The Intimate Two-Step
by Neal H. Brodsky LMFT
I am a man who, provided with new information, sometimes takes things to extremes. Raised as a non-observant Jew, I learned late in life that something had been hidden in the forgotten corner of my father’s mind. His father and therefore I (and he) were descended from a lineage of Jewish High Priests or “Koheins.” One of the key tenets of the Jewish faith is to have a Sabbath or day of rest. And new to this practice, I have taken it on with something of a vengeance. The problem is that vengeance and rest don’t mix easily, especially when you and your partner are on “different pages.”
Step One: On this Sabbath afternoon, I hear my wife Judy’s car pulling into the garage and move quickly away from my Sabbath Torah reading to meet her, feeling conflicted. I know she likes me to help her bring up groceries and purchases but then there’s the proscription about doing specific types of work on the Sabbath, something I am new to and grappling with. So when I meet Judy at the garage door where she is bringing in purchases from the outside, my body moves forward towards her but my heart is torn. Afraid to trust her with the emotional turmoil roiling inside me, I make what I now see was a “defensive choice.” Mounting what she has so accurately identified as my “high horse” and adding to my pain and hers, I imperiously remind her of the biblical Sabbath edict. She picks up the packages and storms past me upstairs.
Step Two: An hour after the garage door incident. I am walking ten steps behind Judy down the lane in the woods near our house, in the proverbial “dog house”. What a mess. More of the story of how we got here, flashes before me….My lovely and generous wife has made it part of her late morning errands to buy us lunch which we are supposed to share on her return in the early afternoon. But I have forgotten the time she was to return, and from that state of confusion the 12-Step Recovery movement calls HALT territory (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) I had made the decision to ease my hunger, snacking on nuts and dried fruit just 10 minutes before her arrival. As she walks in the door, fragrant delicacies from our local Indian restaurant in hand, I am not hungry anymore. Judy, who has gone out of her way to serve both of us, is understandably upset. “Did I think to pick up the phone and call her?” (Actually NO, since using the phone is something I try not to do on the Sabbath.)
If I could get my “head on straight” I would stop for a moment to catch my breath before getting myself into more “hot water” with my treasured partner. To make matters worse, I am judging her in a wave of swirling thoughts. Why can’t she be observant and do the Sabbath exactly like me? Wasn’t she the one who re-introduced me back to Judaism when I met her over 20 years ago? Wow, I’m so much better than her, and I love being better than her!
As we make circle after divided circle around the lane, I am scared, and thinking scary thoughts. I remember what a wise person once asked me when I was headed towards divorce in my first marriage 25 years ago, “Does everything have to fall apart before you start thinking about the impact of your behavior on your partner, Neal? That it’s not just about you?”
Still, there is something about the dance of this walk that has moved our couple conflict into the healing realm of the physical, where potential “shift” can enter the picture to transform a profoundly “stuck” place. As people in the recovery movement say: “Move a muscle...change a thought.” The movement of walking, removing ourselves from the scene of our initial conflict is a step forward.
Step Three: I eat the food Judy had brought me, alone at our dining room table. If I had more sense, I would forgive her and myself for the inevitable lapses of being human. I would move into the adjoining room where she is sitting, as she always invites me to do when I need to eat and she is not hungry. But rather than share the meal, I am holding onto what I then dimly realize is the “deliciousness” of my grudge, isolating in silence. And yet, I am accepting the gift of this food from my wife. It’s not perfect. Still, it’s progress. I am slogging another awkward step forward towards surrender.
Step Four: We had planned to watch a movie together at home this evening on the large flat screen. Ordinarily it would be our custom to hold each other’s hands at the good parts. Not today. We watch, sitting an arm’s breadth apart on the couch. And yet, we are watching together, engaged in the movie, even if not enthralled with each other. This hurts but it feels better than being 10 steps away.
Step Five: At the end of the day, I am turned away from Judy in our large bed, a young part of me wanting her to reach out towards me, to apologize, to make it all better. Yet I know that I am no longer a child, even though I have, like all of us, an inner child that needs warmth and comfort. Deep inside me, there is knowledge borne of experience that I need to be the one to provide an atmosphere of loving sustenance first for myself and then for my partner. I know that I must be the first to forgive myself for the imperfection of the day, to see and own my part in contributing to the pain we felt.
So I turn towards my wife of 20 years. I speak of my forgetfulness, of the grief I feel when separate from her, of the places that wanted to hurt her when I couldn’t find my way back to her and of the deep wish and longing to find her again. Slowly we touch. A face, a hand, a mouth…
This has been a “love date.” We have struggled and recovered again back into connection, following each other step by step, with frequent checks on weather and wind direction. We are willing to have faith in the direction we intend to move, which is toward intimacy with our inner selves and each other, on this trail of love.
The Intimate Two-Step – Part(ner) II
by Judy Gotlieb, LMFT
When I rewind in my mind to the moments leading up to the “breakdown” between my beloved Neal and me on that “Sabbath” Saturday, I remember a string of small disappointments and (self-imposed) thwarted impulses.
First, there was his surprising and generous offer to go with me to my doctor’s appointment, followed by his take-back, in response to my ambivalent response.
Our original plan was to spend the forecasted rainy afternoon together at a movie. There’s a memory of feeling elated at the unexpected sunniness of the day when leaving the doctor’s office, followed by the realization that I “shouldn’t” call him (since he was in Sabbath mode) to spontaneously suggest we take advantage of the unexpected clearing skies and meet at the beach. I sucked it up and stuck with the agreed upon plan of my doing the week’s food shop at Trader Joes, and picking up Indian food for lunch (again without feeling free to call and ask him what he’d like). I drove home feeling both generous and a bit like a martyr.
As I pulled up to our driveway, I finally did call him to ask for help with all the packages (part of our regular non-Sabbath day routine). He reluctantly showed up at the basement door saying he didn’t want to leave his Sabbath space to “work” -- which lugging groceries upstairs would qualify as.
It felt like a slap in the face. Something about his leaning toward me by showing up at the door, in contrast with his pull back – a giving and taking away within seconds of each other.
Now it’s important to say that because of my childhood wounding and subsequent “wiring” of my brain, I look for (and sometimes demand) a reliable, predictable and omniscient (all knowing) response from my primary attachment figure now, aka my husband. And especially in this case where I had made so many efforts to respect his observance, and was eager to please him with gifts of love (food and connection).
As a child my mother used to play a game with me that she thought was fun and harmless. She would hold me tight in her lap and say, “Go away, I don’t want you here!” I would laugh at the contradiction of her words and actions, a way of discharging my confusion. And of course this led her to believe I loved the game. In looking back at what happened that day I can see how Neal’s mixed messages unconsciously triggered this experience of my mother’s ambivalence toward me.
The last “straw” was when I began to set the table for lunch and he said he wasn’t hungry because he’d just eaten something. He’d forgotten I was bringing home food! I felt devastated and hopeless that we would ever find a way to be in synch on Saturdays given his Sabbath observance, an issue we’d been struggling with for some time. The ground beneath me felt like it was crumbling.
I became livid and rejecting, wanting to get as far away from him as possible, and retreated to our bedroom. I was entrenched in a punishing and unforgiving place. What I really wanted was for him to just “scoop me up” into his arms like a young child, let me know he understood how disappointed and let down I was and apologize for his role in it.
I desperately wanted to know that he “got” what upset me on a deep level, even though I wasn’t in touch with the roots and power of my reactions at the time. For him to let me know he could “hold” my tender feelings, that they were not too big. This was something I did not receive from my mother. I missed an essential feeling of attunement from her, and told myself (as her youngest child) there wasn’t much room to have “big” or messy feelings, especially given the stress she endured with one of my older brother’s uncontrollable temper tantrums. Instead, I learned to stuff my needs. I came to believe at an early age that “caretaking of others” was the best way to win love.
After some time passed, I was able to let Neal know that I was ready to process and deconstruct what happened between us. As difficult as this was – and it took all day, on and off – I noticed I was able to make a series of small reaches, followed by pull backs, my own version of the push/pull dance. I joined him on a walk he invited me to share with him, after initially saying “No”. I slipped my hand in his for moments, also walking ahead of him at times. And in the evening I watched a movie on our couch with him, although I sat at the far end of the couch and didn’t respond to his efforts at contact. (Ironically the movie we watched was Academy Award winning “Manchester by the Sea”, which we had no idea would be so heart wrenching in it’s portrayal of loss, but matched our hopeless mood.)
Finally at the end of the evening when we felt as far apart from each other as we’d been in a very long time, I boldly suggested we get into bed and hold each other. I knew in my gut that the only way to move through this breakdown was to push up against the physical barriers between us and re-connect.