How Rewiring My Brain Saved My Relationship
"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, LCSW, is the author of It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self, published by Spiegel & Grau.