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  • Writer's pictureSean Flannery

A Metaphor for Relationship Hurt and Healing

Think of being left alone, outside, in the winter as a metaphor for how one exists in an unhealthy relationship. The warmth from the fire of better times is a distant glow on the horizon, a place where you and your partner can finally hold each other, be safe, and enjoy life together. This fire is usually fueled by many things, including memories from the early “easy” days, the connection you’ve felt before and desire now, or by a tantalizing hope of finally finding peace with your partner in the future…when we have kids or when the kids leave or when we are financially stable or when her mom moves out… However, you and your partner cannot seem to reach that fire at the same time. When one of you does sit down, starts to thaw, and becomes gentle and vulnerable, the other does something to chase them away.

One of you may turn away and put distance between yourself and the fire, preferring to watch carefully for signs that either the fire is too hot and may burn, or that it has become safe to sit down by again. Yet waiting on the outskirts leaves you with the cold creeping deeper while your partner’s calls for you to join them gets weaker over the years. You’re alone and the effort to go towards the fire seems insurmountable.

Perhaps one of you grabs your partner and tries and drag them closer to the fire, desperate to have the relationship be in a safe, loving environment, terrified of the cold separation. However, you are disheartened when your partner perceives the fire they are being dragged towards as now a roaring inferno, and they silently resist or yell and scream at you to leave them be. You’re left rejected and confused.

You both have very good reasons for acting the way you do. In the past, other people at other fires (and, sometimes, even your loved one) have left a scar on your soul, and you’ve resolved to never feel that hurt again. This becomes desperate in the marriage relationship with your loved one, your soulmate, the one who has chosen you and committed to building a life with you. If they can hurt you or seem to not care, what hope is there for you to ever be loved or share love?

Then the snow walls are built. Each person shelters in their fort, building defenses, preparing for sieges, stockpiling ammunition to fire at the other’s walls. All the while wondering why your partner neglects to come save them, tell you it’s okay, and walk them back to the fire.

Then the loved partner is twisted in your heart. “They must have a mental illness or they duped me into loving them in a long con bait-and-switch. Maybe they are incapable of love or caring because their heart was always broken and sadistic.” This twisting happens because it is too much to consider that the relationship is strained because we ourselves are flawed. Flawed so much that the one person who sees us (as close to what we truly are) has turned away from us. It becomes a personal and brutal war. The attacks against each other grow fiercer and the walls are built taller and deeper to withstand the barrage. The relationship is now two individuals isolated and afraid while longingly gazing at that glow on the horizon.

If you feel this way or headed in this direction, couple therapy can be very helpful. The therapy process is a wonderful mix of hard work, sacrificing, and re-discovering in each other that fire that ignited when you first connected. The work involves a shift back to inviting each other to sit in the heat together and holding each other while there. To try and simplify the entire process, you practice walking out of your own fort and, instead of attacking, inviting the other to walk with you to the fire. Sometimes (especially early on), they’ll throw a snowball in your face or you’ll run back to your wall before they can answer.

Eventually, you’ll meet each other in the no-man’s land and walk back to the fire. There you can both stay for a time and work through what is troubling the relationship while finally feeling close again, even in disagreement or in hurt. You can finally find refuge in each other instead of avoiding intimacy. Of course, you’ll both wonder off because of the distractions of life and other responsibilities, or just because of old habits. Then one of you will have to walk out of the fort again and invite. The more the inviting is practiced, the easier it is to rejoin. Finally, you both can start to trust that maybe that other person hates the cold, too, and has always wanted to sit with you.

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