We stand together on the marriage altar, and we begin the most important relationship of our lives with a terrible lie. We say, “For better or worse.” But we don’t really mean it. If we were to be honest with ourselves, if we were to begin the marriage authentically, most of us would say, “I have a bunch of needs which have never been satisfied in my relationships. Today, in front of our friends and family, I’m publicly gambling that you will be the person to finally meet those needs. If you do, I will be happy, and I will try to make you happy. If you don’t, well, God help us…”
Not so long ago, as my wife was ambushing me with her brilliance and her beauty and our kids were still beyond imagining, I was a young, eager, graduate student and researcher at Penn State University. And I was determined to unearth the secrets to marital bliss. More than one hundred couples participated in my dissertation research, and I watched hundreds of hours of videotaped arguments between spouses who had been married for less than a year.
And I was shocked by what I observed.
Although the marriages had just begun—the taste of wedding cake had barely faded from their tongues—the conversations revealed that every spouse was already blaming their partner for inflicting deep wounds upon them. I was confused and intrigued. These were newlywed couples—the lifespan of the marriage was too short to have already produced the depth of wounds these spouses were ascribing to each other. So what was going on?
As it turns out, we begin our marriages with a fundamental deception: although we outwardly claim to begin a new story on our wedding day, we are actually entering the marriage with the already-oozing wounds of a life lived amongst broken people. The wounds may be bandaged or disguised or anesthetized, and we may not even be aware of them ourselves. So, we begin our marriages with a lie of omission. Inevitably, though, when the honeymoon-tan has faded and the challenge of day-to-day loving has begun, the person to whom we have so recently pledged eternal allegiance begins to rub up against our wounds. Unknowingly, they poor salt on the wounds of a lifetime. And as the wounds are rubbed raw, they begin to scream with pain. And so do we. We begin to blame, and we unwittingly enter into another lie—we tell our partners they have caused our wound, and we lay the full responsibility for its healing at their feet.
But it simply isn’t true. Our life-stories don’t begin with the sliding-on of rings or that first dance or the mashing of cake in each other’s faces. Our stories begin in the vulnerable years of infancy and childhood and adolescence. By the time you utter your marriage vows, people have been writing the wounds of your story upon you for a very long time. And so we carry with us into marriage the wounds inflicted by the people we cherished the most—mothers and fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters, best friends and high school sweethearts and lovers. Most of the wounds were unintentional—wounds inflicted by broken people doing the best they could. We may have been raised in peaceful families with little conflict, where the bills got paid and there was always food on the table, but no one ever expressed how they felt about you and no one ever seemed to see you—so you enter into marriage with a deep need for affirmation and attentiveness and a sense of belonging. Other wounds were carved deep, with malice and the desire to do violence. We may have had our stories told by the vicious voices of our peers, or by parents who subtly invaded every area of life, or by authority figures who left no room for freedom or choice—so you come to marriage with an aching need to be treated gently, or to have your worthiness affirmed, or to be granted ample freedom and space within your relationship.
But regardless of how the wounds got there, they hurt.
And the more a wound hurts, the more we protect it. We protect it because our wounds are our vulnerability. Our wounds expose us and reveal the painful fullness of the stories we have lived. Blaming our spouses is less painful than wading into the origins of the wound itself, and it is certainly less risky than explaining and exposing our vulnerability to our new life partner. So, we protect our wounds with blame and contempt and bitterness and angry demands for healing. But in the process, we become enslaved to the wound and to the cycle of blame.
And freedom from the wound and the blame can only be found in confession. Confession is the redemption of deception.
The couples who transform my psychotherapy office into a confession booth are the marriages that find healing.
They confess the lie, first to themselves and then to their partner. They do the gutsy, courageous thing, and they trade in blame for vulnerability. They become story-tellers, sharing the fullness of their own stories and the depth of their life-long wounds. They confess that the needs they brought into the marriage were born in a particular relationship at a particular stage of life, and they share the ache of a wound that may never be fully healed, because the people who originally inflicted the wound can’t (or won’t) be a part of healing it. They quit demanding for their partner to bestow a healing word or a corrective action. Instead, with fear and trembling, they enter into the vulnerability of a powerless request for a graceful love.
The power of this kind of confession is transformational, no matter where it happens.
I witnessed this kind of confession last week. In my living room. I stay home with my kids on Fridays and, invariably, while I’m grilling the cheese sandwiches for lunch, the playful, other-room noises of my four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter morph into a wail of injustice and hurt. After one particularly loud wail, I walked in to find Quinn standing over Caitlin, and he was holding something pink. You don’t have to watch CSI to dissect what had happened: There was a fight for something and the smaller kid got knocked down. I looked at Quinn, and his chin jutted out so far I was surprised he didn’t fall over. His eyes got hard and defiant and his protest began. I struggled to stay calm, I looked at him, and I asked for the truth.
And my broken, hurting, lovely son confessed.
The chin went from jutting to trembling, the eyes went from hard to wet, and the sadness welled up in his voice, a soft-choking confession—Daddy, I’m sorry, I pushed her because it isn’t fair that I have to share my stuff but you never make her share hers. Quinn confessed the wound of a middle child, living sandwiched in unfairness—Daddy, here’s my wound, and I’m sorry about the ways I try to heal it with demands and violence.
And do you know what happens when a confession like that takes place? Quinn tumbled into my arms, and Caitlin got up and hugged him, and we walked out of the room together.
When confession happens, the relationship explodes with honesty and authenticity and vulnerability and tenderness and connectedness. And the act of confession becomes an event of transformation. The shame of our wounds loses its power to bind us and isolate us. The walls we build around ourselves are torn down and our broken places become a place of connectedness, instead of places of wounded hiding. We become creatures set free to live and to love. We become fractured creatures sutured together into a beautiful new creation. It doesn’t look perfect, but it looks like the brilliant paradox of two remaining two, yet becoming one.
I think it’s time to turn the verbal boxing rings of our living rooms and bedrooms into confessional booths. It’s time to unleash the light of vulnerability and connectedness into a world that is dark with isolation and loneliness. If we entered into this kind of confessional way of life, what kind of stories would we tell a world mired in the narcissism of invincibility? I think we would tell stories of a selfless love, of a courageous vulnerability, and of a redemptive, healing connectedness.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.