If there is one Once Productive Childhood Belief (OPCB) that we continue to live by, it’s “Grow up, fall in love and live happily ever after.” Other marital OPCBs we live by include “You complete me; I can’t live without you; We can live on love; Without you, I’m nothing, What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours; We have no secrets; I will be honest to a fault; We have no boundaries; If you call me during the day, I must stop what I’m doing and respond; If you text me, I must respond immediately; If I am late, I must explain exactly what made me late; I must give you my daily schedule and not deviate from it without telling you, first; I must do what you say” and on and on. It hasn’t been so long ago when we considered that, once married, men “owned” their wives, women belonged in the home, out of which it seems, the idea of “homemaker” and, maybe now, “home manager” and “home maintenance man” evolved. When I see couples, it usually relates to one or the other of them not being able to live up to one of the above OPCBs. We seem to just naturally fit in to our prescribed roles, not realizing the ramifications on our personal boundaries. Our marital boundaries become blurred and enmeshed with our personal boundaries and we are left confused.
Recently, a husband who had been saying “yes” to his wife’s Boundary Probes over and over and then overreacted when he finally said “no,” felt guilty and came to therapy in order to “save my marriage,” complaining that his wife was always going through his phone and asking about his female customers. He said, “I’m being transparent but that’s not enough!” and he didn’t know what to do. When she would call and he did not pick up right away, he would hear about it, first, in voice mails and text messages, and later, when he arrived home. He was always “in trouble,” it seemed.
What were the OPCBs the above couple was living by? “Total transparency” is what he told me, yet, he could not live up to it or manage the ramifications. So where would he have learned the OPCB that husbands and wives must be totally open with each other? Probably, as a child, from his parents, friends, readings, school, and other cultural institutions. In other words, as part of his cultural socialization.
Another husband, a medical professional, was always in trouble and his wife was “always pissed” because he “never kept his word.” What was his “word?” “I’m just finishing up and I should be home in 20 minutes,” which he never managed to accomplish. He would arrive home, sometimes an hour or two later and explain to his wife that he had an emergency patient, he stopped for gas, or he stopped for some other plausible reason. But, because he had told his wife he would be home in 20 minutes, he became known to his wife as a liar, untrustworthy, and deceitful. Interestingly, if there was a project that needed completing and he had no interest in the project, he would find himself agreeing to do the project and then reassuring his wife, when he never got around to it, thus compounding her frustration.
How many of the above listed OPCBs would the above couple have been attempting to live up to? “I will be honest to a fault?” “We have no boundaries?” “I own you?” “I am the boss and you are the employee?”
In both cases, the couples were attempting to live up to the roles and rules they had learned, as children. The problem with learning the values and beliefs of our family and the wider culture, as children, is that we are seeing and learning the rules as “black and white” with no “grays.” Due to the immaturity of our brains, we do not see that the roles and rules are “guidelines,” or a “structure” for living, more than they are hard and fast rules. They are the beginning point of helping us to establish our own rules and guidelines, based upon what works for us.
Ultimately, the idea of owning our partner doesn’t work because we are each fully developed adults with fully developed brains, capable of surviving on our own on this planet. Why would we willingly subjugate ourselves to another fallible human? There might be a lot of reasons for that but history shows us that it does not work. Subjects in all relationships always rise up against subjugation; in relationships, groups, and societies. What we do know is genuine cooperation works. When two humans agree to work together for their better good, good follows.
Getting married does not mean I “own” my partner. It means “we” are declaring our “commitment” to each other and that commitment includes various roles and rules that, ultimately, we, as a couple, define for our relationship. We begin with OPCBs that we learned as children and, as we learn the OPCBs no longer work, we arrive at our own unique roles and rules. As we manage our boundaries effectively, those roles and rules strengthen, as does the relationship.