Several years ago, my marriage counselor asked me a question in a session that I’ve struggled with ever since. As my marriage unraveled and I was struggling to be understood by my then husband, the counselor asked “why do you keep trying to explain this to him?” I looked at her, confused. Wasn’t the purpose of therapy to help you feel understood? The counselor continued, “he’s not going to understand, why is it so important to you to try and make him understand?”
I had lots of answers. I was sick of feeling ignored. I desperately wanted him to understand how I could have gotten so unhappy in my marriage that I developed feelings for someone else. I wanted him to know how sad I was that I had gotten to this place and that I felt abandoned by him. But maybe most importantly, I wanted him to recognize that I had tried my best. I had given it my everything, to the point of making myself physically and emotionally sick from exhaustion and loneliness.
But the understanding and validation I sought was not to be. Several years later, I’m not any closer to getting those things from my now ex-husband, and I recognize that it’s not likely that I will receive those things from him ever. But there is a MUCH bigger question. The marriage counselor was leading me to it. WHY did I care? WHY did I feel like I needed understanding and validation from him?
In the years since that counseling session I’ve come back to that question over and over again. How was my need for validation impacting my life in other ways? How had it negatively impacted my marriage? Why did I need validation in the first place?
All of these questions continue to confuse me. I have done tons of reading, trying to increase my self-awareness and my spiritual connection to the world around me. There is a theme that continues to emerge. “I am enough.” All of the leaders in personal development talk about this. The individual that God made is enough. Find peace with the belief that you are enough, and you will be free of the need for validation from outside sources. All of your validation will come from within.
UGGHHH!!!! That is SOOO much easier to write than to actually put into practice. It takes EFFORT every day. And knowing that I need to believe that doesn’t answer the WHY question. Most of the reading I have done has centered around various childhood wounds that create the subconscious message that you are flawed or need to comply in some way to gain acceptance and affection. Many of these things are innocent, normal childhood events. For example, one podcast I listened to described how praising a child for ending their crying sends the subconscious message that suppressing negative emotions or complying with someone else’s wishes earns the child love. This story describes a scenario that is just a fact of life for most human beings. I don’t know any parent who doesn’t praise their child when they stop their temper tantrum or stop their tears. I am sure that it also happened to me dozens of times as a child. I don’t think this situation from my childhood was enough to cause my need for outside validation.
I kept thinking and thinking. I had a completely normal childhood. My parents have been married for fifty years. We have a huge, loving, supportive Italian family. I went to catholic school, danced in a ballet company, had close girl friends (who are still my tribe today). I was never made to feel inadequate for one second (at least not that I can recall). But there was one thing. When I think about it now, I am wondering if this one big thing, that happened at the moment of my birth, has shaped my personality in profound ways. I was “a miracle child.” I was born extremely sick, with a condition that required an immediate bowel resection (in 1973, this was NOT good, and can still be fatal in 2018). I was baptized shortly after birth, and taken into surgery. My twenty-one year old parents were told that I might not live through the surgery, but even if I did, I would never be able to eat normally. After surgery, a nun who worked in the hospital stood vigil over the incubator. My family stayed in contact with her until she died almost thirty years later. And I made a full, miraculous, recovery. I have heard the story literally hundreds of times over the course of the past 45 years. My family laughs around the dinner table at the sheer amounts of food I am able eat, defying the doctor’s prediction that I would never be able to eat normally. And I grew up with the unwavering belief that I am a MIRACLE.
Being raised in an environment that cherishes you as a miracle is incredibly nurturing. But I see now that it comes with an unexpected and completely unintentional cost. These costs where subconscious, and even as I write this I’m not sure I ever overtly felt the impact of these costs on my life. In retrospect, however, I can see how the unintended consequences of being a miracle likely has impacted my emotional needs as a child and adult. The pressure to not disappoint a family that clearly loved me beyond words caused a subconscious worry that I would disappoint… that I wasn’t worthy of my position as “the miracle child.”
I can see a connection between this subconscious worry and my need for validation… Sort of like always seeking reassurance that I’m on the right track, living up to my reputation.
How did that impact my relationship? Here’s how-- I married someone who did not give verbal reassurances or compliments. He tried to demonstrate his love for us by working long hours and being the provider-- our marriage functioned along traditional gender roles. However, we clearly had different “Love Languages.” The more my longing for reassurance or affirmation was unmet, the more resentful, lonely, and abandoned I felt. Ultimately, this led to an emotional affair and my decision to end my marriage. However, reflecting on these patterns ends the cycle of blame and/or shame associated with divorce. It would be easy to “blame” my ex-husband for ignoring me, or for me to “blame” myself for not being willing to accept things the way they were. But isn’t it easier to just ACCEPT that my marriage ended because we were unable to meet the emotional needs of the other. NOT BECAUSE HE IS A BAD HUSBAND. NOT BECAUSE I AM A BAD WIFE. But because we weren’t good for EACH OTHER.
So now, I have full peace with the circumstances around my divorce. I have the tools necessary to have a strong relationship in the future, and I continue to work on reprogramming the part of my subconscious that worried I was an imposter and needed validation from my partner. Sure, everyone likes to be told they are beautiful and are doing a great job. But if that’s not the m.o. of my next love interest, that will be okay. I AM ENOUGH.