These days, while I still have a clinical practice, I do even more clinical supervision (helping other clinicians to be better couples, sex and spiritual intimacy therapists). The other day I was staffing a case with one of my supervisees that was all too familiar. It was of a couple married 23 years with two kids, 20 and 18. They were seeing her for help with their marriage, as the looming empty nest was rapidly approaching. Their marriage, like so many, had fallen into the cultural trap of what our consumer culture seems to endorse - two people who give all their time and energy to their careers and their children, and nearly zero time and energy to their marriage. Long gone was the solid friendship of two people who told each other their hopes, dreams, fears or even the ridiculous story that had happened that day. Their conversations were of a logistical nature - if they had a conversation at all. Touch had long been reduced to 'fly-by' hugs or kisses, as one or the other ran out the door, and an occasional transactional sexual experience with one or both lost in a fantasy. While their bodies were there, their minds, hearts and spirits were definitely in another place.
When we live in a consumer culture that stands to make money on the revenue made on our children or our careers, we can easily fall prey to all the endorsements to pay attention to these priorities and ignore others. Our marriages however, go unnoticed. The person we could not keep our hands off when we were newlywed, we now push away. While I am not suggesting we find ways to 'sell' or commodify our marriages, I do want to make overt the forces that are at work in our lives, so we can examine if we want to be complicit with these forces, or if we want to craft different priorities.
In this post I will focus on five patterns I see often in women that are largely the result of ignored marriages and the frustration that arises when we stop paying attention to this core aspect of our happiness. These five qualities however, can be found in frustrated men as well - and either way - they undermine the success, trust, and happiness of a safe and meaningful connection.
ONE: Do You Put Your Kids and Everything Else Before Your Partner?
Do you put your kid's activities, school work, emotions, schedules, your career, your girlfriends, etc in front of your husband? Where does he fall on your priority list? Imagine dividing your daily or weekly thoughts and energy expenditures. Ask yourself, what goes toward your partner? How or when does he feel like a priority? Imagine every day feeling like you don't matter ... year in, year out ... being told in word and deed that everyone and everything is more important than you? What would that do to a person's sense of self? Whether we mean to or not, so many couples do this to each other. I even had to look at this the other day in my own marriage. One evening on our way home from an all-day event, the Beloved and I had to stop by his office for a minute. I walked over to the grocery store across the street to kill time while he did his 15 minute task. I saw something that would be fun to make for dinner the next night (I don't make dinner very often). The next night, he walked in the door at 8pm absolutely exhausted and lo and behold, I had dinner ready. He must have said 5 times over the next hour, "I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to have such a delicious dinner cooked for me!"
"Sheesh!", I thought, "This is one sorely ignored husband!"
TWO: Are You Constantly Complaining?
Have you gotten in the habit of using your husband as a dart board – throwing at him all the things that are driving you crazy? The kids never pick up their toys, he never puts down the toilet seat, who left the wet towel on the bed?, why are you the only one who notices how much laundry there is, how impossible your boss is ... and on and on. This constant barrage of negativity and criticism is like living under a heavy dark cloud, one that let's in no trace of sunlight.
If I have learned anything about men in 25 years of couple's work, it is, more than anything else, they want to make their wives happy. To see her shine with joy literally is his joy. This is why he is compelled ... obsessed even ... with fixing things. All he wants is to see you happy – and if he can be the one to bring you this happiness, all the better! When women look at their lives and the people within them, through a glass half empty and are constantly expressing their disapproval, he feels incompetent, defeated and powerless to do the one thing he most wants to do. When women have a list of 25 items that must get done and bark their list to those around them, only to bark the next item on the list when he announces he has completed the first five, he is denied your happiness. He asks himself, "Did what I just do make any difference to her? Did I make her life any better by getting those things done? I can't tell. She seems just as disgruntled as she was an hour ago. What difference do I make?" It is not long before he is thinking to himself, "Why do I try so hard to make her happy when nothing I seem to do makes a difference? She is always so negative."
Show him your joy and pleasure. But most importantly ... let yourself STOP and FEEL and EXPRESS your joy and pleasure!!
THREE: Do You Speak in His Language so He Can Succeed with You?
Women actually have a larger part of their brains for language and reading the emotions of others – the hippocampus. This is why girlfriends can talk in partial sentences and still 'get each other'. Their language ability and ability to read each other means they don't have to always be very clear to actually transmit a clear message. This is not the same between men and women. So many women get angry because their men 'do not get them' or they have to 'explain everything'. I would be retired by now if I received a dollar for every time I heard a woman say, "If I have to tell him what I want, it won't count if he gives it to me. How do I know he really wants to give it to me?"
Men need clear messages ... not hints and not half sentences with a look. Remember what I said above, he wants to make you happy! This means in order for him to be successful with you, you need to give him clear messages he can understand in order to be successful! No hints ... be direct – concrete – not torpedo fast - playful – loving. And then when he does get it ... stop and thank him. Show him that he actually does make a difference in your life. FOUR: Do You Withhold Your Heart and Touch?
Men crave connection and pleasure ... loving touch ... just as women do. Most men were only given permission to have this kind of touch through sexual channels past the age of 8 or 10. So while they crave it, it might be more sexualized than the cravings of a woman. It depends on the man or woman. Either way, loving touch is critical, for both of you. What is important to understand here is two-fold: One, sex is very loaded in our culture – especially heterosexual touch. In most marriages sex has been reduced to intercourse and neither men nor women pay much attention to whether connection and pleasure are being shared, but rather how often "it" is happening. This often reduces their sexual relationship to a transaction that kills desire in one or both of them. Ultimately when this is the case, the sexual touch does not bring them both what they need.
Two, you are hard wired for pleasure and connection. Learning to develop a repertoire of loving intimate sexual ways to touch that move each of you through your arousal cycle – together or separately - is important so that your sexual relationship remains fun, playful, connecting, varied and pleasurable, no matter what behaviors you decide to share at that moment. Touch should never be used as a tool to control, punish or reward – but rather should be viewed as a way to connect and nourish each of you, your relationship and connect you to God. If your sexual relationship isn't serving this purpose, sit down and talk about how to recreate it, so each time, each touch, is connecting and pleasurable for each of you.
FIVE: Do You Spend More Than You Can Afford?
Living outside your means is another way of adding incredible stress to your marriage and your partner who is trying to provide and make you happy. I have watched otherwise very happy couples split up because one person refused to live within their means and consistently put undue stress on their financial life. The stress just becomes too much. It becomes a mountain that cannot be scaled. Honoring your budget together is a way of mutually caring for your marriage and honoring the effort you are both making in the health and well-being of your future. It is a way of saying "I see you and appreciate you, and all your hard work on our behalf." Yes, it is hard to sometimes not have something we want, but having a nourished partner each night when we crawl into bed is ultimately so much more comforting.