Step Away From the Dog House: Love, Guilt, and Imperfection

Max says, “I need to get help or I’m going to lose my family.” Max feels like a failure as a mate and as a father. At age 45, he works 60 hours a week to provide his family’s comfortable lifestyle. He coaches kids’ soccer teams. He takes his wife on an annual cruise. He buys too many things for his two children. Max takes the blame for arguments between him and his wife. He says they’re his fault because he’s too sensitive, too self-absorbed. He says, “My wife is an angel to put up with me.”

I feel confused.

“I’ve been such a jerk in our past,” he says. “I treated her like she wasn’t very important to me.”

Max tells me about the early years: how he built his business from scratch, how he worried about money all the time and was hardly ever home.

“She did most of the child care by herself,” he says. “She needed me to be there for her but I was too preoccupied with money.” He gets tears in his eyes. “I just couldn’t see clearly what she needed at the time. I was selfish.”

“How were you selfish?” I say.

“I pursued my dreams at the expense of hers.”

“By working hard to provide?” I say.

“By working too hard. By allowing things to get unbalanced. By never being there for her when she needed support or relief. By asking her to lean on her parents too much because I was busy. By being too tired for sex. By not listening when she talked to me.”

Max can hardly hold back the tears now. He sees himself as a loser, although he owns and runs a successful business, has beautiful children who do well in school and appear pretty well adjusted, and has stayed married to the same person for 19 years. As we dig into his sense of loser-ness, I learn why.

Sixteen years ago, when their first child was born, Max and his wife, Stephanie, had a major crisis. He really did work a lot – he never wanted his family to suffer like he did as a child growing up with an alcoholic father who lost job after job after job. Stephanie found all her attention moving toward the baby, away from Max. The two became emotionally disconnected and Max started flirting with a woman who worked for him. It never got physical, but Stephanie discovered a chain of email messages between Max and this woman that clearly showed what was happening. She was livid. They went for couples counseling. The counselor told Max he needed to make amends. And from that moment on, Max has been punishing himself and trying in vain to make it up to Stephanie and the kids.

“I just can’t do enough,” he says.

“You’re exhausted,” I say.

“And the harder I work to make her happy, the more miserable we are.”

“You can’t dig your way out,” I say. I picture Max in a tiny house out back, intended for the dog. He tries to shovel a tunnel underneath, when he could, instead, walk out the front door. He digs and digs but never reaches daylight. Max feels guilty for something he could let go, if only he knew that.

Max and Stephanie survived a normal crisis of relationship. What happened to them, though upsetting at the time, was a necessary loss, a developmental experience, a sickening yet understandable and completely essential learning episode. They made it past that awful time. But his body doesn’t know that yet.

“It was so awful to see her hurt – and it was my fault.”

Max stays stuck in the trauma of his past indiscretions and the sight of his wife’s face as her heart was broken.

Stephanie stays stuck in the trauma of her disappointment in the idea of a perfect mate.

It’s time to move on.

Like Max and Stephanie, we freeze in a moment of heartache or remorse, and our muscles forget how to move away from it, let it go, forgive ourselves for being imperfect. Our adult traumas and lapses of judgment beam us back to similar experiences in childhood. Maybe we spouted off in a way that hurt someone’s feelings – or we got in trouble at school or stole money from our grandmother’s purse, and maybe our parents acted as though we had committed a cardinal sin. Maybe they felt our behavior reflected badly on them and so they reacted punitively. Maybe they made an awful face. Maybe we had to work hard to regain their respect – and maybe we never again felt they liked us or thought we were good.

I ask Max, “How true does it feel to say, I did the best I could?

He shakes his head. “I should have known better. I was a big boy. I should have gotten us into counseling.”

Here’s where EMDR comes in. I’ll summarize the process briefly.

Max and I target his memories of this time with EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing). In a couple of EMDR sessions, he begins to feel better, calmer, more accepting of himself. We also use EMDR to tap in new attitudes about himself. Here are a few of those:

I’m imperfect and that’s okay.
I deserve to feel loved and forgiven.
I do the best I can, with what resources I have.
I’m human, fallible, and that is a good thing.

We bring Stephanie back in and help her adjust to this new partner who has ended his long guilt trip and returned home to be a whole person, lovable, flawed, interesting, and deserving of tenderness.
He says, “I don’t feel guilty anymore.”

She says, “Okay, I can deal with that.” She looks at him like he’s a new person she’s never met before.

Both partners have to recover from the trauma that took place sixteen years ago. In a way, both have been sitting in their own kind of dog house, shoveling or howling or scratching or gnawing on soup bones. And now it’s time for them to let go of the bone, drop the shovel, and step out into the sunlight.

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