Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Marital Gymnastics

marital gymnastics

Some of my best childhood memories are associated with gymnastics.  I can’t think of anything I enjoyed more than flying through the air to complete some type of handspring, flip or aerial.  I spent hours practicing the maneuvers, and my father installed a set of bars in my backyard so I could practice twirling around and around.  As I learned different tricks, my friends and I would engage in “daredevil follow the leader,” games in which we would challenge each other to increasingly risky conditions for completing our moves.  For example, one of us would complete an aerial on the asphalt or a back handspring on the concrete driveway and see if the other person would or could do it.  In retrospect, it was very foolish at our amateurish levels, but at the time it was one way in which we amused ourselves.

One skill I executed repeatedly with my friends was something called a “death drop,” in which I would sit on a bar and in one motion, fall backwards and continue to propel my body with enough momentum to release my legs and land standing up under the bar.  I started doing them in early elementary school and continued for years, until I could casually and almost effortlessly fall back on just about any bar and land on my feet.  It became second nature.

One day when I was about 11, I was visiting a sister at her apartment complex, and after becoming quickly bored with the adult conversation in the apartment, I excused myself to make a visit to the bars on the playground (bars which have probably since been removed for liability purposes).  I sat myself atop the only bar, which was much lower to the ground than those to which I was accustomed.  However, I remember believing that I was basically invincible, and that no bar was too low for me to propel my body fast enough to complete a death drop.

I was 100% wrong.  I sat on the bar, hands free, and threw myself backward.  Instead of landing on my feet as usual, I felt my face slam into the bark-covered ground below.  Blackness ringed by a halo of stars momentarily enveloped me, laced with a  feeling of more numbness than pain.  Then, after a few seconds, it hurt.  A lot.  My lip was puffy and bleeding, my whole face felt swollen, and I was spitting a mouthful of bark.  I remember that I didn’t want to be embarrassed by crying, and I was using all my energy to not burst into tears.  I had literally fallen flat on my face.

That incident became significant because it altered my attitude toward risk taking.  I still engaged in gymnastics, but I was far more careful about the types of bars from which I attempted the death drop.  The incident also collaterally affected other moves in which I could potentially land on my face.  Forever after that incident, every single time I attempted a front aerial, there was a part of me that was afraid of repeating the painful scenario.  I still performed the move, but with far more trepidation and far less hubris.   I knew that if I didn’t jump high enough or propel my body over fast enough, it would really hurt.  Landing on my face with such force changed me.   I never did recover my former levels of security in executing that move.  My capacity for risk-taking had been permanently compromised.  I definitely stopped performing aerials on asphalt.

It is difficult to improve in gymnastics, an inherently risky sport, without risk-taking.  I never did advance past the level I had achieved when I slammed my face into the ground.  I may never have progressed much anyway, since I wasn’t committed to pursuing gymnastics at a hardcore competition level, but my unwillingness to increase my risk-taking definitely crippled me from continued progression.  Something that had been previously carefree was now scary and potentially immobilizing.

I tell this story because in marital therapy, I observe couples who often quit taking risks with each because of previous painful experiences, and the relationships consequently regress or stagnate.  Sometimes the painful experiences are large and atypical, such as an affair.  Perhaps more frequently they are an accumulation of daily inconsiderate interactions—a raised voice, an impatient response, a dramatic sigh and an eye roll, a criticism, a non-verbal turning away, etc.  These may seem inconsequential in the moment, but ultimately they are small rejections of one’s partner.  Rejection is pain.  When people experience enough rejection, they still interact, but at a protected level.  It is as if they enter every interaction wearing armor in case battle breaks out.  In extreme cases, couples stop interacting (risking) at all.

I’ll try to illustrate how this prevents couples from healing or progressing with a typical exchange, and again, this conversation could happen between a therapist and a wife as easily as between a therapist and the husband:

Husband:  If I actually do try to help around the house, she’ll just tell me how I did it wrong and it won’t make a difference, except that she’ll be mad at me for more stuff.

Therapist:  Do you think she has any idea how painful it is for you to risk trying to make her happy and have your efforts rejected?

Husband:  I don’t know.  Probably not since I just end up giving up and going away and avoiding her.  There would be no point in talking about it.

Therapist:  Can you try to help her understand how painful it is for you?

Husband:  Okay…(turns to wife)…You are always mad at me no matter what I do.  There is no pleasing you.

Wife:  (extremely fast)  You don’t even try!  You don’t care!  (which feels like more bullets to the heart of the husband, instantaneously, decreasing the possibility that he will take any more risk, and increasing the possibility that he will encase himself in more armor)

Therapist:  Okay, hold on…what I’m asking you to help her understand is the type of pain you experience when she rejects you…can you see how that is different from what you just said?

What the above example illustrates in part, since in real life most therapy exchanges are hopefully sliced thinner than this one, is how much easier it was for the husband to talk to his wife about what she was doing wrong rather than about his vulnerable pain.  It’s highly unlikely that in real life a husband in this instance would talk about this to his wife, because it would be too risky.  It’s like giving someone the algorithm to hurt you.  That’s how it feels.  Since he’s not disclosing his pain, but covering it up by looking impassive, his wife believes that he doesn’t care about her and she can have no impact on him.  In essence, she doesn’t think he cares enough about her for her to wound him, so she will continue to injure him without realizing it.  These patterns are difficult to break because they feel necessary to stay safe in a relationship…especially when one’s heart has been really broken.

Sometimes I will have partners who are really trying to improve their marriages, but who really feel stuck because they are afraid of being hurt again, ask me how to take the leap.  I explain that risk-taking is infinitesimally incremental.  In other words, all risks are not equal, and spouses can decide to take intentional risks with each other that feel smaller in comparison to other things, and work their way up.  For example, spiritual and sexual closeness often feel riskier than other forms of interactions, so couples often need to work their way back up by creating less risky interactions.  Over time, safe interactions prime the pump for riskier interactions.

After my accident on the bars, I became paralyzed with the thought of skipping into a front aerial, as I so often had done before the accident.  The possibility that I would never again complete a front aerial was unacceptable to me, but I had to work back into it.  To make it less risky, as I had done when I was first learning the move, I started using a spring board again, which gave me more altitude than I could get from the ground.  I also had to add more yardage in running toward my launch spot instead of taking one high step into the move, as I had also done many times previously.  Very slowly, I worked up to ditching the springboard again and launching myself from the ground.

In marriage, sometimes we have to bring back the springboard, which is preferable to giving up on the relationship (in the absence of ongoing affairs, addiction or abuse), but the goal, metaphorically speaking, should be to launch from the ground again, perfecting the skill.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.  Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.   But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  To love is to be vulnerable.”

Being vulnerable is a choice, but it doesn’t have to happen all at once.  Again, bring back the springboard and work your way toward self-sufficient buoyancy.  In the opinion of a marriage therapist, it’s worth it.  Then, you will really fly.

Reference: The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis, 1971, Harvest Book.

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