How I Transformed My Relationship

by Ryan Berg, MA

Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.

I met my wife on the internet.  Eharmony to be precise. It was early 2015 and I just got out of a tumultuous short-term relationship, which ended because the woman forgot my middle name — I became enraged, packed up, and left her.  In hindsight, I was acting out anger rooted in childhood trauma of neglect, abandonment, and emotional unavailability by my mother (and father). “We’ve been together for several months, and you can’t remember my middle name?  You don’t know me, aren’t paying attention to me, and simply don’t care about me!” was the accelerant that ignited me to flee.  I’ve come to realize that I found myself in relationship with this person because she unconsciously reminded me of my mother, and I was attempting to “work out” these old wounds with her.

I couldn’t fathom actually being alone, however, and desperately wanted her to chase me, say she couldn’t live without me, and beg for my return.  She didn’t, and I spent the next several weeks feeling punishingly alone and frightened.  I was primally panicked: my sense of security and safety was shattered, and I felt in literal danger without her.  Unknowingly, I hungered desperately for safe emotional connection with another human being, and believed I might actually perish without it.  To cope, I returned to my routine: sending dozens of online messages to prospective mates.  I went on a handful of dinner dates that all fizzled out, leaving me frustrated, lonely, and empty; feelings I’ve carried nearly my entire life, and futilely escaped by grasping at a myriad of girlfriends and flings — a pattern preserved through perpetual infidelity.

During my frenzy of online “outreach”, I messaged a Peruvian woman named, Nataly.  Like the others, I only spent a few seconds on her profile, and was solely interested in her appearances.  She responded a day later: “Hello, I live in Japan, is that OK?”  “Sure, that’s fine” I replied.  We would end up communicating nearly everyday for the next year, and she eventually came to visit me in California.  When she returned to Asia, however, the distance created uncertainty and confusion about our future, and we came close to breaking up.  “Why am I in this long distance relationship?  Relationships are about intimacy, I need someone who’s closer!” I rightly reasoned.

What made me feel compassion for her and never quit over the course of that year, though, was that I saw myself in her.  I saw a woman who experienced a difficult upbringing, lacked love as a child, had a big chip on her shoulder, and carried anger.  Yet, I also saw someone whose strength, internal and external beauty, went as deep as our universal origins — a person whose soul reached outward to connect with one like itself.  I knew I could trust that no matter what future conflict may hold, she would never quit.  She was in it.  She possessed the fire and strength of an Incan warrior and would defend our sacred bond, permitting us to grow together, have children, and eventually — a tightly knit and loving nuclear family: something I never had but always dreamed deeply for.

And so, when she called to tell me that she was quitting her job, selling everything she owned, and traveling back to California to spend more time with me, I was nervous and excited.  I saw this move as an unspoken commitment to a potential future together, so I asked her to marry me on a peak at Mount Diablo.  Surprised and in disbelief, she initially snatched her hand away from mine.  Her entire life she believed she wasn’t worthy of love, nor did the man exist whom hers belonged — so as the moment arrived, naturally, she pulled away.  A second later, shivering, a “yes” fell out, and she permitted me to press the ring onto her finger. We hugged and laughed with nervous joy as we turned towards the quiet, yes bustling valley below  — and tried to take it in.

Neither of us realized how challenging marriage would actually be, particularly between two people who lived with unhealed childhood trauma, never observed a healthy relationship model in their adult caregivers, were members of entirely different cultures (and spoke different languages!), and one of us had served in a warzone.  We didn’t have the skills to effectively identify, navigate, and communicate our own emotions, causing conflict to often erupt volcanically —  leading us to assume separation was the only choice.  “Surely, this is not the relationship I want to be in”, we thought.  Eventually, we got wiser and individually committed to psychotherapy in order to confront our pasts, face our pain head on, heal old wounds with a professional, and gain insight into the experiences that have shaped our present selves.  Doing this has led to great benefits in our individual lives, and thus our relationship.  It has helped me to see that conflict arises in all relationships, and that by creating space for and talking about it, we can heal not only our pasts but our present too. We’ve been married since May of 2016, and while future conflict is completely inevitable, we’re moving towards healing and greater unity.