One of the things I love most about being a marriage therapist is the variety of issues and topics that come up. It is amazing how many different ways we can be unhappy in our relationships. From infidelity to gambling, from disrespect to just a general sense of boredom – so many things can topple an otherwise healthy and happy love.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed a trend – something deeper, that I’d like to discuss.Something which I believe is foundational, and supersedes so many of the issues that are presented in session.
For many of us, entering into a relationship has a purpose. Perhaps our purpose is to build a family. Perhaps our purpose is to not feel alone. Perhaps our purpose is to give to another. But at the same time, there is a fundamental ingredient which binds our purpose to our heart. And that is the feeling – and the knowledge – that we are loved.
While we all can talk about love, and most of us know it when we feel it, what does that really mean?
It is my belief – through personal experience, research, and as a professional, that feeling loved is based on the following pillars:
- The feeling of connection
- The feeling of being cared for – prioritized, respected & honored.
- The feeling of being desired intimately.
- The feeling of being deeply accepted and appreciated for who we are.
And it is this last point – the feeling of being deeply appreciated and accepted which is at the core of our feeling loved. For it is through this feeling that we build trust. I trust you that you know me, accept me, and appreciate me. I trust that you have my back, that you won’t reject me, and that I can show you who I really am. I trust that I can make mistakes around you, won’t be judged for my imperfections, and won’t scare you off when I’m not at my best.
But conveying such a message – such a feeling is hard. Sometimes, really hard. Why is that?
It is hard because at the same time we are supposed to be giving her the message that she is wonderful, amazing and perfect – just the way she is – at that same moment, we have issues in the way she is showing up. She isn’t taking care of us the way we want. She isn’t pulling her weight in the relationship. She isn’t living up to our expectations.
These thoughts – and sometimes they are very real and very legitimate – interfere with our ability to convey what’s in our hearts – that we love her deeply, and on some level, we accept her exactly for whom she is – foibles and all.
So what are we to do? How do we find balance?
How do I convey that I love her unconditionally, but at the same time, have expectations, needs and issues that are of concern?
As men, we are natural fixers. We love to tinker with trucks, take apart watches and break things to figure out how they work. I’ll never forget the look of horror on my mother’s face when she came home to me, sitting around our living room, with her $700 camera in pieces all over the floor. Even though I kept telling her that I was just trying to figure out how camera shutters work – how they open and close so quickly – it didn’t calm her down. Go figure.
But when we take this same approach to our relationships, when we try and fix things – even with the best of intentions, it doesn’t work. Yes, it’s true – we are just trying to make things better for both of us. And yes, we include all the ways we too can and need to improve. Nonetheless, your wife didn’t marry the fix-it-man. When she needs a picture hung on the wall or a faucet tightened, she can go to angie’s list and find someone fully capable. But that’s not why she fell in love with you. That’s not why she is extending her trust to you. That’s not why she is depositing her soul – her heart in your hands. What she wants from you, more than anything, is for you to accept her – love her – right now, for who she is. And as men, this message cannot be drummed into her enough. There is nothing you can do that will ever satisfy this thirst she has for acceptance – for seeing and loving her for exactly who she is.
And to those who are protesting, and feeling as though I’ve given the green light to entitled, nasty behavior – my response is that saying I love you anyways while requesting / demanding change are not mutually exclusive. I can say “I love you. I’m here. You are worth my time and devotion. And we need to work through this issue or our relationship will suffer.” Deep accepting love and behavioral boundaries are not contradictions.
And loving her in this way doesn’t mean to become Cyrano de Bergerac and inundate her with flowers, poems and love songs day and night. No – that’s not acceptance. That’s over the top. But what it does mean, is that when she shows you her real side – her human side, her ugly side, you not only refrain from judgement but show up with the message that “It’s ok. This doesn’t scare me. I love you and want you as my partner, anyways. Let’s work through this, together.”
But if, instead, we try and fix her – we use a critical, judgmental eye, or are continuously trying to tune-up the relationship – the message we give her is clear: “You’re not good enough. I’m deeply dissatisfied with you, as you are.” And while this may work a few times, or even for a few years, it will erode her belief – her trust in you. Eventually, she will develop a resentment, an insecurity, a feeling that deep down, you don’t want her, love her, accept her. That she can never make you happy. And that becomes irreparable – in spite of your good intentions just to fix things and make things better. Her love dries up, she becomes cold, and wants out.
And that, my friends, is how you lose your wife.