Emotional labour, violated boundaries and intense lockdown fatigue.

As soon as we clicked on I told Linda I needed to speak about Adam. I said it had been on the back-burner for a while now and it’s come to the point where it’s too important to not talk about it. So that’s what we spent the whole session looking at.

I told Linda that I didn’t know where to start and I just spoke about things as they randomly came into my head. I said, ‘I am just so sick of them all. I am so sick of having no space. I need personal space and there is none. Like for example I got some post through the door earlier and the three of them followed me from the door to the kitchen to watch me open it. I asked them to give me space, told them that it was nothing to concern them, the kids went away and Adam’s still there hovering over me waiting for me to open it. It’s not even anything private and I feel like I’m being petty and stupid I mean, nothing happens these days so of course they’re interested if someone gets post but I have had enough of having my every move scrutinised under the magnifying glass its so intense. I just want everyone to go away. Everything he does annoys me.’ Linda asked me if there was anything Adam does that I do like and I was too caught up in the annoyance of it all to find anything. I told her that of course there are things I love about him and that this is just a window in time. I know that I love him very much and that these things weren’t an issue a few weeks ago and they won’t be an issue forever but they’re very much in the foreground at the moment.

I said, ‘the main problem is really just that Adam doesn’t have anything in his life other than me. So all of his eggs are in my basket… he literally relies on me for every single interaction, every conversation… every thought that he wants to share, I’m the only person he can share it with. He has narrowed his life down so much over the years that it’s been reduced to just work and us. It’s not a conscious thing but it’s happened gradually over the years to the point where he now finds himself in a really bizarre situation of having no friends and nothing in his life and I guess he’s comfortable with it this way… and I enable him unintentionally, I make it so easy for him because I want life to be calm and happy, I want him to have a good life and for the kids to be happy, so I run around metaphorically making sure he says and does and understands… it’s fucking exhausting.’

I continued, ‘When I’m not emotionally in the right place like when I was in the thick of the grief 6 weeks ago, I shut down and the space between us has widened because he just doesn’t know how to meet my needs emotionally and when I’m struggling that much I don’t then want to have to teach him how to meet my needs, teach him what to say and how to say it.’ Linda asked me if I resented him for that and I said I did and that I was angry. I explained how I put so much effort into these things and he just goes along as if everything is fine and I have to sweep up behind him.

I said, ‘I think so carefully about everything I do and say. So much effort and hard work goes into the things I deem important, like you pointed out the other day, it really hurts when other people don’t put the same care into things that I do.’ Linda said, ‘yeah I really hear that, I can see there’s a direct link between the way Adam behaves and the way your parents behaved and that’s triggering much bigger feelings… not that it isn’t valid but it also has a deeper meaning for you.’ I nodded and agreed.

I explained that in a way it’s like Adam’s a child emotionally. Not that he doesn’t or can’t understand but that he hasn’t experienced what needs to be experienced for someone to mature in their emotional intelligence. She asked me to continue explaining and I said, ‘well if I think about my life and what has helped me grow and mature and change… it’s having multiple friendships come and go, all the things that go along with friendships, the subtle nuances in adapting and responding to each individual, the tiny disagreements and mending of misunderstandings, the deep conversations, the painful parts, the endings… it all helps you develop a richer and more broad understanding of communication and of yourself… then there’s all the different jobs I’ve had, working in retail where I had to communicate with a vast amount of people, going to university matured me, the depth of intellectual conversations I had at uni with a range of people from lecturers and professors to students… then there’s my job… dealing with difficult conversations with parents or confronting challenges with management or cooperating and working as part of a team or nurturing and being very careful and considerate with the kids I work with… then there’s therapy… the 7 years of work I’ve put in there. Getting to know myself and being deeply attached to the therapist, that all generates growth, the shedding of layers of yourself as you grow out of the skin that once restricted you. But he has had none of that. When I met hm he had a great group of friends and then a horrible situation between one of my toxic friends at the time and his friends kicked off and they made him choose between me or them… I think I told you about this…’ Linda said she remembers. I continued, ‘and then he had a great friend from work who we became really close with, him and his wife, and they had kids when we did and we used to see them all the time but then they moved back to Canada. And his work… he is on his own for the majority of the day not communicating with anyone. So he hasn’t had the rich and diverse situations in his life where he would learn and develop and grow. He’s still in the skin he was in back when I met him… maybe a little but of change and growth but not much. And then there’s the attachment stuff… when we met we were both literally fighting for our lives living with our mums. And we suddenly had each other and very quickly developed an incredibly tight bond based probably on co-dependency and enmeshment. And our anxious attachments suited each other, we both clung so tightly onto each other and we settles each others anxiety because we were both afraid of abandonment. But I don’t have those same needs anymore. I’m far more secure now. I don’t need constant reminders of his love. But he still needs that from me.’

Linda asked, ‘What comes up for you when you talk about that situation with him, when you stack it all up like that, all of what you’ve learned and experienced, all of your growth and what you have next to him and his lack of growth?’ I said, ‘so many things… I guess the main thing I feel is compassion. I’m sad for him. I wish things were different. I am also maybe frustrated because it’s of his own doing, not deliberately but he’s also not doing anything deliberate to change the situation. I work so hard to make improvements and he just wishes it were different and does nothing. I sent him a podcast of Brene Brown this morning, she was talking to this guy, a doctor or psychologist or something about loneliness and connection. They were saying that even if your relationship is perfect it can’t be all you have, you need other connections, other strong attachments, you need a community. He listened to the podcase, he’s always really keen to learn… I do love that about him… he listened and he asked me if I was trying to analyse whether he was lonely and I told him NO… I KNOW he is lonely… I was trying to encourage him to reflect on what’s going on in his life and how totally it is that he feels dissatisfied. I told him it’s a pressure for me to be all he is.’ Linda asked what he said and I told her, ‘he’ll say things like, so do you want me to stop talking to you then?’

I said, ‘he wants physical intimacy, so I’ll walk into the kitchen and he’s there and he’ll lean against the unit and open his arms and tell me to come for a hug and I just don’t want to, I mean I do but I’m stiff and I can feel that I’m not relaxing into the hug. I don’t want him kissing me. I’m annoyed about the emotional intimacy stuff and all the effort and time and energy I have to put into things that it makes me not want to top him up. He constantly asks for reassurance, asks if I still love him, asks if I think he’s fat coz he’s put on like ten pounds in the lockdown, asks if I’m still attracted to him and I do reassure him, I tell him I love him and that I fancy him but there’s a pressure there… I don’t want to have to reassure him every fucking day!’

I said, ‘it’s the emotional load I’m bearing…’ Linda said, ‘emotional labour?’ and I said, ‘yeah! I have to put so much emotional labour into the relationship. Teaching him how to be a parent and how to be a good partner. So much work and effort for me. I mean, I talked to Anna about this and obviously I’m keen for Adam to start therapy and he has shown increasing interest there but she told me to back off… but how can I?’ the analogy that just popped into my mind is imagine you could drive and you decided to teach your partner how to drive… it’s a passing over of knowledge and skills… but I guess growth and therapy is different. I said to Linda, ‘Adam asked me to help him find a therapist but it’s his journey, I need to let him be the soul master of his therapeutic journey, I cant risk taking over and it being about me… I don’t want him getting more into it and resenting me for forcing him down this road. But I have found a couple of therapists… I guess it’s about talking to him about it and seeing if he’s ready to take the step.’ Linda agreed that it’s important for me to step back but also seemed keen on the idea of me giving him a gentle nudge. I said that him starting therapy would probably trigger my insecurities because I’ve spent the past nearly 19 years having his undivided attention.

Linda asked me what would happen if I stopped trying so hard, stopped helping him. I said I felt like I would explode. Life would fall apart and what am I meant to do, just watch it all fall apart? I said, ‘it is threaded through every single fibre of our lives… I’m the one who makes all the effort. If I stop everything stops. Adam comes to me to sort everything. He will walk past the kids to me to tell me that I need to tell the kids to tidy up or get off the ipads or whatever. If they’re playing in the garden and he thinks they’re getting too noisy he’ll come and tell me that the kids need to come in now.’ Linda said, ‘Wow! He gives away his power all the time to you… why do you think he does that?’ I said, ‘to be honest it’s probably my fault. My perfectionism and high expectations of us both mean he is bound to fail. I will always find something he could have done differently, done better… it seriously must be exhausting to be in a relationship with me. Why would he bother doing it himself when I’m just going to tell him he did it wrong!?’

I reflected on what Linda had said to me the other day about me being very prepared, planned, organised, methodical, considered… lesson plans and teachery. I said, ‘It’s not like I was one of these kids that knew all along she wanted to be a teacher and so the side of me that has become more and more teachery is actually a side of me I dislike… it’s organised but is it also controlling? I’ve got high standards but am I also unforgiving? And so… being in an intimate relationship, I mean it’s like he’s an employee or a kid in my class, I’m practically giving him two stars and a wish on his interactions with the kids, ‘oh I noticed you did this and that but have you thought about doing this differently?’and we talk every night reflectively, I will bring things up that happened with the kids and I’ll share stuff I’ve read and tell him how I want to do things differently…’ Linda said it sounds so much like my parents, that Adam is not living consciously just like they weren’t’ living consciously and that is a very important element for me. I said, ‘the only massive difference is that Adam isn’t defensive. He is willing to listen and learn and change whereas my parents were very defensive and never wanted to change… but again the onus is on me to help him learn and change because there is no one else, and I guess up until now I’ve been doing such a good job of that I’ve made it totally unnecessary for him to look for it anywhere else.’

Linda said, ‘I’m listening to you explain things and I get this image of you, it feels like you are running and progressing and you’ve been doing that all your life, like all your life nothing has been wasted, not a single minute, you’ve worked bloody hard to make sure every experience you’ve had has been for something, you’ve used it to grow and improve and change and adapt… and you’ve been picking up speed especially over the past few years you have been running fast in your therapy journey and I just have this image of him and he’s stayed in the same place.’ I said, ‘yeah… and I feel like this is not what I signed up for, but then he could easily feel that too, he has stayed the same I’m the one who has changed and maybe he liked things the way they were but then I feel like I have improved my life is so much better than it used to be and I want him to come with me, I love him, I feel like we were holding hands and now its harder to stretch back and keep holding on but I’m determined to not leave him behind I want him to come with me.’

Linda said, ‘I just want to say that no one is coming out of this lockdown the same as they were when they went in. especially intimate relationships. They have all been under pressure and those of us who are reflective and deep thinkers will have been doing a lot of learning and growing through the past few months. There is a lot of learning that will need to take place in relationships to get us all back on track… for everyone.’ I said, ‘I’m good at learning but then I’m gonna have to teach him!’ Linda said, ‘Yes and that’s not what you signed up for when you went into the relationship. You’re not his therapist or life coach, you wanted to be his life partner, it needs to be equal.’ I said, ‘I think it’s actually really important to see how much I have changed. The enmeshed, codependent, ‘two halves of one whole’ thing we had when we were teenagers isn’t what I want any more. I want autonomy and choice and freedom and a love that feels safe enough and strong enough to move away and come back freely… he needs constant attention and affection and stimulation whereas I feel confident in our love without having to see him and be near him all the time.’

Linda said, ‘I want to just mention something and if it doesn’t fit where you’re at just bat it away okay?’ I nodded and listened. She said, ‘do you have much going on in your life at the moment other than him?’ I said, ‘well no… but not through any decision of mine, the lockdown has reduced my busy and full life down to these four walls and these three people.’ She said, ‘and have you been connecting with friends and other people as much as you would normally?’ I said, ‘well no actually. There are some people who have been on the same wavelength as me through the grief and intensity of all of this but some people haven’t and so a distance has grown between me and them. And then I haven’t seen colleagues, I haven’t gone to the gym… I haven’t had my usual social events… everything has gone.’ Linda said, ‘So the lockdown has made you have the same life as him. I wonder if that’s magnifying things for you. I wonder if you are feeling the isolation and pain and loneliness for the both of you. And because you didn’t choose this life, it feels intolerable…’ I sat thinking for a while and she asked if that made sense. I said it did and she said, ‘is it landing? Will it go in?’ I said, ‘this is a lot, I’m letting it settle… I think on the one hand it is that I am carrying the weight of the isolation and loneliness for both of us and on the other hand also my newly formed ‘narrowed down’ life is meaning there are no longer the same distractions for me, I am having to face what has been here all along but was easier to bear because I had balance. With no balance it is harder to be okay with this.’  

I said, ‘the thing is, when we were teenagers neither of us knew anything about co-dependency or boundaries or whatever…’ Linda said, ‘yeah 19 years is a long time and of course things have changed,’ I said, ‘but I’m not sure he has changed, not the core of him, he still kind of lives with the premise that we complete each other or whatever… there is no boundary between us for him but I don’t feel like that anymore.’ I then gave Linda two examples. One was a time when Adam was looking for something and he started to open my bedside table to search for the item. I can’t even remember what he was looking for but I know it wasn’t in the drawer. I didn’t want him rummaging through my drawer. There isn’t even anything particularly private in there and there’s nothing he doesn’t know about but I just hate the feeling of him going through my stuff. Despite me explicitly saying ‘NO, I don’t want you going through my stuff’ he proceeded, in a light-hearted ‘what’s the problem’ type way, to tip the contents of the drawer on the bed, sweep through it, see the thing wasn’t there, stuff it all back in and push the drawer back in… while I swallowed my rage. Another example was when I gave him my phone to show him photos from the day we had at the beach. When it got to the last photo I said, ‘that’s the last one’ and reached my hand out but he continued to swipe and saw the picture I’d made from the photo of the heart shaped stone on the beach that I’d edited for the post about missing Anna. I didn’t want him to see that picture. My page is anonymous even to him, he doesn’t know the name of the blog and I don’t want him to see the content. I was so angry with him for continuing to swipe despite me saying that was the last photo. He just chuckled and passed the phone back to me (after looking at the picture) and I sat not speaking to him for the rest of the evening with my headphones in. later I said to him,  ‘I don’t share the intimate personal things about my emotional life with you because you don’t respect them, you don’t treat it with care and delicacy, you are not careful with hwo you speak to me and it hurts so I build a wall between us to protect myself. If you want me to share more with you then you need to be more emotionally open and caring with me.’ He apologised and asked what he could do that is more helpful. I said to Linda, ‘its not that he is deliberately hurting me its just that he really doesn’t get it.’ She said, ‘yeah it’s like he doesn’t see, doesn’t notice…’ I said, ‘yeah but it just feels so violating.’ She said ‘violating’ at the same time as me.

I said, ‘I actually cant stand it. I would never do that! I would never just rummage through someone’s stuff. I wouldn’t do it to Adam or my kids, it’s really not okay!’ I felt a lot of the teen hurt and anger rising and I could sense Linda looking closely at me though I wasn’t looking at her. I repeated, ‘I just don’t like it when people do something when you ask them not to.’ Linda said, ‘and that’s something your mum would do.’ I said, ‘yeah and I said that to Adam at a later date. I told him that respecting my privacy is really important. I had no privacy growing up. She would go through my room, she’d look under my bed, I remember coming home from school and she would have gutted my room and she would keep things of mine, she’d take my magazines and whatever she wanted. She’d read my diary… there was no privacy, I didn’t even know that you were allowed to feel safe and protected from the invasion of other people you know?’ Linda was shaking her head and sighing as I explained what my mum was like. She talked about how the violation feels so similar and that’s why it is having such a strong impact on me.

She said, ‘I can hear from what you’re saying and from your big sighs that you are very frustrated and angry about this. His behaviour is reminding you of your parents and that is really important to notice. He’s not understanding or seeing your boundaries.’ I explained that if I try to assert boundaries, he interprets it as me not loving him.’ I checked my phone just off screen and Linda said, ‘did you just check the time?’ I laughed and said ,’yes you didn’t give me a ten minute warning!’ she said, ‘sorry you’re right I didn’t, 5 minutes to go!’ I said it was fine and she asked how I felt. I told her it felt like we had just scratched the surface. Linda assured me that if it still felt important on Saturday we could revisit it.

There’s a lot going on for me as I process all of this. I am not at all comfortable with Adam’s behaviour reminding me of my mum. I don’t like noticing the feelings of having my boundaries violated. I also am confused about my feelings on the actual way Linda works. She does a lot of listening and repeating. I really feel like she does listen very closely and she helps make connections but when I did this kind of work with Anna she would blow my mind with her insights, no exaggeration it was like she had these golden nuggets that would propel my relational growth… Linda just doesn’t offer this kind of depth. But does her more laid back approach allow me to formulate my own understanding of things? It’s a bit like talking to a friend… though some friends offer me huge insights, way more than Linda. It is reminiscent of this idea that I am always the one who has to work very hard… even within the therapy with Linda, she is taking a back seat and I am doing the lion’s share of the work. With Anna I felt like she worked so hard to help me. But then I wonder if Linda will be able to play a bigger role in these conversations as our work deepens and she gets to know me better. Who knows. But I am emotionally exhausted. I feel a lot of tearful energy in my chest and down my arms. It’s been an intense session and a long day processing it all.

4 thoughts on “Emotional labour, violated boundaries and intense lockdown fatigue.

  1. Lucy, this was all so powerfully moving. I can feel your stress and pain. I can relate to your need for privacy and respect of your wishes, even in small things. Fortunately, my husband does respect them even when he doesn’t understand them or they seem insignificant. He knows they are huge to me. He doesn’t always get it right, but he tries very hard. I am telling you this because I think what made the difference (besides him seeing and feeling the distress it causes me), is that he has an understanding of triggers. We lived too many years in chaos because neither of us knew what was causing any of my deep and painful reactions. We all have triggers, ours are more pronounced and dramatic at times. Surely your husband has them too. Maybe having him educate himself on triggers and what they are could open a dialog to get him to understand that your triggers are not about him. His behavior can cause you to be triggered, but your needs surrounding what these triggers symbolize for you have nothing to do with your love for him. And his respecting your boundaries around your triggers will only strengthen your love and connection to him. Definitely his lack of understanding and respect will do the opposite. I was thinking about how a part of therapy is learning what your triggers are and discussing them together. The same is true in our relationship with our spouse. So maybe together you and Adam can begin to discuss and learn what each others triggers are. Maybe he can see that this is about mutual respect and learning how not to hurt each other, a way of having each other’s back so to speak. Maybe he can understand this. These triggers are because of our past and no one respecting us or our wishes. We don’t want to repeat that in our close loving relationships. One big important issue for him to understand is that we never get to choose what does or should trigger someone else… that is the deal and a fact. No one’s triggers should be made fun of, dismissed, or diminished. I hope that if he can realize that this is something you can offer each other,  it is actually a beautiful act of love. These are just my thoughts. I hope they are helpful in some way in helping you find your way. Lots of hugs! 

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    1. Thank you for this Blue. You gave me a lot to think about and I found it hard to know how to articulate a reply. I will need to think very carefully about specific triggers and try to communicate it to him. The issue I think is mostly with me spending so much of my life hiding myself and my emotions away. So in many ways this is coming like a bolt out of the blue for him. I don’t speak freely about my childhood, about triggers, about emotions. And I’m struggling to imagine speaking about it openly to him. We have a very close and living relationship and he is awesome in so many ways. But this side of our relationship is underdeveloped. I’d rather talk in therapy about how I feel and leave it out of my relationship 😂 but I know that it’s an important thing to work on which is why I’m now brining it to therapy and reflecting so heavily on it. Because I want to come to a healthier place. The problem is I feel like I’m making him censor himself. Because I’m so easily triggered by his unconscious responses to me. Lost to think about 💕

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  2. Lucy, the hiding of your feelings and emotions, the keeping your therapy completely private is all normal and understandable. There is so much I still hide because “noone would possibly understand.” It took me years to even know why I was experiencing so much anguish, and to even begin to know why I was responding to life the way I do. When I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD and Major Deppressive Disorder, my panic attacks and reactions had a reason and started to make sense. This gave some explanation to both my husband and I to the chaos of my internal world. But hiding my feelings and emotions are both something I still struggle with. This is a process and a journey. And everything you are experiencing is valid and completely understandable. We all are finding our way the best we can. The love and connection you and Adam have is very evident. The thing with trauma is that everything we do requires safety.  And I too do not want my husband to even meet my therapist or have any part in it. Because of my past experiences in therapy, his concern is in my safety in therapy. You are doing beautifully. I respect so much your journey and your process. You are working so hard and doing a beautiful job. I have no doubt that you will find your way, that is right for you. None of this can be rushed. You are amazing! You give me courage to keep working hard in my own therapy. Thank you Lucy for all of your honesty and vulnerability! 

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