“No matter how difficult and painful it may be, nothing sounds as good to the soul as the truth.”
-Martha Beck.

I was watching a relationship segment featured on a talk show recently. The hosts interviewed a relationship expert who spoke about a workshop she held on the 5 Love Languages. She identified these as quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.

She shared a story about a woman attending her workshop who became visibly upset by her suggestion that she should communicate using her husband’s ‘love language’, which was ‘words of affirmation’.

When this woman protested the idea of using his love language, the therapist laughed and said, “Well, let me ask you, how’s it been working for you so far?”

In that moment, I had my own very visceral response to her suggestion. She seemed so dismissive of this woman, and her tone had that familiar ere of suggested ‘blame’ about the state of her relationship.

She had clearly made the assumption that this woman’s refusal to use her husband’s ‘love language’ was the reason her marriage wasn’t working.

And that’s the unfortunate mistake that is too often made by therapists, counselors, and coaches when we’re offering relationship support and advice. We use the same broad-brush strokes for different individuals’ relationship issues, assuming that one solution is a solution for all.

We make the reckless assumption that all marriages operate on the same premise of mutual love and respect without clearly understanding what they are experiencing, because we have not properly identified which relationship model the marriage or partnership fits. That is, one based on Mutual Equality & Respect, or one based on Power & Control?

The truth is that the ‘traditional rules of engagement’ that apply to healthy relationships absolutely do not work in toxic, dysfunctional relationships. As a matter of fact, they are deadly.

In my experience of marriage counseling, I made an appointment with a therapist alone, showed up every week alone, and continually tried to understand what I was doing wrong, and what I needed to do ‘better’ to fix my marriage.

The fact that I was sitting there for marriage counseling, trying to fix my marriage alone should have been a huge red flag for the therapist and for me, but it wasn’t. Nor was it for the next therapist, or the next, or the next, for that matter.

I’d work with one therapist, and after months and months of trying their suggestions and techniques with no results, I’d switch to another therapist to see if they had another perspective or angle that I was missing.

I spent 5 years working with different therapists and trying different ways to resolve conflicts with my husband, to no avail.

I was told to articulate my needs more clearly, communicate better, try to understand his language of communication, be more understanding of what he was going through, be considerate of his wants and needs, and give them to him. Be more patient, focus on the future rather than holding on to past hurts, try harder, be more willing to compromise – and the list goes on.

No matter what I did, things just continued to get progressively worse.

I’d been willing to try anything to make my marriage better, and unfortunately, the suggestions and solutions offered to me seemed to only confirm one thing: I still wasn’t trying hard enough. I was failing.

That feeling of being a failure came with deep shame. And the trouble with shame is that as it grows, it silences us.

And silence is the perfect condition for dysfunction to flourish.

As I was listening to that relationship expert’s off the cuff, casual response to that woman on TV, what bothered me so much was the assumption that her relationship would operate fine – healthily, even – if she would just use the same ‘traditional rules of engagement’ in her marriage that we are all supposed to subscribe to.

In the case of that woman though, the truth might very well be that she was resistant and angry about the suggestion to use her husbands ‘love language’ likely because she couldn’t take another moment of twisting herself like a pretzel to connect, only to have him shut her down and dismiss her once again.

Maybe she had spent years trying to be the perfect wife or the ‘right’ kind of spouse. Maybe she was angry because she instinctively knew what would happen if she tried to speak in his love language, for example, her words being twisted and misconstrued, even when she was attempting to be supportive.

What if, in that moment, standing in that workshop, she was being asked to deny what she intuitively knew was true? That communicating or not communicating in his ‘style’ was not the problem.

Denying and dismissing, over and over again, what we instinctively know is true, IS what keeps us stuck in unhealthy, toxic, dysfunctional relationships.

We continually dismiss and minimize our own needs in a futile, albeit desperate, attempt to keep the peace in our home and the tension and stress to a minimum.

It wasn’t until I learned that there are two very different relationship models that things began to make sense to me. My husband operated in Power & Control and I operated in Mutual Equality.

In their book When Love Hurts, Jill Corey and Karen McAndless-Davis explain that a partner operating in Power & Control is operating from the position that he is central, superior and deserving.

Believing he is central in the relationship means that his work and hobbies are more important and his needs come first. He often demands attention whenever he wants it. If he does housework he expects a lot of praise. Things are scheduled around his needs.

Believing he is superior in the relationship means he needs to be better than you. He will be critical of you, smarter than you, his opinions more valuable than yours. He might see himself as superior to other men. It’s also important that he makes more money than you and tends to devalue what you do at work.

Believing he is more deserving than you means he has a right to relax when he wants to. He expects you do more housework. He expects that you have sex whenever he wants. He expects you do most of the parenting, and he should be cared for and waited on.

If you are operating from Mutual Equality, then your expectation is that the relationship is built on connection, equality and mutuality.

Connection means that you make major decisions together. You enjoy activities together, and the needs of the individual do not come at the expense of the family or the relationship.

Equality means each partner’s needs are equally considered. The strengths of each partner are valued. Each partner is seen as intelligent and competent and the contributions of each partner are valued.

Mutuality means that you share parenting and household responsibilities. You care for each other, you support each other’s interests, and you are respectful of each other.

Trying to make changes in your relationship without first understanding which model is at work is like being on a rudderless ship tossed around in a shoreless sea. Without knowing which relationship model is being used, we have no idea how to sail our ship safely to shore, or for that matter, where the shore even is.

Understanding our relationship model is critical in beginning to eliminate the confusion we feel in our relationship. Jill Corey says, “most of our partners won’t readily agree that they see themselves as central, superior and deserving… their actions, however, betray their attitudes”.

When words and action don’t match – we must always believe the actions.

If you’ve been spinning your wheels trying to fix your relationship, wondering what you’ve been doing wrong, please stop right now. How you feel is never wrong. Trust how you feel. If something feels off, it is off.

We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge. If you find that the traditional rules of engagement aren’t working in your marriage, look closely at how your relationship operates. Does it operate in Mutual Equality, or Power & Control? Understanding which relationship model is at work is the starting place for creating change.