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April 30, 2021

Reward & Punishment: how to break this Invisible Pattern in our Relationships.

 

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It was when I caught myself stifle an urge to express words of love to my husband one morning that I finally saw the full extent of my role in co-creating our relationship.

Being on the receiving end of withdrawal of love is something I know well. Reward and punishment were how my parents expressed love. I used to perceive it as normal. I learned early that love meant exclusion, conditions, and pain. The punishment was certainly effective in getting me to behave in ways that had my parents feel proud.

So it did not surprise me when I caught myself doing the same to my children. Except my children were less pliable than I was at their age. They refused to be manipulated.

And now I saw how I dosed love for my husband in the same conditional way. Here too, I was not getting the results I wanted.

That morning, I observed the actual rise of the expansive impulse to share warmth originating from my heart, immediately followed by an automatic override.

When my parents finally broke up after over 40 years of marriage, in the painful conversations that followed, my mother admitted to me that she held herself back from expressing love to my father over the years. She had good reasons for it, she said. I do not doubt her wounds. What struck me then was that she actively withdrew love. She felt it but chose not to show it.

It had me wonder what came first: the reasons for the withdrawal of love or the withdrawal of love itself?

Years of blaming, resenting, nagging, complaining, projecting, rejecting, and withdrawing of love did not make a dent in my husband’s behavior “for the better.”

Instead, we both became entrenched in our individual cocoons of woundedness and victimhood. I was successfully recreating the same dynamic that brought the end of my parents’ relationship.

Unlike my mother, after years of blaming my husband for my lack of fulfillment, I decided to take matters into my own hands, pursue my own passions, and take care of my own needs. As I became more contented through taking action and improving my own life, I stopped blaming my husband for my unhappiness.

Thinking that other people can and should make us happy or worthy is actually what keeps us stuck. This illusion that our well-being depends on other people’s behavior is what leads to so much of our unhappiness. This is true for all relationships, including parents and children.

The first step toward happiness is understanding what that means to us. The second step is committing to doing whatever it takes to ensure our own happiness. This is where I see so many of us stumble: we feel guilty and selfish for putting ourselves first, and often fall back to resenting others for our lack of satisfaction instead.

If you do not prioritize your own happiness, you cannot expect that others will.

My improved state of well-being, as well as the inner shifts in expectations and attitude, caused significant ripples in all of my relationships. The relationship with my husband was the hardest to crack because the tracks were deeply set after decades of dancing to the same codependent music. We were locked in a pattern and did not even see it.

I love comparing relationships to a dance. It helps to understand the dynamics we respond to.

It takes one partner to change the way they show up—their dance steps—for the whole dance to change.

We get stuck when we expect change to come from our partners. What we fail to understand is that they will not introduce new moves if they are okay with the current dance. If we are the ones dissatisfied with the status quo, we are the ones who have to initiate change!

Feeling entitled and with a permanent eye roll, I wasted years of life expecting the change in our circumstances to come from my husband.

Even when the life I no longer wanted became quite intolerable, I still refused to take initiative for a while. Kicking and screaming, just like my mom, I wanted my husband to lead. And he was. Except, he was leading to the best of his abilities, habits, traumas, and dancing to the beat of his own default setting.

Finally, in a desperate act of survival, I took the lead in the dance of my own life—steering it slowly, but surely in the direction I actually wanted it to go.

So much of what causes pain in relationships is the way we perceive the intentions of the other.

Raised on reward and punishment, we misinterpret our partner’s “refusal to behave” as a personal affront, rejection, a withdrawal of love. It awakens an old, deeply-buried sense of unworthiness. Whatever punishment was employed by our parents will continue tormenting us way into old age.

Silence for me is one such thing. The silent treatment was used by my father to show disappointment. Or at least this is how I interpreted it as a child. His ignoring me was among the most intolerable feeling I have ever experienced. It had me suffer whenever I faced silence from anyone, even if it was a message that was not responded to right away. It is only recently that I understood: silence is simply a lack of information, the absence of feedback. In itself, it is neutral.

I also learned that when men go silent, they are in a fight-or-flight response. They may be overwhelmed by their big, confusing emotions that no one taught them to process, and they simply shut down.

So when one morning, after a difficult conversation with my husband the previous night, followed by silence, my spontaneous inner impulse was to reach out and be kind, what happened instead was my habitual override of that emotion.

In the past, this coping mechanism has permitted me to remain in prideful and superior silence. This time—as a conscious observer—I actually recognized that I had a choice: to continue the ancient pattern that kept generations of women in my family stuck in unhappy relationships or do something differently. In that moment, I consciously chose to return to the open heart impulse, making a certain effort to veto the override.

I broke my own pattern; I changed my own dance moves.

That moment of choosing differently created a possibility for something new. I accepted responsibility for my behavior and how I show up in my relationships.

The kind words I allowed myself to speak that morning, to the man who’s shared my bed for over 30 years and watched me give birth to our children, produced a resulting splash of the most profoundly moving emotion—in both of us.

It made me realize how starved we have both been, how long we have been living behind our defenses—neither of us daring or caring anymore to be the first to be vulnerable.

Breaking a pattern is transformative. I was surprised by the depth of emotion I found within me. My love has been repressed so deeply that I felt none of it over the years. Removing the block to my own love, I released the pent-up abundance. Hiding behind my own gated and boarded-up woundedness was a deep well of vulnerability and warmth.

Suddenly, I was able to see the person in front of me as a human being, just like me. I no longer viewed him as the enemy. I freed myself from emotions unconsciously attached to some old and no longer pertinent stories.

It seems to me that in the emotional realm, women need to be prepared to take the lead if we are to start healing in our relationships.

As we come out of codependency and more-or-less clearly defined gender roles of previous generations, we are stepping into the uncharted territory, learning to relate from scratch. If we want the new dance to go to the music that we enjoy, we have to be ready to set the tone.

 

Learn how to remove blocks to love in your own relationships. Contact me for a free introductory conversation.

 

 

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