The first duty of love is to listen – Paul Tillich
I know this is going to be hard to believe. But, there are times in my life where I fully, down to my toes, believe I am the busiest man in the world. I know you can’t relate and that I’m the only pre-occupied, self-centered, blaming, and excuse-making human on the planet.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.
Still, you can relate. Sometimes I really do turn into a big, bad blamer of the M’s (BBBM). What is a BBBM? It’s what everyone blames when a thing goes wrong (Your) Mother. Marriage. Monogamy. Mercury. Metabolism. Menopause. Money. And last but not least: MEN.
I’m here to tell you about one time in particular when I really was being That Man. The stereotypical guy who didn’t have the time or heart to deal. A time when my inner brat managed to surprise even me with the extent to which it chose fear over love. Or worse, laundry over love.
It was when my wife’s father died. I know—ouch. Naturally, things had been sad around our household. One day I was putting away towels in the linen closet (at least I was being good in that department!), and I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear soft sobs coming from our bedroom. What happened next however did surprise me. Only, not in a good way. I told myself, “I can’t deal with this right now,” and began to walk away.
Most of you are probably thinking that I am a jerk. A BBBM in all-caps. And I can’t pretend it away—I was being just that. The death had been really hard on everyone, including me. Anyone who has lost a loved one can attest that grieving is hard emotional work, and it’s draining to go through and even to be around. Just admitting this truth makes me wish I could take back or fix whatever it is in me that wanted to put my own comfort above the needs of my wife. I wish I could, but I can’t. That is what I caught myself saying that day.
It is also important to mention that I am not unfamiliar with sadness, grief and loss. I worked in the social work and mental health field for 17 years. I have had to help families deal with all manner of trauma and tragedy. I am a professional when it comes to managing loss and providing support. But when it happened in my own life with my wife who has always inspired me to be the best person I can possibly be, something in me wanted to take the easy way out and avoid tending to her.
Today, as an HG Life coach, it is my first priority to hold myself accountable for my thoughts and actions in the same way I do for my clients. When I catch myself failing to live up to those standards, I take a personal inventory of my behavior (as well as my thoughts and feelings) and begin to search for culprits.
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The first thing that stood out to me was my inner dialogue, the way I was talking to myself in my head: “I can’t deal with this right now.” I was talking to myself as though doing the laundry was more important than taking care of my wife’s emotional needs. In my life as a coach and husband, I have made my marriage and my family my top priority. I even have a list of specific, daily actions in place to make sure I am accountable for being a great husband and father. But I was telling myself that my goal of being that person was not important in this moment, not as important as finishing the laundry.
The voice in my head, although it sounds very much like me, is not. It’s what we at HG call the brat. It is the stubborn, childish voice within us, which makes up excuses (some very clever, and others just entitled and petulant) to not do what we know we need to do. You may have heard the brat in your own head; it is the one that says things like, “Why am I always the one who has to… ?” or “I don’t want to…” or “I am too busy, tired, stressed, etc…” In that moment, I was being a brat. I was listening to my own excuses and letting them run the show, and I did not like how it made me feel.
I had to ask myself why I did not want to deal with taking care of her at that moment. As I mentioned, I have dealt with grief and loss before; why was it so hard to do so now? I realized then that I was afraid. I thought that whatever I did would not be enough for her. That whatever words I could say would only make her feel worse. I told myself that words would not enough for her and therefore I should just keep quiet and let her cry. There, I discovered another voice: the voice of fear, or what we at Handel Group call the chicken. It is the voice that speaks to us when we are afraid of failing, getting hurt or taking a risk. Like the brat, this voice also provides reasons for avoiding what we should do except they are generally expressed as legitimate fears. These fears felt convincing enough that I actually believed I would do more harm to my marriage by offering love and support than by pretending I was unaware of my wife’s sadness and walking away.
Since I have been involved with HG I know that I need to pay attention to these voices in my head. I have learned that the brat and the chicken are only giving me excuses and justifications for taking the easy way out. By letting my inner dialogue run the show, I was also making the issue more about me and my needs, and not about my wife. When I caught myself in the act, I realized I needed to talk back to those voices.
There is another voice, the voice of our truest and highest self that needs to speak up and tell the truth about what we want and who we want to be. I really want to be a great husband who is strong and deeply connected to my family and I needed to speak from that voice.
I told myself the truth– that it was crazy to think that I could or would say anything that would damage our relationship, that it was unfair to put my emotional need for comfort over her need to be comforted. I remembered that there is nothing I value more than the connection that I have with my wife, and that I will only deepen that connection by facing my fears and dealing with these difficult emotions.
And then I put the towels down, walked into our room, climbed onto the bed and held my wife as she cried. I told her I was sorry. Because I was, and because sometimes it is the perfect thing to say.
Start listening to the voices in your head. When you feel the impulse to turn away from love and connection, what do you hear? Is it the brat being petulant and self-serving, or is it the chicken being afraid of being hurt? Listen closer–can you hear the voice of the true you? Can you make that voice speak the loudest?
P.S. – Talking about the tough stuff doesn’t need to as hard as we make it out to be. Share our most popular coaching tool with a loved one in this free download, The Art of Being Honest.