“How blessed is the man who fears always, but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.”(Proverbs 28:14)
One, of several, moments that is painful to witness as a marriage counselor is when one partner shares their hurt and pain with their spouse, and instead receiving compassion, empathy, and understanding from their lover, they receive coldness, criticism, or a lack of response all together. It’s as if their partner is void of any caring feelings for them. Their heart has completely hardened and it’s easy to wonder if there was ever any love in the relationship to begin with. What do I mean by hardness of heart? One way of describing it is when you’ve been hurt so many times by someone that you’ve made the decision, either consciously or unconsciously, to no longer be affected by them. You put armor on your heart to protect yourself from feeling the pain they have caused. The problem is, this armor not only protects you from swords, but it becomes a shield for all emotions, preventing them from penetrating you. We can’t connect with people when we wear this armor, when we’re guarded and our heart is hardened. Yes, we’re protected from a specific kind of pain, but we’re also at risk for another type of pain - the pain of disconnection. As the proverb states, this is one example of the calamity we suffer. So when a spouse shares their pain, your hard, protected heart isn’t able to take this in. Progress becomes stagnant and disconnection continues. What do you do if you or your partner’s heart has hardened?
In his book, Consoling the Heart of Jesus, Father Michael Gaitley writes “Mercy is love when it encounters suffering”. Similar to how Jesus gives us His mercy, we’re called to give that same mercy to others, especially our spouses. But how do we show mercy when our heart has hardened? We encounter suffering. In particular, we encounter our spouse’s suffering. It’s easy to understand why we keep the armor on our hearts when we’re facing the enemy who hurt us and has the power to keep hurting us. But what if we saw our spouse in a different way - not as an enemy, but as another person in this relationship who’s suffering? What if we looked for signs that it was safe to remove our armor? These signs would look like our partner being vulnerable, lowering their weapon, softening their voice and their expressions, leaning in to you with gentleness. As you can see, this is a two person process (three if you invite Jesus in)! If one partner takes the risk to vulnerably share their suffering, it provides safety for their spouse to remove their armor and encounter their suffering. And if the other partner can encounter their spouse’s suffering in a new and different way, they have a real chance to offer compassion, mercy, and love. The more we love, the softer our heart becomes, and the softer our heart, the more we can connect and love.
I invite you to remove the armor around your heart and encounter your spouse’s suffering, let them encounter yours, and enjoy the closeness that follows.