I slammed the door in my husband’s face, leaving a heap of hurtful accusations in my wake. I was angry and determined to let him know. This was the pattern day after day in our first year of marriage. When faced with struggles, my thoughts quickly crawled back into the neural pathways of fight and flight—survival patterns my brain had learned so well by heart.
Early childhood trauma such as domestic violence, abuse, and tragic loss, to name a few, lead to the overdevelopment of the survival part of the brain. What follows is a life that frequently seeks safety in adverse situations. While this component of the brain promotes survival in the moment, it neglects to develop and expand helpful thoughts and logical actions when faced with distress.
As a child, I did not know what survival meant. I simply did what my underdeveloped yet developing brain told me to do to generate safety—while the walls of domestic violence closed in on all sides. Exposure to trauma etched a pathway toward constant survival in my life. I did not receive the keys to healthy relational patterns during these impressionable years. The predictable pattern in my family was to fight, walk away, and return a while later as if nothing had ever happened.
It seemed easier to avoid than engage.
As I graduated to adulthood, I desperately wanted to change this reality. To pivot away from these patterns has required purposeful practices to promote growth in my mental health such as counseling, whispered prayers, breathing techniques and yoga, helpful literature, as well as mental health medication. As I grow in my emotional health and self-awareness, I can regulate myself more calmly in relationships and show up to myself and others in more honest and authentic ways.
I first recognized my propensity toward survival when I got married. Every single fight in our first year of marriage ended in a volcanic eruption. I would then dig in my heels and maintain my post as the helpless, injured party. I immediately gifted my new husband with a crash course on how to be the savior to a manipulative victim. There was no way I would choose to be a mature adult and approach my husband after a fight. I needed to be rescued. Case closed.
Enter—marriage counseling a mere few months after saying “I do.”
I learned a lot about my role in the marriage relationship in the counseling chair. One of the key realizations was I have choices. I slowly learned I was not the victim I had fiercely identified with my entire life. I could take ownership of my decisions and move towards wholeness. I could choose to engage with my real feelings instead of falling right back into the path of avoidance.
As I explored the dynamic of having a choice, I realized I was never offered this as a child. The idea that I held agency in my life was never put on the table. My role models taught me I was at the mercy of life’s circumstances—a defeated party of the cosmic lottery. It was a rarity for my parents to take risks in their lives, and when an uncontrollable, unexpected situation happened, they would tirelessly avoid the feelings that showed up.
With the agency I now possessed, I could change my perspective in life. I had hit the jackpot and somehow prevailed beyond this cosmic lottery. I could determine the posture I would like to maintain in the family my husband and I would soon create.
On a warm August day twelve years ago, as the late summer breeze flirted with the train of my dress, I was similarly caught up in a whirlwind of bliss. I could not fully comprehend the gravity of the commitment I would promise that day. As I walked back down the aisle, I left my vows naively suspended at the altar. I had no idea that to fulfill those vows would be one of the hardest endeavors of my life. I couldn’t fathom the profound significance of “I do” in the years to come—I don’t think anyone ever can.
My husband and I are learning to say “I do” again and again as we move through the different chapters of our journey together:
I do… want to shift this pattern so we don’t continue to have the same fights.
I do… want to learn how to support you as we navigate our miscarriage grief together.
I do… want to learn how to co-parent our strong-willed children with you.
I do… want to listen as you navigate profound grief from your family of origin.
I do… want to discover how to love you in new, authentic ways as we change over time.
None of this is easy. And none of this is straightforward.
The beautiful gift of our particular marriage is that we have learned to advocate for and support each other as we navigate the harmful patterns from our families of origin. We have pivoted away from unhealthy coping mechanisms learned from our past and toward healthy ones we want to carry into the future. We have witnessed both subtle and obvious shifts in the way we thrive as a couple and how we co-parent because of this endless, but necessary work.
As new challenges continue to throw punches our way, we find that we play on the same team when we choose to actively listen to each other. When we first settled into the cozy couch all those years ago, our counselor gently led us through a simple exercise. This process asked one partner to repeat what he or she heard the other partner say. For example, I would share how I felt, and then ask my husband, “What do you hear me say?” This seemed so simple, yet felt almost impossible to put into practice. In our flawed human nature, we naturally preferred to hear what we wanted to hear. Yet, the more we practiced this exercise as a couple, the easier it became.
To choose active listening in our relationships is not for the faint of heart.
Somewhere along the way, our culture taught us to grasp for control in life. My pattern was to look out for myself first and foremost and direct my relationships to that end. I didn’t have ears to hear the needs of others alongside my own.
However, when I feel the freedom that follows an intentional practice of surrendered control, I wonder why I held so tightly onto it in the first place.
I can release my agenda.
I can release the need to win the argument.
I can release my ego.
I can release my pride.
There is a narrative in the Bible that speaks to me about this idea of surrender: “And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him here.’ So they called the man who was blind, saying to him, ‘Take courage, stand up! He is calling for you.’ And throwing off his cloak, he jumped up and came to Jesus. And replying to him, Jesus said, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ And the man who was blind said to Him, ‘Rabboni, I want to regain my sight!’” (Mark 10:49-51, NIV)
As I read this narrative, a particular detail reaches out from the page to secure my attention. Right before this man jumps up and goes straight to Jesus, he throws off his cloak. I find it interesting the author chose to include this detail. And so I ponder—maybe he throws off this cloak because it’s too heavy, quite literally, but nearly figuratively as well. His cloak, the weight he has hidden under for so long, is false protection that he doesn’t need anymore. The other reason may be that this cloak is the only material thing he possessed—his most valuable possession. At this moment, he is willing to leave his most prized possession to gain something greater.
Either way, he leaves behind this impediment to finally gain the gift of sight.
When I attempt to protect and possess my life, I am hindered from greater freedom in my relationship with both myself and others. And when I get quiet enough, I hear Jesus tenderly whisper, “Julie, your perceived control has become false protection, as well as a great possession.” He slowly continues, “Throw off your need for control and surrender it to me. You will be able to experience more freedom when you do.”
As I approach my relationship with my husband these days, my “I do” has evolved yet again–-
I do… want to surrender my control and receive the gift of sight—so I can perceive how to love and serve you better.
Julie Klein is a social worker/mental health counselor. Though she is not currently in the social work field, her heart remains hopeful for social justice in this fractured world. She currently stays home constantly herding and unschooling her intensely spirited children. A pour-over cup (or two or three) of coffee is her lifeline and keeps her in the game. She is a fierce advocate for showing up with vulnerability and authenticity, believes everyone has a powerful story to share and is convinced words hold the unique power to connect with others. She writes at the intersection of her evolving faith and the joys of life, the inevitable grief of life, and the gray that is in-between. Though she has called various cities across the United States home, she now resides outside of Portland, Oregon with her husband and three children.
You can find her on Instagram @julielynnklein