Early in my marriage, I remember hearing something about how couples ought to create “safe places” for each other–environments where they can talk about their issues and work through them without the fear of anger or condemnation from the other party. I agree wholeheartedly that this is a worthwhile goal, but today I’m asking myself… what happens when your safe place fails?
Throughout my marriage, at least in the early stages, I tried to be open and vulnerable with my husband, but we were often ill-equipped to handle big issues, especially when they manifested themselves through seemingly trivial problems. For instance, not knowing our differences in “love languages” often left me feeling unloved when Jon came home and immediately headed downstairs to work out (my love language being time.) He saw my anger as lack of support and grew angry in return, sometimes responding in sarcastic ways which left me reeling in pain (my secondary love language being words of affirmation.) Eventually, I shut down and stopped expressing my needs altogether, or did so through manipulative tactics which hurt us both, until one day so much pain and anger and resentment had grown between us that I sat before a marriage councilor and cried “I feel like you’re telling me to cut down an entire forest with a nail file!”
Today, I sat thinking about a recent incident that left me feeling bruised and tender, and I thought once more about the concept of “safe places.” The funny thing is, Jon has been a “safe place” for me in many, many ways throughout our marriage. He has been the person who knows the best and worst of me and has loved, supported, and been there for me, anyway. In many ways, he’s one of the most loving and forgiving people in my life. And yet, even that bastion has had it’s weaknesses. And this makes me wonder: isn’t that true for all relationships? Don’t we all fail, on occasion? Don’t we all grow tired and angry and confused and respond in ways guaranteed to create distance between us and those we love? And if so, how can I maintain a commitment to being vulnerable with those I love, when I know they may occasionally fail to respond in loving ways? How can I remain open and willing to share my weaknesses with people who will, at times, lash out in the midst of their own hurt, anger, or frustration?
As I thought of this, I was reminded of Jesus’ words to Peter, who asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” And Jesus answered, “not seven, but seventy times seven.”
Now I don’t think forgiveness necessitates continued relationship (ie. you can forgive an ex who beats you, but that doesn’t mean you ought to continue living with him), but as I ponder this particular verse, the continued forgiveness of “seventy times seven” does seem to imply continued relationship, and it makes me think, perhaps, that the key word in this verse is “brother.” When I think of a “brother” or “sister,” I think of someone who truly wants what’s best for me. I think of a person who genuinely tries to be a “safe place” even if the moat protecting the castle occasionally dries up. It makes me realize that all I can ask of someone is that they be willing work with me toward building a place of refuge and comfort and unconditional love, even if it’s not perfect. It makes me realize that there will ALWAYS be cracks in the wall, but what happens, afterward, is where the real work begins. Will I run and hide and shut down as I have so many times in the past? Or will I use that place of pain and disconnection to illuminate the cracks, and work with this knowledge to create a safer place for both myself and others? Maybe the key to vulnerability and openness and being willing to share our struggles isn’t so much knowing the other person will never hurt us, but being willing to walk through that pain, over and over again, seventy times seven, in order to heal.
It reminds me of a dream I had, years ago. In the dream, I stood unclothed before a friend. I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable, but compelled to stand there, exposed and vulnerable. Later, the image from the dream came to me with the following words:
“Some day I will stand before you, naked and unashamed.
Not because you have created a safe place for me,
But because I have.”