If you’re the victim, you take the first step towards repair by honoring your feelings.
You’ve been putting up with a lot. This relationship is not what you thought it would be. There have been lots of problems; but, you say, there are problems in every relationship. You have to take the good with the bad, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. You’re the type that, when the going gets tough, you get going. You put your head down and move on. You don’t make a big deal about things you can’t change, and being hurt, you believe, is one of those things you can’t change.
Now something has happened that you can’t ignore. Maybe there’s been a dramatic turn of events. Maybe the chickens have come home to roost. Maybe the things she’s done to hurt you, she’s doing to your children. Maybe it’s you that has taken a turn for the worse; you’ve got bruises, you’re falling apart, madness has come for you. Maybe your girlfriends have taken you aside and counseled you to leave the bum because they’re worried about you. Something has happened that you can’t ignore. So, don’t ignore it.
The first thing to do is to fight off the urge to grant a cheap pardon. You may think that, in granting a premature amnesty, you’re preserving peace. The truth is, you are putting up walls dividing yourself against yourself. You are turning aside your feelings.
Feelings are like the idiot lights on your car. They’re crude messages about your state of being. When the oil light goes on in your car, you know to check the oil. When you feel angry, you know there is a perceived injustice somewhere. You don’t ignore the idiot light on your car, do you? Then don’t ignore your feelings. Check them out to see what’s causing them; and thank your feelings for alerting you to a potential danger.
I once knew a guy who had a check engine light that would not go off. He brought the car to the shop and they couldn’t find a thing wrong. They offered to turn the light off, but it would cost a couple hundred dollars. He decided to put tape over it, so he wouldn’t have to see it. In doing so, he gave up any benefits having a functioning check engine light might offer.
People will often treat their feelings this way, especially people who are in demanding environments, with demanding people. The tendency is to tape over their feelings, put their heads down, and move on. Keep a stiff upper lip. Buck up. No one is interested in how they feel.
I think there are definitely times when this kind of toughness is called for, but it is not the way out. It’ll help you survive, but not thrive. It does not contribute to positive change. Not every hill is worth dying for, but some are. You’ll live to fight another day, but one of these days, you’ll have to fight.
By fight, of course, I mean confront the issues and create change. To do so, you’ll have to welcome these strong, unpleasant feelings and honor them as the helpful allies they are. They’re trying to protect you, warn you, and ready you for a struggle. They’re also identifying and standing up for your values.
Do this thing for yourself and your relationship now. Make a list of all the crap that has come your way because of his behavior. Take note of all the messes you’ve cleaned up, the anxious nights you stayed up, the blows you received, the lies you’ve heard, the money that’s been wasted, the betrayals you’ve suffered. Just make a list, you don’t have to act upon it. Go ahead, do it now. I’ll wait.
There, done? Probably not. You will likely add to that list as you remember more and more. When you pay attention, you tend to remember better. When you remember it, take note.
Now, go to your list and jot down how those incidents make you feel now and how you felt at the time.
For example, let’s say one of the items on your list was that you had to clean up his puke after he came home drunk and called Ralph all over the bathroom floor. What emotions might you feel? I might have felt concern when I heard him puking; anger when he left it to me; disgust at the smell; relief when he seemed to feel better; shame if there was anyone else around to see it. Those are just a few.
Once you’re done doing that, see if you can spot the value that stands behind each emotion.
You felt concern because, despite everything, you love him. Anger because you believe in fairness. Disgust because puke can make you sick and you value your health. Relief because you value his health. Shame because you value your and his reputation.
You see how emotions stand in for and indicate values? If you didn’t have emotions, you wouldn’t know your ethics. If you didn’t have emotions, you would not be standing up for your standards. In fact, that is exactly the case when you deny your feelings, put your head down, and toughen yourself. You lose touch with what’s important. You misplace your moral compass.
Once you have paid attention to your feelings and reaffirmed your values, their service is complete. They’re like soldiers returning from war. They need to be demobilized, disarmed, and integrated back into polite society. To put it another way, they’re idiot lights, not the driver. You’re the driver. Your feelings should not be in charge. You should be in charge. Take note of your feelings. When they signal to you, investigate what they are trying to say, and then decide what to do about it. Don’t make your feelings do more than they are meant to do, but pay attention and respect their intelligent design.