In the dark comedy movie “Downhill”, a vacationing family faces imminent threat from an avalanche. The crisis of the story occurs when Will Farrell’s character Pete runs away right when his wife and family needed him the most. The rest of the movie entails Pete trying to regain his family’s trust and heal the rift in his marriage. It’s not really a funny movie in my opinion, but it does illustrate how marriages can experience a symbolic “avalanche” of stress. The story illustrates how difficult it can be to heal and forgive when we’ve been hurt and abandoned by those on whom we rely and trust. This is especially true if we think our mate was able to be there for us but was unwilling to come to our aid.
Marriage is a unique sort of relationship in this regard. There are two questions we take to our mate that we don’t ask of any other person in our life. These two questions are; 1)Will you be there for me when I need you the most, and 2) Are you with me? The hoped for answer to these questions is of course “yes”. The answer that is believed is not necessarily the one that is said, but instead is shown through action. There are two phrases I frequently use in couples therapy that gets at the underlying issues in those questions; “Willing and able” and “show you are aware and that you care.” Both of these sayings deal with communication, but again it’s what is demonstrated rather than what is talked about that really matters.
When you think about needing your spouse to be there for you in ways nobody else can be, how do you respond if he or she ultimately lets you down? Which situation hurts the most: when your spouse is willing to be there for you but is unable, or when they are able to be there for you but are unwilling? Most people find they can more easily forgive the situations in which their mate was unable to be there in a time of need instead of unwilling. When you are trying to resolve a marital conflict, big or small, it’s very important to address whether your mate is willing AND able to do what you are expecting and needing them to do.
Empathy is the important ingredient in “show you are aware and that you care”. Theresa Wiseman defines empathy as the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes and remain nonjudgmental. It’s also about understanding another person’s feelings and communicating that you understand. This can extremely difficult when what you are trying to understand and care about is how hurt your spouse is because of YOUR action. This is also when it is extremely important.
Let’s use Pete and Billie Staunton from the movie “Downhill” as an example. If I was working with them in marital therapy, I would encourage Billie to describe her experience of being left by Pete and then coach Pete to listen in a way that shows he is aware and that he cares.
Billie with tears: “This was a huge event for our family. It looked like it was going to kill us and you just left us. You grabbed your phone and ran away without thinking about helping us.”
Pete, showing he is aware and that he cares would say: “You must have been terrified and confused, because I was not there with you when you expected and needed that from me. I’m sorry. I wasn’t there for you.”
How can Pete make it up to Billie and regain her trust? Only through consistent efforts to show that he is willing to be there for her when he is able, and that he cares about her more than about his phone or anything else. This can sometimes take weeks or months for the big “avalanches” in marriage, but usually takes hours or days and sometimes just a few minutes. When you are in the midst of conflict, make sure you both consider how much you are willing and able to be there for your mate. Work at being aware of your spouse’s experience, and show them that you care about that. Problem solved.