by Jeff Ford, LMFT, Clinical Director
When I was growing up I had a paper route. This meant that every morning I would get on my bike and make my way through the neighborhood to all of my deliveries. After some practice, I got pretty good at slinging the paper up to the porch from the sidewalk while I was still sitting on my bike.
One summer morning, I threw a paper up to the house of an older widow who lived in the neighborhood. The paper crashed hard against her metal storm door and I heard the entire glass door break and crumble. I immediately wanted to ride away as quickly as I could because I felt so guilty. But I couldn’t. The loud sound had scared the woman inside and she was at the door as I made my way up to it. I apologized for what I had done and told her that I would pay for the damage. It took my whole paycheck, but I did it.
Apologizing and paying for the door is what is known as behavioral accountability. However, when you are trying to repair a relationship - in this case my role as the paperboy for this widow - you also need to be emotionally accountable. I had terrified her when I threw the paper against the door and caused it to break. I didn’t want to do anything else to cause her to feel that again.
So for the next two years I had that paper route, I would walk up to her door and place the paper on the porch. It took a lot longer than just throwing the paper up to the house from the sidewalk, but it ensured I wouldn’t cause this woman to be scared again because of something that I had done. To be emotionally accountable, I had to recognize that I had caused her trauma and do what I could to avoid doing it again in the future.
The same is true for couples in recovery. Men will often get to work on behavioral accountability very quickly. This includes going to counseling, meeting with religious leaders, or even going to a 12-step group. Those are good steps and are important, but healing the emotional trauma you’ve caused to your spouse will take more than that.
Think about a man who has had problems with pornography on a smartphone. One day, he is in the living room looking at the calendar on a phone. Their spouse walks in, sees him on his phone, and unconsciously starts to feel agitated or anxious. She might even say things that are a little short. He can become defensive and show her the phone saying, “I’m just looking at my calendar.” Unfortunately, this won’t help. The memories she has of him looking at his phone has triggered an emotional response.
So what do you do? You have to recognize it and talk about it. You could say something like, “I know that it’s my fault you are feeling this way. I’ve betrayed you with this phone in the past. I’m sorry. What can I do to help you right now.”
By addressing the emotions instead of downplaying them, you will show your spouse that you truly see her. If she doesn’t feel seen by you, you cannot protect that woman. On the other hand, if she can see that you get why she is hurt, then the anxiety will come down.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean things will change overnight. It takes time. You have to realize that because of trauma her brain is hijacked. She doesn’t like it. You don’t like it. Nobody likes it. But it can heal as you work on both behavioral and emotional accountability.