When I realized I was experiencing on-going hurt in my marriage, I began to build walls between me and my husband. Unable to trust him emotionally, I needed to protect my heart.
Our marriage problems had crept up on us, slowly becoming part of our marriage without our full awareness. I had a vague sense of my husband not loving the things about me that I treasured the most. My innermost self was ignored, dismissed, or banned from conversation. I suspected that my husband didn’t love me at all.
I remember the aftermath of one conversation in particular. I had been struggling with something for over a year. I’d tried to talk with Big Guy about it before, but he’d told me my feelings were invalid or that I just needed to get over it. I’d tried to deal with it on my own, but I needed my husband’s support. So, as gently as I could, I raised the subject with him one evening, desperately hoping that this time he would hear me.
My heart still bears faint scars from his words and tone:
“That was a long time ago and you should be over it by now. The conversation is over.”
I was shattered.
I hung my head, too numb to even cry. And a decision poured into my mind:
I hoped it wasn’t true. I hoped maybe he loved me a little. But he doesn’t. My own husband doesn’t love me. He doesn’t care about me. I must be more horrible and unlovable than I thought. I am hurting so much, and he doesn’t care enough to even listen. I hurt so much. I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t. I know what I have to do….I have to lock myself up so his words can bounce off me instead of hurting me. I need to protect myself so I don’t ever have to hurt like this again. I don’t want to do this, but I don’t know what other option I have. It’s going to be so hard, but I have to do it. I have no choice.
And so it began.
The time I was most vulnerable was during sex. Our sex life has already slowed down a bit by this point, but this is when I stopped being fully engaged. I couldn’t bear to go through the risk of exposing myself again, so I armored up.
I began to pull away from my husband. Occasionally I was aware of what I was doing. There were times when I wanted to have sex with him—but I couldn’t bring myself to do so without some token that for a few moments, at least, he could love the whole me. From Big Guy’s point of view, he was having to earn sex. I thought I was doing a risk assessment to determine whether it was safe to be vulnerable for a few moments. At times early on, I would sometimes begin to respond to him without having received any expression of his love—and I would remind myself that I had to keep myself safe. So I did. And I shut down.
Sometimes I was aware and intentional about what I was doing. I often went out of my way to avoid anything that might give Big Guy any ideas about sex: bending over when he was around, changing in front of him, or having any conversation at all about sex.
If I kept him from asking for sex, I wouldn’t have to be reminded of the fact that he didn’t love me. I wouldn’t have to expend so much energy into donning my armor. So I avoided, I deflected, I made him feel guilty about his sexual desire, and I picked fights with him in hopes that he would either get fed up and leave me alone or that we would break through that emotional barrier between us long enough for me to let myself have sex.
My armor, my walls, kept me safe—but they created collateral damage.
There were other things that began to happen with no intention on my part. They were by-products of my efforts to protect myself.
- I stopped touching him except when we were around other people and I could feel “safe.”
- I stopped smiling at him.
- I made a point to keep something or someone between us when we were both sitting on a couch.
- I spent a lot of evenings doing things in a room other than where he was.
- I didn’t start conversations that we might enjoy.
- I stopped laughing with him. (To be fair, he wasn’t laughing much anymore himself.)
- I stopped looking him in the eyes.
- I kissed only with a closed mouth—whether we were around other people or were having sex.
All these things added to the rejection he was feeling, and they all contributed to the disconnection I was feeling.
Although I was barely aware that these things has stopped, these were the things that were visible to others (especially our children). My husband made an occasional comment, but all these things crept into our lives as though they’d been there all along.
No one else could see what wasn’t happening in the bedroom, but everyone around us saw the non-sexual distance growing between us.
It was collateral damage that took its toll on both of us.
Sadly, I hadn’t even realized these things were missing.
Surprised by Growth
Fortunately, there is a flip side to all the collateral damage: collateral growth.
Just as I once had been intentional about pulling away from my husband to protect myself emotionally, when I decided to reach out to rebuild our marriage, I was just as intentional. (I describe the basic process here.)
Similarly, just as there were negative and visible by-products to that pulling away, there have been positive and visible by-products of our reconnection.
I have been aware of the rebuilding of our sexual and emotional connection. That’s where my effort has gone, and it’s what I’ve paid attention to.
I’ve also been aware of the return of some of the things that had gone away through collateral damage. I make a point of spending my evenings where he is. I touch him every time we are near each other.
Sometimes, though, we are caught by surprise as we realize something else that has come back into our marriage.
Take, for instance, something that happened just the other day: Big Guy and I were kissing—a long, deep soulful kiss. He pulled away and asked, “Did you know you’re kissing with an open mouth again?”
I hadn’t really thought about it, but I guess I was. Open-mouth kissing returned to us a long time ago, but its presence hadn’t really registered with us. I realized that I had lost my fear of vulnerability and gained the ability to trust my husband without even realizing it.
My urge to protect myself had given rise to so many unintended by-products. It turned out the same thing was happening as a result of my intentional growth.
All those negative by-products were righting themselves without any extra effort on my part. The good and loving habits were creeping back into our lives as though they’d never left us.
Working on sexual intimacy can create collateral growth in the place where the armor and walls used to reside.
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