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Couples Therapy | The Change Triangle | HIlary Jacobs Hendel

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When I began dating Jon, I was 39 years old and divorced with no intention of remarrying. He was also divorced, and we were both navigating the challenges of single parenting. In the initial stages of our courtship, I shared a fundamental piece of information about myself:

"I love taking care of men," I said. "I consider myself to be all-giving." 

"That's great!" he said. "Because I consider myself to be all-taking!" 

I laughed, thinking his response was funny and charming. And...I thought he was joking! 

My mother taught me to have compassion for men and to take care of them. My father, a wise but miserly man, got angry when I asked for basic things like new underwear. He accused me of being needy. They created a voice in my head that said, "Saying no or putting your needs first is bad." When I started dating, I already took pride in being a low-maintenance girlfriend. 


Jon and I were well suited for each other. We were intellectual equals, enjoyed the same activities and had similar values. He was funny, kindhearted and communicative. I had never met a man as willing to talk through problems. So, after thinking I would never remarry, I reconsidered, with some encouragement from Jon, and decided to try again. 

He worked at his job, but I did everything else. For example, Jon hated filling out forms and doing paperwork, so I took care of that. He liked being cooked for, so I did that too. He perseverated about work and other problems, and I always listened. I joked that he married a therapist to have 24/7 support—but I believed that was true. I was a mother to our four children, all of whom were beginning their teen years. I was starting a new career and working full time. The weight of those demands left me weary. Jon appreciated my hard work, often thanking me. And I didn't feel he was taking advantage on purpose. He was just being himself. 

But I had also learned from past relationships that letting resentments fester was a recipe for disaster. Feeling the rub of each new demand, I thought about saying no, but that made me feel so bad about myself, so imperfect, that I put it off. 

The all-giving part in my head yelled, "You can do it! Just try harder. Be nicer. Be more loving. Be a good girl!" I was not ready to let go of being the ideal partner, a saint. 

I tried to discuss the conflict with Jon. 

"I'm tired," I'd say. My words were met with sympathy but not curiosity. 

"I'm scared you'll be angry if I don't meet your needs," I'd say, trying again. 

"I won't be angry," Jon said, but he didn't step up and help with household chores, and I didn't believe that he wouldn't be angry. 

I'm not sure what would have happened if I had simply asked, "Can you please make dinner tonight?" But I didn't have the courage. 

As a trauma- and emotion-centered therapist, I know that childhood experiences, where parents send strong messages about how to be, affect the wiring of a child's brain. In my mind, I was supposed to be all-giving. But I had lived long enough to learn that that belief did not serve me. I had to rewire my brain to save my relationship. 

One day, I finally summoned my courage. 

"Remember I said I was all-giving?" I asked Jon. 

"Yes," he replied. 

"Well, I am not." 

Jon looked concerned. "What does that mean?" 

"I cannot always give you what you want. I am so sorry." 

What followed was a difficult period in our marriage. We were both sullen. I couldn't feel our connection, and I couldn't tell whether I was creating distance or whether it was coming from Jon. The loneliness was painful and scary. A part of me wanted to resort to my old ways to repair the bond between us. Another part of me knew that that wouldn't work either. I was stuck in relationship purgatory. 

We finally sought therapy. 

After several hard sessions, something huge happened to me: I was talking about how hard it was to deny Jon his needs, and even worse to see the disappointment and disapproval on his face. Suddenly, I got very dizzy. 

"I'm dizzy!" I said, looking to our therapist for guidance. 

I thought he would instruct me to stop what we were doing so I could gather myself. 

Instead, he suggested, "Can you move into the dizziness?" 

I could sense the dizziness in the front of my head. My inclination was to pull backward away from it. But I trusted the therapist, so I moved my head forward. 

A feeling reminiscent of a black cloud overwhelmed me. 

"I feel so deeply inadequate that I cannot give Jon what he wants," I said with my head hanging low. I started crying. 

I felt like a little girl, weak and out of control. I was embarrassed to be seen this way. But I was also relieved to recognize the truth of my experience, to finally confront my fear and deep-seated shame. 

Jon moved in closer and held me as I sobbed. 

After that session, things changed. It was as though something dark was brought into the light, which transformed it to make it bearable. I now asked for what I wanted and said no when I needed, despite the fact that each time I did, I felt that familiar cloud of fear and shame. But instead of keeping these feelings to myself, I looked to Jon for support. Like alchemy, Jon's reassurance that he would not stop loving me just because I had needs converted my shame to emotional safety, which I had never experienced with a man. In turn, I became more emotionally strong and generous, not begrudging him his feelings in response to the changes in our relationship. He was entitled to be disappointed or angry if I denied him. 

Gradually, as I shared more and more of what I needed and set limits for how much I would do, my shame diminished. Thirteen years since I proudly announced my all-giving nature to Jon, our partnership has come into balance. It's not that I don't ever feel conflicted about asking for what I need or saying no; I do. It's just that now I accept my limits and accept myself as I truly am. I no longer aspire to be an all-giving little girl, just a giving-enough adult partner. 


Hilary Jacobs Hendel is the author of It’s Not Always Depression.

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