I f you’ve been around my husband and I for any length of time, you’ll pick up on something very quickly; Sergey and I really like each other. It might be the way he’s always slipping his hand into mine and then sticking his tongue out at me. It might be the way I switch between chomping on his shoulder and hugging him. Proximity with each other necessitates contact of some sort. And this has been a constant from the early days of our dating.
Around the second or third year of our seeing each other, Sergey brought a request to me that I found unthinkable.
“If we’re in a fight, or if we’re angry with each other, please don’t withdraw physical affection from me.”
His plea shocked me. Scenes from my childhood ran through my mind.
My parents are loving people whom I have always admired for their perseverance and their unflagging attempts to be better. Better parents to us, better spouses to each other, better servants of God. But they have deep fault lines that run through their souls, old baggage handed down from their own parents that contributed heavily to the explosiveness of any conflict in the house.
Over the years, I have watched my parents painstakingly carve out better methods of communication. But years of living away from them could not unseat the childhood fears that angry people are not safe people. And that anger directly equates to a lack of love.
Hence my knee-jerk response to Sergey, “Why on earth would you want physical contact with someone who is angry?”In my mind, the kindest thing to do, if one is angry, is to completely withdraw and walk away until tempers have cooled. At times I’ve found myself on the verge of hurling eviscerating responses at a sister or a friend. In those moments I would go into lockjaw mode, leaving the room or the building for a few hours. When it came to the idea of arguing with Sergey, I ran this scenario dozens of times in my head and warned him in advance about my tried and true strategy of dealing with conflict. I wanted to assure him that my hypothetical hasty exit would never mean that I’d stopped loving him.
But in Sergey’s life, withdrawal of physical contact had been a weapon used against him; a distinct signal that he had done something wrong that he should grovel for if he wanted a relationship to continue. He asked me if I was willing to try something different with him.
I had to sit with this new idea he’d presented me for a while. Mull it over. I couldn’t imagine how it could go well. But it meant a lot to him and it was worth trying.
So when a difficult and painful topic came up for discussion, Sergey and I sat on a couch together. At every point in the conversation, we were either hugging each other or holding hands, or one of us draped legs over the other person’s lap. The volume never escalated, and while I was distraught by the talk, the physical contact we shared assured me, at every stage, that our relationship and our love was still intact.
This little act of intentional contact has healed parts of my heart I didn’t know could be reached. With Sergey’s hands wrapped around mine, I no longer believe that a disagreement or expression of frustration is the end of the relationship, or that love has been withdrawn from me. Resting in his arms, there is no room for the fear that this is the end. However difficult the conversation has been, the love we express to each other during it has been very healing for both of us as we navigated This Relationship Thing™ which transitioned into This Marriage Thing™.
Many of the ways Sergey and I relate are like this. We’ve built a network of little unique bridges between us based on an understanding of each others’ communication styles and needs in the early stages of our relationship. It’s a little strange and awkward for me to offer this anecdote up to the public eye as if I’m some know-it-all guru shouting from a mountaintop, “I know what your relationship needs! More hugging!” when I’m only a year and a half into married life. In fact, I know this won’t work for many people. It all depends on the individuals involved and their needs. I want to offer this snippet as a fellow relationship builder showing off a favorite tool.
In that spirit, please show off your favorite tools to us here at From Here To Eternity. What are the ways you knit your relationships closer in difficult moments? How do you rebuild bridges that have crumbled? What bracing constructs are in place to bolster the relationship?
I look forward to hearing snippets from your lives.