“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.” –Arnold Schwarzenegger
I think we all struggle with some degree of learned helplessness, that doubting inner voice that is never quite satisfied. It is not the voice of evil in us that moves us to bad choices and failed relationships. Rather, it is this small insistent echo of self doubt, born in unnoticed early childhood injuries, which, left unrecognized, comes to control your life with an iron grip.
The daily work in my marriage and with my children has been an exercise in taming this voice. Correcting the old erroneous belief that what I am doing doesn’t matter happens through deliberate action. It is an act of will when we choose to focus on what is right in our relationships instead of insisting on hammering what is wrong with someone or the relationship to our satisfaction.
The one piece of life-changing advice that I got in my years of marriage therapy was the understanding that maturely loving someone comes from the ability to continuously choose to find balance between the qualities of our partner that are most difficult with the qualities of the partner we love. It is a remarkably challenging practice, to be able to fairly list and truly appreciate what is loveable about someone who refuses or is unable to adapt their behaviors that are most disturbing to you. The arguments and core differences in our relationships don’t really change much over time. Changing our relationship to those differences often determines the outcome in relating.
My husband has gotten pretty astute at picking up on the moments when something in my heart wants to quit on him. We all feel it when someone is drifting away, or more often closing a door on us. The discussion at lunch was one we have had many times. I no longer have any fantasy that we will change each other, but sometimes the gaps between us seem too great. The effort to keep bridging our comfort levels feels Herculean. Then I stop talking and witness the grief in his eyes.
I realize again, as I have each time before in these discussions that there is nothing wrong here. There is just the work that I momentarily want to quit on. As I groped my way to the balance point, by remembering the other list of all the ways that he and this marriage has made my life possible, I realize how small I have been feeling. How we can shrink our heart to so much less than our capacity. It is actually heart breaking doing the work of love, but it is just past the heartbreak that we find what is best and truest in us.