Save Your Marriage Using the Monster-Under-the-Bed Theory

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(Image/John Lewis)

Imagine getting a phone call. You answer. A stranger on the other end of the line identifies his or herself as a law enforcement agent.

You feel a little flutter of anxiety.

The law enforcement official names someone you love dearly. Maybe it’s the name of a family member.

“There’s been an accident. I’m so sorry. Would you be willing to come downtown to identify the body?”

Shock. Disbelief. Disoriented.

Maybe the most unspeakably painful feeling that you didn’t know your mind and body could experience without dying.

You hang up the phone.

Maybe everything’s in slow motion. Surreal. Or maybe you rush into action because you’re the kind of person who functions well in emergencies, even when you’re falling apart on the inside.

Minutes go by. Maybe hours.

Maybe you text or call others to share the tragic news.

I can’t believe they’re gone.

You arrive at the morgue. They take you to a back room where you’ll identify the body for the coroner or medical examiner. You’re a mental and emotional wreck.

They pull back the sheet. You stare down at the face and motionless body of someone you can’t imagine living without, your worst fears realized.

And then this person jumps off the table: “SURPRISE! You can’t get rid of me that easily!” and all of the morgue workers and cops laugh and laugh and laugh and point at you while you try to process what just happened.

‘Dad, I’m scared. There’s a monster under my bed.’

It doesn’t matter that someone you loved dearly hadn’t really died, and had pulled the sickest, most-savage prank imaginable. Your brain and body still experienced the situation as if you’d lost someone precious to you.

Your mental and emotional reactions were consistent with the tragedy actually having happened.

Sometimes, little kids believe a monster could be hiding under their beds.

Because we don’t believe it’s possible that a monster could be hiding under the child’s bed, sometimes we flippantly wave off the child’s concerns. Maybe we tell them to not be silly—that their feelings are ridiculous. Maybe we tell them casually that there’s nothing to be afraid of and close their bedroom door because we’re in a hurry to run off and do something else. Maybe they cry and we get even more impatient. “What are you, a baby? Toughen up. There’s nothing to cry about, but if you keep this up, I’ll give you something to cry about.”

And that’s one way to handle it.

I’m not here to judge anyone’s parenting styles, or to act as if I’m some saint who has never failed his son. I’m confident I’ve failed him plenty.

But I think most of us can agree that there is a loving and compassionate way to respond to this child in a way that will help to build an environment of safety and trust in that relationship, and that the examples shared above are not it.

The Monster Under the Bed Theory

I mentioned this scenario in a recent podcast interview with therapist Lesli Doares, and then it came up again in a couple of recent client coaching sessions.

And the more I thought about it and talked about it, the more I liked it as a framework for having conversations about how we respond to our romantic partners. I am NOT comparing — not even a little bit—an adult relationship partner to a child who might be exhibiting “irrational fears.”

I am, however, comparing the other partner in the scenario to the Monster Under the Bed parent.

When people tell us about something that is affecting them — something that might be making them sad, or afraid, or angry, or some other bad thing — we have a choice to make about how we respond.

I submit that an effective and healthy way to respond to a child who is afraid — who is experiencing very real, actual fear, independent of how little we understand why, and regardless of how irrational we think it might be — is to sit or kneel down next to them.

“Hey. I am so sorry that you feel afraid right now. You know, I’ve been afraid before too. Many times. It feels really bad to be scared.

“I’m here. I wish I could take your fear away, but I don’t know how. I only know how to promise you that you’re not alone. I love you so much, and no matter what, I never want you to feel alone. When bad things happen to you, they happen to me too. Okay?

“I’m pretty sure there are no monsters hiding under your bed. If it’s okay with you, I’m going to turn on the lights and check for you, and then when you feel ready, we can both look together if you want. Then, if you’re confident that the coast is clear and that we don’t have any monsters sneaking around here, maybe you’ll feel good enough and safe enough to fall asleep.”

You can love your kids and still treat them like their thoughts and feelings are stupid and unimportant. I get it. Everything we understand to be true tells us that there’s no way there’s an actual monster hiding under the bed, and maybe it feels really frustrating that someone you love doesn’t have the same experiences or the same frame of reference which might cause them to behave differently than you would in similar circumstances.

It doesn’t matter that when your seemingly sadistic family member or friend played the morgue prank on you, they weren’t actually dead. You believed that they died, and while you believed it, your entire world was crumbling.

It doesn’t matter how insane it seems to an adult that a child might believe there’s a monster under their bed. That child is still feeling exactly how it would feel if there WAS a scary monster under their bed.

It doesn’t matter how confused you are about why your spouse or romantic partner might feel as they do nor does it matter how irrational you consider their reasons to be. That person you promised to love and cherish is feeling actual pain. Actual sadness. Actual anger. Actual fear.

You don’t HAVE to do the super-thoughtful parent thing and comfort the child who is afraid of the monster under their bed as described above in order to be a person who loves their children.

It’s not a right-or-wrong thing. It’s not a good-or-bad thing.

I would argue simply that one way is an effective strategy for building an environment of safety and trust in a relationship built to be healthy and last a lifetime, and that the less-compassionate, more-dickish “There’s nothing to cry about! Stop being a baby!” version is more likely to produce strained, unhealthy relationships in the future.

We get to choose.

You don’t HAVE to do the super-thoughtful and loving spouse thing when your partner communicates to you a pain or fear they’re experiencing. I don’t think about it as being right or wrong, or good or bad.

I would argue simply that one way is an effective strategy for nurturing a healthy and loving and mutually beneficial relationship built to last a lifetime.

The alternative?

Strained, unhealthy, feel-bad, conflict-heavy relationships that don’t last.

Love is a choice.

We can choose to be the kind of people who close the bedroom doors and tell our kids to shut up and stop being wimpy and afraid.

Or we can be the kind of people who sit down and listen. Who seek to understand. Who choose to care about things sometimes simply because the people we love care about them.

We can’t prevent all injury. We can’t prevent others from feeling sad or afraid.

But we can make sure that when they’re hurt, or sad, or afraid, that they know they’re not alone.

14 thoughts on “Save Your Marriage Using the Monster-Under-the-Bed Theory”

  1. Matt . This is the best text book example of showing empathy I’ve ever read. So often disregarded yet so critical to any interpersonal relationship especially romantic . It is truly relationships 101. We all have need to be acknowledged and validated a “putting -yourself -in-their -shoes” view goes so very far in terms of making someone feel safe. And of course Loved.

    1. Thank you, Louie. The problem a lot of people have, as ridiculous as it might sound, is remembering. We’re all busy, distracted and stuck in our own heads.

      When the opportunity presents itself to respond to the people we love in ways that will better the relationship, sometimes we just don’t notice.

      Something about this monster-under-the-bed scenario strikes me as something memory-jarring and easy to visualize, and I hope some people can lean on it as a reminder to maybe choose a different way to speak and behave when someone they love is communicating that something is wrong.

      1. One Foot in Front

        “I am NOT comparing — not even a little bit—an adult relationship partner to a child who might be exhibiting “irrational fears.””

        That was the part I missed. I tried using a parenting analogy with my husband a few months’ back, to horrible results, because I didn’t make this distinction of a framework. He felt I was calling him a child, and then he reacted like a child, and stormed out of the room and conversation. It took hours to even find out what I had said that set him off.

        I love analogies and think they are quite powerful. But you succeeded where I failed. It’s so critical to point out from the beginning where the analogy applies and where it doesn’t.

        1. Thank you so much for sharing that. I really appreciate you reading and leaving this thoughtful note.

  2. I love that analogy so much! A human being’s fears and feelings are very real to them, even when others are in a perspective to see something different. Telling someone not to feel the way they do is never helpful. ?

  3. This article hits really close to home. I actually had my estranged husband play a similar “joke” on me and it did not go well. Nonetheless this and your dish next to the sink article are why I’m on the divorce path right now. I sent him your article a few days and he has made the *choice* to take the f-you route. I hope other couples read your content, it’s all true and could’ve saved my marriage.

    1. I’m very sorry to hear he’s made that choice. Please know that you are worth every effort you give to yourself. Blessings

  4. This reminds me of the saying “no one in the history of calm down has ever calmed down after being told to calm down.” My STBX used to say this to me whenever something pushed me just a little too far. It was usually something he did or didn’t do and it was usually something I had repeatedly requested of him. He didn’t care about finding out what triggered the response, he just knew he didn’t want to deal with a now emotional wife. Like telling the kid to suck it up and go back to bed, I was repeatedly told to calm down. This was even AFTER telling him that this phrase was just making things worse because now on top of whatever was going on, I now felt dismissed. Ugh!

  5. In theory this sounds like a pretty good way to get the wheels turning in a persons head who otherwise would continue to respond like a dickhead to another’s feelings. I’d LOVE it if my husband could read this and finally have the light bulb moment I’ve been waiting for for 20 years. But in reality, that’s just not going to happen.

    1. There are two kinds of people, Kalea.

      The kind who intentionally hurt their spouses and/or accidentally do it but don’t really mind.

      And then the kind who would never consciously hurt those they love. In my experience, the story is ALWAYS the same.

      He doesn’t experience what you experience. Like the way two different people can feel in the same air temperature or how two different people react to a horror film.

      People must be given information in the way that makes sense to them. In the language they speak fluently.

      It’s terrifyingly subtle. The difference between the story of your marriage from you relative to the story of your marriage from him.

      But there’s always a way to reconcile those two stories.

      There’s always a way for both people to tell the story of their marriage from the OTHER’s perspective and then have their spouse nod their head and say: “Yes. You get it. You see me. You consider me. This is why I choose you every day after all of these years.”

      Please don’t abandon the idea that your husband is capable of seeing a truer version of your life, one that would help him achieve greater awareness and understanding about the things that matter most to you.

      To 20 years, and more. Cheers to you both.

    2. Kalea,

      I’d like to speak to that, too. I had to get a marriage and family therapist (MFT) to work with her and I do we could start speaking each other’s language. And lots of books, lots of them. Eventually, I started to see it from her point of view, luckily, we had a decent year before she died and I was left knowing we tried our best before the end. Don’t settle. Push for better. Get a counselor. Go by yourself at first, if need be. Most couples start that way. I had her come see “my counselor” street the and I worked on me first.

  6. Hey Matt….

    I first learned about you when my wife sent me an article to read about dishes. We read many of your posts and enjoyed using them as a jumping off point, especially the open letters! LOL. You were one of several sources we used to start dialogue as we reconciled after an almost divorce. We had a decent year and a half.

    Then, on June 25, 2018, she died. Suddenly and without warning, a blood clot took her at 36, while she was 7 weeks pregnant.

    Since then, I’ve raised my two boys as a single father.

    I can testify to the truth of this post.

    Your entire worldview changes when she’s gone.

    I’ve had a profound appreciation for her now that she’s gone. I apologize to her daily. And I can hear her saying she’s proud of me continuing the work she and I started on my healing and growth, so I can raise these boys to be better men then I was.

    I’m writing about my healing now, 20 months later. Very cathartic, as you well know.

    If anyone is reading this article… And comment… No matter HOW bad your marriage is, it’s totally fixable if you’re both willing to LEAN IN to the process of change, get groups, counseling, books, teachings, conferences, push yourself! You can’t do it on your own, and both have to be willing, and you WILL need multiple outside resources. But you can do it!

    Selah. Shalom.

    Thanks for what you do here Matt

    1. Please accept my deepest condolences. May the Lord hold her in his loving arms forever and comfort you and your family

    2. Darrell. I’m profoundly sorry, primarily for everything you’ve been through, but also for my failure to acknowledge this deeply personal, meaningful message.

      I don’t have words. But thank you for being you, for sharing your story here, and for trying to use life’s most painful lessons as fuel for growth rather than letting it rule and define you.

      I really appreciate you sharing this here. If I can ever be useful to you, please say so.

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