotions down. It may be hard, but not too hard. You have to stick with yourself, just as you would with a friend going through a difficult time. Here are some specific suggestions for soothing yourself:
- If you are having a hard time – especially if you are uncovering painful issues from your family of origin, as often occurs when you are allowing yourself to be fully known to a loved one – as much as practically possible, reduce the number and complexity of tasks confronting you by notifying those around you, including your children, to temporarily make fewer demands. Work-related projects and extra responsibilities (e.g. volunteer activities), which add to a hectic, pressured schedule, should be postponed for the time being. In a sense, an ailing psyche, like an ailing body, requires special attention and energy until it is strengthened.
- You may have to break off or reduce contact with your partner to self-repair when the exchange between you and your partner is consistently too unsettling. At the very least, attempt to do less together and enjoy it more rather than the reverse. The duration and degree of physical separation are determined by your emotional state: how badly are you feeling and how quickly can you recover from contact? Make it clear to your partner that your time-out is for self-repair, not withdrawal. Once replenished, you are in a better position to renew your efforts to regain connection with your partner.
- Do your best to stop the negative mental tapes. Stop “awfulizing” the situation and/or telling yourself, “How could he (or she) feel this way?” Accept the present reality and settle down. Quiet yourself instead of exacerbating your very emotional state and losing perspective.
- To help regulate your emotions, look at your past history and recall challenges that you faced successfully. Remind yourself that you are resilient. If you can’t regulate your emotions, control your behavior. Once again, try to regain some perspective; reactions and situations don’t last forever. Behave in a productive manner that you’ll respect afterwards, even if your emotions suggest otherwise. In other words, ask yourself, “If I felt better, how would I handle this?” Then, do your best to at least approximate that behavior. In contrast, take your own advice when you start saying, “Maybe I shouldn’t do that, but…” or “Maybe I shouldn’t say that but…”
- One of the most effective things you can do to release your emotional pain is to write about it. Set aside some time, and write letters to everyone in your family who you feel hurt you or let you down. No one needs to see these letters but you, so don’t hold back, censor yourself, or worry about how well the letter is written. Just put all the hurt and rage that’s been festering inside and contaminating your system on the page. You may also want to write a letter to yourself. An important aspect of self-soothing is to stop punishing yourself for past mistakes. Instead, write a letter of forgiveness. Look back at regrettable actions; recall who you were at the time. Remind yourself that you are a work in progress, ever evolving, always learning, and fallible. Perfection isn’t for human beings.
- Create a peaceful place inside you. If you can tap that source, you can stop distress from building up, allowing your mind to clear and focus more sharply. There are numerous ways to create calm: yoga, meditation, a walk in nature, a hot aromatic bath, a good massage, soothing music, prayer, deep breathing, pleasant memories, and so on.
Do not expect the suggestions above to be easily or quickly soothing. When the wound is deep, the greatest trap is to expect too much healing to happen too soon. Particularly during a period when the hurt is acute, it is wise to fortify yourself on the nourishment that friends and individual interests provide.
Joel Block, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in treating couples. The author of more than 20 books on love and sex, his latest work focuses on giving couples an effective and accessible relationship-healing tool they can use at home in just 15 minutes a week: “The 15-Minute Relationship Fix: A Clinically Proven Strategy That Will Repair and Strengthen Your Love Life.”