"Let's talk tonight," said Callie.
"Oh no, not again!" thought Darren as he gave Callie a blank stare, feeling like a deer in the headlights.
Darren knew from past experience that "Let's talk," meant, "Let's talking about what you are doing wrong, and about how you are not meeting my needs, and about how hurt and unloved I feel."
It was not that Darren was a closed man - far from it. He would have loved to talk with Callie about her own learning experiences and about his. He would have loved to talk if he felt her openness and caring about herself and him. But he hated talking with her when he knew that her focus was to get him to validate her and make her feel secure. And he knew from the tone in her voice that she was feeling abandoned due to her own self-abandonment and she was projecting this abandonment onto him.
But he felt trapped. If he said yes, he knew they would end up in a fight. If he said no, he knew Callie would be furious at him, accusing him of being closed and not working on their marriage. And Darren had never learned how to manage the loneliness and heartbreak he felt when Callie not only didn't see him, but was angry and blaming toward him. So sometimes he would angrily walk away, saying that he didn't want to talk, and other times he would give in, talking in the hopes that he could say the right thing that would pacify Callie. Which, of course, never happened.
"It doesn't work to talk and it doesn't work to not talk," said Darren in our phone session. "I end up feeling trapped and awful either way. I don't know what to do."
"Darren, I know from past sessions that you feel lonely and heartbroken when Callie doesn't see what an open and loving man you are - like you are with your sons and your friends. I know that you keep defending yourself to try to get her to see you, but it never works. But the real problem is that you are not seeing you. You are not seeing your own feelings if loneliness and heartache when Callie treats you unlovingly, nor are you moving into compassion for your own feelings - which means being very kind and gentle toward yourself. Instead you either give yourself up or leave in anger. In neither case are you taking responsibility for your own feelings. There is no chance of Callie seeing you when you are not seeing you."
If Darren learned to see himself and move into compassion for his own feelings, he would then be able to take loving action for himself, which would be to disengage from Callie without anger, engaging in talking with her only when he experienced her as being open to learning. Until he did this for himself, their dysfunctional system would continue as it is, with Callie pulling on Darren and Darren giving in or resisting.
"Darren, the way out of this relationship trap is to be focused on taking loving care of yourself - of your own feelings, rather than trying to control Callie by giving yourself up or leaving in anger. As long as you are trying to convince her that you are a good guy and try to get her approval, or resist being controlled by her, you will continue to feel trapped. Only when you give yourself the approval you are seeking from her will you attain emotional freedom."
It is not easy to move out of trying to control your partner or not be controlled and into true loving action toward yourself, but it is the only way out of a dysfunctional relationship system.