When wounds collide, we suffer and we don’t feel safe. Our partner becomes somebody we no longer trust. It is one of the most painful aspects of a relationship. When we are scared, we act in ways that do not help our relationships. When we feel safe, our relationships can blossom.
Do you remember O’Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi”? In that story, Della cut off her most valued asset, her hair, to buy a watch chain for her husband Jim. Jim’s most valuable possession was his watch. He sold his beautiful watch, to buy a barrette for his wife’s gorgeous hair. It is a story of two people willing to sacrifice what is most valuable to them to express their love. The following story is about the opposite. It is a story of two people terrified to lose what they need most – a picture of what happens when our wounds collide.
Jason had picked up his wife Mattie and they were driving to an event together. Mattie asked Jason if he had put the cats in for the night. Jason replied, “Well I got Fluffy in but not Whisper.” Mattie froze. “Did you shut the cat door?” she asked. “Yes, of course,” Jason said, not seeing what was coming. Mattie started to tear up. “What do you mean? Are you kidding?” she said. “No,” Jason said, feeling confused. “You locked Whisper out?” she asked again, incredulous. “I called and called and he didn’t come home.” Jason explained. “But there are coyotes,” she said. “What if he is chased and runs to the door and it is shut and he gets caught and eaten?” “That won’t happen,” Jason replied. “I’ve never seen a coyote around here and he is a smart cat. He can get on the roof or climb a tree.”
Mattie is sitting stiffly. She feels alone and trapped. She knows he could be right, but she also knows that if something happened, she wouldn’t be able to live with herself. She is imagining Whisper running for the door and feeling terrified as a coyote runs after him.
“Do you want me to turn around and ruin this evening?” Jason asked, his voice cutting through the air angrily. “No,” Mattie mumbled. She is silent and upset. She doesn’t know what to say. Jason also feels confused. He starts sinking into an overwhelming feeling of despair and hopelessness. “Why she is being so irrational? What just happened? How could my perfectly sane woman lose her mind?”
When they came home later that night, Whisper was at the front door waiting for them. Later they talked. Mattie said maybe it would have been better to have asked to turn around and have him be mad rather than to be unable to forgive herself if something had happened to Whisper. Jason said that if she had insisted that they turn around, he wouldn’t just be mad. He would be struggling with a lot of doubt about being in a relationship with someone who was irrational. He said that not turning around was a big deal for him. It had given him hope that she wasn’t crazy like all the others. Although they could talk about the incident, they were at an impasse.
What is going on here?
Mattie had grown up on a farm. She had many pets as a child, and these pets were very important to her. There were many tragedies over the years; pet ducklings brutally decapitated by a raccoon in the middle of the night, shrieks filling the air, a pheasant chick that was accidentally stepped on and died in front of her, the family dog shot by a hunter. With each of these tragedies and many more, Mattie had wished she had been able to foresee and prevent it. Instead, whenever one of her pets died, she felt responsible, scared and alone. For her, the idea of her beloved Whisper being locked out and perhaps unsafe, was intolerable. And the thought that Jason would get angry instead of have empathy and understand her, brought her right back to some of the feelings and events of her childhood.
Jason had grown up in with a violently alcoholic father who would taunt him and his siblings. He watched this wildly illogical man harm his family, watched as he beat them, and tormented them. He had watched his mother’s helplessness, the pain on his mother’s face and her early death due to stress. He had no tolerance for anything illogical. For him it was also a matter of life and death. Mattie’s seeming illogical thinking made him feel completely unsafe and scared him to death.
As Mattie and Jason continued to talk, they came to see that their wounds were very much alive for them. They realized that they both had a lot of fear around these areas that needed to be attended to. They also realized that they could be friends and talk despite the feelings that were being triggered in each of them.
“When Wounds Collide,” is a common dynamic and painful aspect in many relationships. For this scenario to resolve, both parties have to look at how fear is coloring their perceptions and gain some perspective.
Mattie needs to bring in some sense of reason. Yes, it could happen, a coyote could eat Whisper, but it wasn’t likely. Jason needs to realize that 1% craziness in somebody is not the same as 100% as in his father. Both parties need to understand and communicate their wounds. They need to see how their wounds keep them limited and that their wounds are calling to be tended to, healed, and transcended. Each needs to see that the other is not their mortal enemy, but another injured person. Each needs to develop empathy for the other, and be able to step out of his or her own perspective. As we share our wounds, affirm both ours and our partner’s, we are starting a healing process. We are no longer completely alone with our fear.
Is there a place in your relationship where this dynamic occurs, where your wounds collide?
Describe this dynamic in your relationship and the wounds that get activated.
Can you describe your wound?
Can you describe your partner’s wounds?
Are you willing to and able to talk about your wounds with your partner?
Are you exploring how to heal this wound?
Coming to understand and have compassion for each other’s wounds is necessary work in a relationship.