Accidentally Telling My Wife She is a Witch

Jul 22, 2021

My wife, Betsy, and I host a marriage podcast called Solid-ish. In our most recent episode, “Sex Addiction, Domestic Violence, and the Gifts They Give”, we interviewed Steve and Viola Horne. Fairly early on in our interview, there was a powerful moment when Steve described how the abandonment he experienced at five years old created his survival skills of disappearing, taking care of himself, and trying not to disrupt or be noticed – anything to keep that kind of abandonment from happening again.

I asked Viola what it’s like for her in those moments when she needs connection with Steve, but sees him shut down or hide instead. She said, “I think that I must be a witch for him to have to hide from me…I must be a horrible person for this strong man to turn his face away and hide from me.” What a powerful and hurtful message! Steve is reacting to his childhood abandonment in the best way he knows how, but ends up accidentally sending the message that Viola is a witch.

Can you relate? Have you ever responded to a situation, trying to be helpful, but were shocked to see things get worse? Have you ever had disconnection in your marriage, tried to re-connect by sharing how you feel, but walked away feeling like a witch?

Betsy and I both specialize in marriage therapy and we see this pattern happen all the time. All of us want safe and reliable connection, most of all with our spouse. We typically use one of two strategies to get that connection: pursuit or protection. Indicative of the name, Pursuers want to chase down that connection. They are more likely to be vocal about feeling disconnected. As bids for re-connection fail, they turn up the volume, longing for their spouse to step up, pay attention, or be present. Protectors, on the other hand, don’t fight to create connection as much as they fight to preserve what connection remains. Protectors are keenly aware of how conflict is a connection killer, so they try to control it, subdue it, and avoid it. As their failure to keep things calm increases, they work harder to decrease – shutting down, invalidating, or sharing less of their own heart.

The Protector looks at the Pursuer chasing them down and thinks, “What are you doing? The closer you get, the more you will see my failure. Can’t you see I am moving away from you in order to protect this connection we cherish?” In turn, the Pursuer looks at the Protector shutting them out and thinks, “What are you doing?! The further away you get, the more I fear I will lose you. Can’t you see I’m closing the gap so our connection doesn’t die altogether?”

You can begin to see how, as one makes a move, the other must make an even bigger move, and so on. A self-escalating cycle begins at the drop of a hat, fueled by what our gut tells us is the most appropriate, effective, and necessary thing to do for our marriage. This is the essence of why marriage rarely delivers on its promise of domestic bliss. So…what is a married couple to do when trying to avoid this cycle?

Betsy and I lead a two-day marriage intensive that goes in depth on all this but, in short, it’s all about showing each other the soft underbelly of what’s really going on for us rather than only displaying our harder, more protected or detached, reactions. Think of an armadillo, a dog, or any number of animals whose primary act of willful vulnerability is to show you their soft underbelly. It is a powerful and concrete invitation to a deeper bond and safety between us. See if you can remember a moment in your life when you were hurtful toward someone (whether you meant to be or not) and instead of showing you their armor of anger or avoidance, they were vulnerable and soft toward you instead. Do you remember how valuable you felt in that moment? Do you remember how “worth it” you believed you were? Do you remember how much easier it was to be empathetic back toward that person?

Real life examples of this kind of vulnerability can look like you sharing how scared you are of the future, rather than criticizing your spouse for lacking the same passion you have for paying off debt. It can look like opening your heart to the reality of your spouse’s pain, rather than focusing on correcting how they interpreted what you said. I looks like surrendering your need for the other person’s fear or sadness to make sense and instead say, “I don’t get it, but I can see the pain is real for you anyway. You wouldn’t react like this if the pain didn’t matter so much, so I am going to slow down and let your pain matter to me too.”

I challenge you to take the risk and try being vulnerable, soft, and open. The connection, hope, and healing on the other side of that scary wall of fire is very, very real.