The best gifts

When friends of mine got married a little while ago, they asked me what observations I could offer, from both personal and clinical experience, to people on the brink of making such a huge, and hugely intimate, committment. They phrased it that way particularly out of respect for the idea that a friend might provide advice, but as a therapist that’s really not what I do (explaining why is maybe a post for a different day, perhaps), and they were specifically looking for something a little more in-depth than advice filtered out of my own experience… which might legitimately have felt an awful lot (to me at least) like a “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of offering. So I thought about it for a few days, reflecting on recurring themes I encounter in my own life, as well as those of my clients, and when I got back to them a while later, I said, simply, “Dirt.”

Needless to say, they looked at me funny.

I explained that I was talking about the kinds of dirt we literally and metaphorically sweep under the carpet on a regular basis, the stuff we feel or think but for whatever reasons, choose not to share with our partners for fear of somehow rocking the boat. Unfortunately, dirt piles swept under carpets have a way of accumulating and becoming things we trip on, or things that destroy our lovely carpets from the underside.

Often the things we’re suppressing are authentic feelings, even if we have laid veneers of value-laden interpretation or unarticulated expectations over top of them. Our thoughts and feelings are a big part of what define us, and they are always connected to needs… even something as simple as the need to trust we’re safe to share our vulnerable selves, and safe in trusting we will be heard. When we suppress those needs in favour of at least appearing to keep the peace, however, we deprive ourselves and our partners of many significant components of relationship vitality:

  • we deny them the snapshot of our authentic experiences
  • we deny them an opportunity to help us identify and articulate and address our needs
  • we deny them information, and in doing so, deny them also a means to make *informed decisions* about their own future actions (since they cannot see the full view of potential consequences)
  • we deny them the opportunity to learn more about themselves and the opportunity to grow with us
  • we deny them a crucial example of how we want to be heard and respected, an important aspect of how we want to be loved
  • we deny ourselves an active advocate for our own needs, because if we’re not taking our own needs seriously enough to explore and express them, why should (how *could*) our partners?
  • we set the example that suppression and conformity to an ideal of “false peace” are more important than genuine sharing and collaborative growth
  • we deny ourselves the practice of living authentically, and learning how to navigate the world without suppressing or disconnecting from our own thoughts, feelings, and needs
  • we increase the risk of suppressions becoming resentments and bitterness over time, especially if we have attached expectations to those little irritations we’re choosing to suppress

It’s a hard, hard thing to learn to be this kind of vulnerable and authentic in relationships, but discovering ways in which to share these kinds of snapshots with each other is the kind of relationship skill ? along with learning active listening and open receptiveness *without* leaping either to defensive stances or anxiety-based fixit/problem-solving modes ? that keeps relationships strong and healthy over the long haul.

So when I say, “Give each other the dirt,” consider it an invitation to stop sweeping things under the carpet. Your thoughts and feelings and needs and expectations are NEVER so unimportant that the practice of simply dismissing them should make sense. They are the greatest gifts we can offer each other, and if this is not the kind of durable foundation a marriage commitment needs, I’m really not sure what is.

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