We Love Each Other, But . . .

Simple Secrets to Strengthen Your Relationship and Make Love Last

Ellen Wachtel

Golden Guides from St. Martin's Press

WE LOVE EACH OTHER, BUT
Chapter 1
Four Basic Truths About What Makes Love Last
It was a real question. He really wanted to know. "How did we get to this place? How did it get so bad? We started out crazy about each other, and look at us now." John was truly perplexed and sad about what his wife, Lori, had just said. She had described feeling that John wasn't very interested in her anymore. He would rather be with other people and do almost anything other than spend time alone with her. John had no real answer to this. In his heart he knew Lori was right. Deep down he thought he still loved her, but he wasn't 100 percent sure of it. He knew he wanted to love her. It upset him to know that he hurt her, but he didn't know how to fix what had gone wrong.
"What went wrong?" is a question I hear from almost every couple I counsel. And as often as I hear it, I am always saddened by how love can unravel if care isn't taken to preserve it.
This chapter will tell you the four basic truths about what makes relationships work well, and what can lead to the erosion of relationships that started out with solid foundations. Like all basic truths they are obvious, known by almost everyone but all too easily forgotten. Don't be deceived by their simplicity. Asmany of you have come to know, keeping one's eye, mind, and heart on the basics can lead to profound changes in outlook. When I describe these truths to the often very upset and angry couples I work with, the atmosphere in the room changes to one of rapt attention. There are flashes of recognition and a sense of finally understanding what had happened to their relationship.
This chapter lays out the building blocks for a successful relationship. Just as I do with the couples who see me in my office, I will tell you how to translate these basic truths into new ways of interacting so that you and your spouse feel truly loved and appreciated.
Truth #1: We Love Those Who Make Us Feel Good About Ourselves
If you remember this one point, you will get enough out of this book to give your marriage a good shot at success. And in my experience working with couples whose marriages are in trouble, this simple truth is frequently ignored.
Richard and Jackie came to me for counseling after feeling disillusioned with their seven-year marriage. Jackie, a thirty-four-year-old accountant, works long hours "for not enough money." Before work she struggles to get three-year-old Amanda up, dressed, and fed quickly so that she can drop her at nursery school before going to work. Richard, a thirty-five-year-old electrical engineer, works in a distant suburb. He leaves the house before Jackie and Amanda are out of bed. When he gets home at about seven P.M., the baby-sitter leaves and he starts dinner so that they can eat when Jackie gets home at eight or eight-thirty.
In a recent session, Jackie shrugged and said half-apologetically,"It's hard to explain what's bothering me. I know my husband loves me, but at my office and with friends--in fact, just about anywhere else--I feel like I get a more positive response than I do from him. Sometimes I think I'm being childish when I want him to compliment me--Richard certainly thinks I am. I know when you've been together as long as we have it's not realistic to want your husband to go gaga over you, but still I'm worried because I feel better when I'm away from him than when I'm with him. I think the problem may be me. It's not as if I think he doesn't love me. Maybe I just need too much ego-stroking."
"I feel the same way," said Richard. "But I tell myself to grow up. This is real life, not a romance novel. Everyone in my office thinks I'm great, not only because of the work I do but because they think I'm a decent guy. I'm the one everyone tells their problems to. But at home all I hear is how inattentive I am when Jackie's talking, how I don't do my share of the housework, or how I'm not 'nurturant'--whatever that is!"
These are not the only reasons Jackie and Richard have come to see me. This feeling of being unappreciated is just one of the concerns that emerge when I ask them to tell me what has lead them to seek couples counseling. Like so many couples who come to see me, Richard and Jackie are committed to each other and want nothing more than to provide their child with a happy and secure home. They both say with conviction that they love each other. They get along well most of the time, but when a fight erupts it gets out of hand. "Once we get going in an argument," Richard said, "it's scary how much rage seems bottled up, just waiting for a chance to come out."
My response is that they should feel concerned, both about the rage and the underlying feeling of not being sufficiently appreciated.Over time, that feeling can erode the love they still have for each other.
In my first session with a couple I always ask them to think back to how they made each other feel in the beginning of their relationship. Most couples remember feeling admired, appreciated, valued. Think back to the beginning of your own relationship. Perhaps your spouse thought your sense of humor was wonderfully outrageous. Or that you seemed to be able to talk to just about anybody. Or that you were a walking encyclopedia. Perhaps you thought that he was fantastically creative. Or smart. Or nurturant.
You and your partner may have fallen in love slowly and cautiously. Not many people have the head-over-heels movie experience. In fact, you each may have been quite aware of the other's shortcomings and deficiencies. Yet in spite of this, most of the time you made each other feel that some pretty special traits were recognized and valued.
So many people I speak with both professionally and informally wish they could recapture that falling-in-love feeling they had in the beginning of their relationship. There is really nothing quite like it--the high of sensing that someone is crazy about you and appreciates your uniqueness, the exhilaration that comes with knowing that you both feel the same way, the pleasurably charged quality to every interaction.
We all know that we can't expect to have that courtship feeling in our day-to-day lives. Sure, a romantic holiday can reignite the flames somewhat, but it's never quite the same as in the beginning of the relationship. Some couples do occasionally revisit those moments of romantic intensity through fierce fighting and equally passionate reconciliations. But no matter how sweet the reconciliations, riding a roller coaster of this sort dangerously undermines relationships.
Clearly I cannot tell you how to bring back that exquisite feeling of romance you had in the beginning of your relationship. I do believe, however, that you can maintain the fundamental feeling of mutual admiration. In strong relationships, couples continue to give each other ego boosts from time to time, which provide a low voltage charge reminiscent of the early days of the relationship.
Many people tell me that they have become upset about their marriage when they catch a glimpse of couples who seem close, tender, and interested in each other. Simply observing an ordinary interaction sets off feelings of sadness and the awareness that something precious has been lost along the way. Sarah, a woman in her midthirties, described sitting across the aisle from a married couple in their sixties who talked together during an entire hour-and-a-half train ride. The interest they seemed to have in one another left Sarah feeling disturbed about her own marriage. Sarah and her husband didn't argue much, but they sure didn't seem nearly as interested in each other as did this couple, who probably had been together many more years. David, who stated that he loved his wife of twenty-five years, was envious of a young colleague whose wife always had breakfast with him so they would have some quiet time to talk before the kids got up. Observing couples in new relationships often evokes wistful longing, despite the fact that you know the couple is in that special stage of love. One woman came to see me after watching the wonderful interaction between her daughter and her daughter's fiance. It became clear to the woman just how matter-of-fact her own relationship had become. Though pleased for her daughter, she felt sad for herself.
Are couples who continue to admire each other over stretches of time just lucky to have found one another? My work withcouples has taught me that this is not simply a matter of good fortune. Though a lucky few have genuinely found their soul mates, most couples could give each other that feeling of appreciation if they simply thought to do so.
Perhaps this will sound strange, but I have come to the conclusion that many couples just don't know they need to make sure their partner continues to feel admired. Some never thought about it. Others hold the mistaken notion that when you are married you ought to be able to assume that you hold each other in high regard, and that verbalizing it seems superfluous.
Expressing Admiration Goes Beyond Saying I Love You
Scene: A couple in bed at night after spending the evening helping the kids with homework, paying bills, preparing lunches for the next day, and watching a little television.
WIFE: Do you love me?
HUSBAND: (with a bit of annoyance in his voice) Of course.
WIFE: Why do you say it with that tone?
HUSBAND: Because I've told you over and over again and you keep asking.
WIFE: I know you tell me, but it sounds so matter-of-fact, and usually it's after I've said it first.
HUSBAND: But you know I love you. Why would I be here if I didn't love you?
WIFE: Yeah, I guess I know you love me, but why do you love me?
HUSBAND: I just do, that's all. Now can we stop talking about it? I really need to get to sleep.
WIFE: I mean it. I want to know. Why do you love me?
HUSBAND: You're caring. You're nice. I just love you. Now come on, you know I love you.
Lights out.
The wife in my little scenario is not really uncertain of her husband's love. She's not craving an "I love you," but more specific feedback. After a stressful day in the office and a full evening of mommying, she needs a little ego-stroking. She wants someone to pay attention to her, to make her feel good about herself, to give her a pat on the back. She's feeling unnoticed, unknown except in her role as mother and wife. Even when her husband reaches out to her she experiences his desire for sexual contact as not about her, but simply about his physical needs. She just happens to be the body in bed next to him.
Ironically her husband probably feels the same way. People at work think of him as clever, funny, warm, and a lovable nut when it comes to his passion for hockey. Like his wife, he feels unknown at home, unnoticed. And like his wife he knows he is loved but that love doesn't translate into anything that strokes his ego. He tries to connect to his wife through sexual contact but often she seems tired, indifferent, and distracted. She doesn't seem overwhelmed by his skill as a lover--to say the least! The husband who feels this way might not ask "Do you love me?" It is not really the right question, anyway. Instead he might complain that his wife doesn't seem interested at all in his work. Or he might withdraw. Or he might be irritable. He might not be able to put his finger on what is bothering him. All he knows is that somehow he doesn't feel so great when he's at home.
 
How to make your partner feel good about himself/herself even when a lot of what he/she does is annoying and disappointing. Many of the couples who come to see me have felt negativelytoward their spouse for quite some time. They feel disappointed, frustrated, and certainly in no frame of mind to admire their partner. Often they feel more like the foreman of a jury that is recommending a guilty verdict than they do the president of their partner's fan club. By the time couples find themselves in a therapist's office, their ability or willingness to make each other feel good about themselves has greatly diminished. Yet with a little direction, even these couples can soon begin giving each other some of the admiration that they so desperately desire.
How is that possible? I'm going to tell you what you can easily do at home, but first I'd like to show you a scene from my office.
When counseling couples, I begin the first session by asking each person to tell me what concerns him about their marriage. I ask for details so that I can get a sense of the type of interactions that upset them. Then I tell the couple that I'd like to put these concerns on the back burner for a while so that I can see these problems in the larger context of their relationship. I want to know what, if anything, still goes right despite these difficulties. I want to know if there are times when they can still have some fun together. And perhaps most important of all, I want to know what made them fall in love with each other in the first place--and if they can still see any signs of these qualities.
This conversation takes place in response to my asking Vicki what made her fall in love with her husband.
VICKI: I was temping for the advertising agency where he was an account manager. I noticed him in the cafeteria with a group of people and frankly, I liked his looks. He was cute, kind of boyish-looking. I'm not the type to go over to someone and probably nothing would have happened if he hadn't started talking to me on the elevator one day. One thing led to another and we moved in with each other about six months after we met.
THERAPIST: So you were initially attracted to him because he was cute. As you got to know him better, what was it about him that drew you to him, that led you to grow closer and closer?
VICKI: Hmm ... I haven't thought about that for a long time. Let me think. Well, I know I liked how many friends he had and that he seemed to go out of his way for them. He really cared about them, and he was eager for me to meet them. He had an easy manner with people, and I liked that. I'm not that way at all.
THERAPIST: Was there anything else about him that drew you to him besides his friendly and caring way with people?
VICKI: Well, we liked the same things and had fun together doing a lot of crazy stuff. And we seemed to have the same values. I felt like I could just have fun hanging out with him. We didn't need to be doing anything special to have fun with each other.
THERAPIST: Anything else? What made him seem like a good person to marry?
VICKI: I felt that he really liked kids and wanted to have a family as much as I did.
THERAPIST: Here's what I want you to think about. I know that the two of you have had quite a bad time with each other for several years now. Despite all the trouble you've been having, do you ever see any of the things you just described? Do they still exist at all? Like his caring way with people, or the ability to have fun just spending time together. Or the same values.
VICKI: Sure I do. He's still awfully good with people. Everybody loves him. He has a million friends.
THERAPIST: Is anything else still there?
VICKI: I think we have basically the same values and oncein a while, if we manage to avoid a power struggle, we can have some fun together.
THERAPIST: Can you say a little more about your husband's way with people? It sounds as if you think he's especially good at it. What does he actually do that you admire?
VICKI: He has a way of warmly and affectionately teasing friends that makes each person feel special. I'm not good at that and he's a master at it.
As Vicki and I talk about what she still admires and sees positively despite all the tension, her husband's posture relaxes. He turns toward her with a slight smile on his face. Clearly it's been years since he's heard any of this.
The session proceeds as I ask the husband the same questions. And as he admiringly describes Vicki's great capacity to enjoy life and the enthusiastic and energetic way that she approached change, Vicki's face softens as she shyly grins.
Obviously this brief exchange has not solved the couple's problems. But they have walked out of my office feeling a bit closer and more optimistic than they had an hour before.
How does this apply to you? Understanding that you don't have to totally approve of or admire your partner to be able to share your feelings about what you do admire can help you avoid getting to the point where you have to seek couples counseling. Even couples who have negative feelings about one another can usually recognize that they still truly admire some of their partner's qualities.
For example, let's say that as you and your wife approach your parked car you see a police officer standing there, pad in hand, about to write out a ticket for an expired meter. Your wife racesup and uses all of her social know-how to convince the police officer to put his ticket pad away.
Even if you and your wife have been angry at one another, you can still admire her for this ability. A comment about how she can charm the pants off anybody can help create an atmosphere that encourages the resolution of conflicts, anger, and hurt feelings. I find that it is sometimes helpful for couples to think about how they interact with their children as compared to how they interact with each other. Most people recognize that even though children may do many annoying things, parents still need to praise and recognize their children's positive attributes. Too often couples withhold positive feedback because they think it has been canceled out by disappointments. But withholding admiration and praise because you are angry at your partner is just plain destructive. The more that each of you withholds praise, the more alienated from each other you will become.
 
How to convey admiration year after year without getting repetitive. What happens after you've told your partner what you admire about him? You can't keep saying the same things over and over again, because it would become meaningless and lose the power to give that little ego boost that brings you and your partner closer. Here's the trick to giving positive feedback year after year after year.
First, practice noticing interactions and behaviors that you like and admire. Most of us do not do this naturally. We tend to focus on what's going wrong rather than on what's going right. But this does not mean that we cannot learn to do so. No more than a handful of many hundreds of clients have not been able to greatly increase their ability to notice positives when they make a conscious effort in that direction. With practice you can easilydevelop a keen eye for such behaviors. This is much easier to do than you realize. When you stop reading this, if you consciously try to observe positives in your partner you will see a lot more than you thought was there.
Second, use specific observations to give credibility and power to general statements of admiration. Perhaps you noticed that in my therapy room scenario, Vicki broke down her general admiration into a specific observation. She stated that her husband is good at affectionate teasing. Your spouse will find your feedback fresh and meaningful if you provide details. For example, perhaps you feel your husband has a good sense of humor. A statement such as "It was great the way you got Jimmy to try something new by joking with him--you really have a terrific sense of humor" will mean a lot more to him than simply saying "I think you have a good sense of humor." Or perhaps you notice how your wife spoke to one of her close friends about something that annoyed her, rather than brushing it under the rug the way you tend to do. A statement like "I'm impressed with the way you handled that situation with Sandra. You really know how to be forceful without alienating people" means a lot more than "You're good with people."
Let's return to our bedtime scenario. If the husband had mentioned something earlier in the evening about his wife's knack for handling their difficult child--specifically, how well she handled a situation that evening that could have lead to a tantrum--I guarantee that the wife would not have been asking "Do you love me?"
So if your spouse is generally good at getting conversations going, telling jokes, keeping confidences, or sticking to an exercise regime, notice instances of these traits and let her know that you've noticed. Or if you are impressed with your partner's ability to stay calm in a crisis, or his creative solutions for tacklingdifficult problems, or her confidence in cooking without a recipe, or his knack of finding good buys, or his taste in clothes, or her ability to remember what she read in the newspaper, let him or her know that you admire these abilities.
You may wonder why you should admire your partner when he doesn't admire you. The short answer is that the saying "What goes around comes around" is usually true. When one person in a relationship starts to be more positive, the vicious cycle of hurt and withholding begins to break. But if this is a sticking point, and you just can't see yourself giving this kind of feedback, then I suggest you skip to chapter 6, which deals with what to do when things have gotten very bad between you and your spouse.
Truth #2: Most of Us Know What Will Warm Our Partner's Heart
The first counseling session with Kathy and Bob was nearing the end. Kathy had spoken with anger and bitterness about Bob's selfishness. She felt that he had never adjusted to being part of a family, and made decisions on the basis of what was best for him individually. She had become deeply disappointed in the marriage. It hurt her that Bob's career always came first. And though she knew he did love their two kids, he participated very little in family life. "I assume he loves me, too," she had said earlier, "but I don't feel it."
Bob was fed up. "I break my butt trying to make a good living and all I get is complaints. The moment I come home she starts in with the list of things I should do or didn't do. She gets on a roll about how irresponsible I am for coming home late. She just doesn't get it ... I work these hours because I need to. All I ever get is criticism."
About halfway through the session I asked the couple if theycould put these complaints on hold for the rest of the meeting so that I could get a sense of what had attracted them to each other and what was still good in the relationship despite all of the hurt, anger, and disappointment. It had been years since Kathy and Bob had actually talked about what they loved, liked, and admired about each other. They exchanged shy, cautious glances and half-smiles as they talked. The atmosphere warmed noticeably. My job as the therapist was to keep it going, to build on the tiny bit of goodwill and warmth that had been achieved in the last fifteen or twenty minutes.
Here's what I said to them and what I am saying to you: We all know what warms our partner's heart if we stop to think about it. Doing more of what draws your partner to you strengthens the relationship. For one person it might be expressing appreciation for hard work. For another it might be taking pleasure in his spouse's sense of humor. The point is that we all do know what touches the heart of our partner.
When people are angry and hurt they gradually stop doing the things that make their partner feel warmly toward them. Often this happens without any plan or conscious decision. Few of us actually decide to withhold or punish, though of course this can happen. Rather, when we feel hurt and angry it just doesn't occur to us to be emotionally generous.
I asked Kathy and Bob if they knew what they could do to create warmth between them. Kathy said that she had thought of something. I asked her not to say it aloud but rather to try it out at home. It's really much better to just do it, not talk about it. Talking about it can take away some of the pleasure that the other person experiences, because the actions can seem contrived.
Bob was not so sure what would make Kathy soften toward him. I asked him to search his memory for times, perhaps going years back, when Kathy seemed really touched by something hedid. He smiled as he remembered how she used to love the strange little notes he would leave in odd places. And once he practically bought out the apology section of the card shop when he had done something inexcusable.
"Those things wouldn't do it anymore" said Kathy. "There's too much water under the bridge and I need to see some actions, not notes and cards."
"See what I mean?" said Bob. "Nothing I can do will make her warm toward me."
"That's not true. I loved it when I knew you were really thinking about me when I wasn't there. You used to bring home little treats for me once in a while or call me during the day just to chat. Thing like that really mean something to me."
There are two important points to remember about warming each other's heart:
1. The gestures should be small, doable, and not extravagant.
2. Make the gesture a part of your everyday interactions.
Sure, sending dozens of roses will generally get a big response; so will planning a surprise party, or a romantic weekend away, or giving some expensive gift. But it isn't necessary to make such big gestures, and often, thinking that this is the kind of thing you have to do gets in the way of doing the small, day-to-day things that ultimately mean even more.
And remember: You do not have to be feeling great about each other to do the things that warm each other's heart. What you do need is goodwill and a desire to have a loving relationship.
So, think about it right now. Do you get a special smile from your wife when you remind her to take her vitamins? If you tell your partner that he should give himself a break and sleep a little later tomorrow, does it seem to warm his heart? If your partner is stressed out about work and you suggest that she spend some time in the evening or on the weekend catching up, does sheseem very appreciative? If you cook your partner's favorite dish, which you haven't made in a long time, or come home from the supermarket with the type of cookies she loved when she was a child, or offer to do one of your partner's chores because he is having a hard few weeks, you will be strengthening the love you have for one another.
Do you see what I mean? You probably know a lot of things you could do to make your partner feel closer to you.
Whether or not your relationship feels a little rocky, it is important to remember that love needs daily nourishment.
 
 
Let's get back to Kathy and Bob. In the next session they reported that they had had a pretty bad argument when Bob told Kathy at the last minute that he was planning to go into the office Saturday afternoon. They both noted that this fight differed from others in that it didn't ruin the whole weekend. On Sunday they went biking with the kids, and everyone got along pretty well. Even the kids fought less than they normally did.
When I asked how they had implemented the idea of warming each other's hearts, Bob said that he noticed that, apart from the fight, Kathy was being nicer to him. She offered to make him breakfast one morning when he had to leave the house an hour earlier than usual. "I was shocked--I would never dream of asking her to do that, with her busy schedule. But it felt really nice. She got it! It's a real pain having to leave so early, and I felt as if she were trying to make it a little easier."
"I'm glad he noticed but I can't say he did much to warm my heart," Kathy laughingly said. "But he wasn't being particularly bad, either--except for that business of working on Saturday."
"Yeah, I guess I forgot about it. You're right."
It's important to be realistic. When one person breaks the cycle of withholding, it is not a magic solution. Fights will still occur and your partner is unlikely to respond in kind immediately. Nonetheless I hope you can see from this real-life example that the atmosphere of tension in a relationship begins to soften even when only one person acts emotionally generous. Somehow Kathy and Bob were able to let go of their argument a bit sooner. And in the next session Bob recognized that he had not done his share to create an atmosphere of warmth and love. Eventually there must be reciprocity, but you must be patient.
Truth #3: Criticism Erodes Love
When Melissa and Steven first started dating they were delighted at how well they seemed to understand each other. Within a few weeks each felt as if they had found their soul mate. They could talk about anything, from movies to their most intense anxieties. Strong trust developed between them and they could say anything to one another--even critical things. They knew the criticism was in the context of love, and though it sometimes hurt they didn't view it as a problem in the relationship. Melissa talked to Steven about how he tended to interrupt people in conversations. She understood that he had grown up in a family in which no one ever let anyone else finish a sentence. She was concerned that this habit could get in the way of his career if he wasn't careful. There were other things that she thought he should change--when he started to eat before everyone had been served, or spoke with his mouth full.
Melissa also gave Steven feedback of a deeper sort. She pointed out how argumentative he could be with certain people and that he seemed to have trouble handling authority. Almost everything that Melissa said was well received. Steven had never spoken somuch about himself--Melissa was really able to bring him out. She took such an interest in him and most of what she had to say seemed to be on target.
TIME: Eight years later
SCENE: My office
STEVEN: Everything I do is wrong. I have no common sense! I don't think! I don't care about anyone but myself! That's all I hear. All she does is criticize me. She says she wants a more equal relationship when it comes to child care, but when she comes home from work she gives me the third degree about how much time I actually spent with each kid and how much time I let them watch videos. Then she starts in on me about what I fed the kids and quizzes me about the chores I didn't get to. I get a pit in my stomach when she walks through the door.
MELISSA: I don't know if he's just stubborn, but no matter how many times I tell him something he doesn't seem to learn! I really feel he's being passive-aggressive--he's purposely not doing it the way he should, out of spite. It's not just how he is with the kids. It's a lot of things. I think he purposely stacks the dishwasher the wrong way. And I'm embarrassed by the way he talks to the baby-sitter. He's just not polite.
What happened to Melissa and Steve happens all too often to many couples. Melissa may well be right that Steven's failure to learn is passive-aggressive. He clearly is annoyed by how critical Melissa can be. A vicious cycle has developed in which Melissa keeps criticizing and Steven continues "forgetting."
How did two people who started out with all the goodwill andlove in the world find themselves living out roles that both of them dislike? As with every couple, their story is complicated. Trying to juggle the pressures that go with a two-career family and children led them to neglect the basics of a loving relationship. Like many couples they no longer gave each other much admiration and seldom did what I call warming each other's heart. One of the only things that remained from the early days of their relationship was Melissa's criticism. In the context of intense love and romance, people can be pretty good-natured about constructive criticism. But hundreds of couples have told me that the most troubling part of their relationship is feeling the constant and often deep criticism.
It is important to understand that Melissa and Steven fell into this problematic pattern together, and that neither of them is solely to blame for what has happened. Melissa thought it was helpful to criticize, and Steven, instead of telling her that it bothered him, protested by ignoring Melissa's requests, demands, and advice.
I am an amateur painter and when I do portraits from photographs, my husband knows that I welcome his input. I listen when he tells me that the angle of the head doesn't look quite the same as the angle in the photo, or that the skin color seems off to him. Often he is right and I find that another set of eyes is helpful. But sometimes when I've been working hard at a painting I feel I've had enough of his input! I've done the best I can and the painting is as good as it's going to be. Saying "Enough!" to him tactfully but firmly has helped him know when any further comments will be more irritating than helpful.
In my experience the willingness to accept criticism seems to erode over time. Perhaps the biggest complaint I hear from couples is that they feel constantly scrutinized and evaluated.What was acceptable during the courtship stage of the relationship rapidly begins to feel undermining and negative. When you become your partner's critic instead of the president of his fan club, you are headed for trouble.
Some of you may be thinking, "Yes, she's right! I've got to let some things go. I should be more easygoing. I've become a nag. I have to mellow out and not be so perfectionistic." But I am not suggesting that you accept everything about your partner. Being less critical does not mean you should let yourself be mistreated or taken advantage of. It does mean two things, however. First, criticism is not the way to get your partner to change. And second, you need to be very selective about what you do criticize. Before you say something ask yourself, "Is this really important?" For most couples, even one criticism a day is too much. The fewer criticisms the better. It will help you to stop criticizing if you remember that changing your partner through criticism simply has not worked and the more you do it the less effective it is. If you try to minimize criticism and at the same time communicate what you do admire, you have a much better chance of being heard. And if you add to this equation being really conscious of doing the things that warm your partner's heart, you will create an atmosphere of love and goodwill in which difficult problems can be solved.
Perhaps this sounds all well and good but you wonder how you can possibly stop criticizing when your spouse does so many things that really annoy you. Perhaps you are thinking, "I criticize for good reason and it seems unrealistic to just stop." If you are eager to find out how to really get him or her to listen, please skip ahead to chapter 3. But do remember that the advice given in later chapters will work much better if you have laid the groundwork by starting to warm each other's heart. It only takesone of you to break a pattern of emotional withholding and I hope this chapter will have convinced you to take the first step.
Truth #4: There Is No Such Thing As Unshakable, Immutable, Affair-Resistant Love
Some of you may object strongly to what I'm going to say next. You will say I'm too cynical or lack faith in the strength of marital vows. But I believe that no marriage or relationship is safe from the threat of an affair. No one can rest assured that their partner will stay faithful to them. Over and over again I have seen the most upstanding citizens, with strong religious convictions and moral codes, override their own value system because they cannot resist the power of love and infatuation. Sometimes people do manage to refrain from acting on their feelings but the affair of the heart is every bit as powerful and threatening to committed relationships as one that becomes sexual. No matter how devoted and caring your partner may be today, he or she can change.
A Cautionary Tale
Valerie met Gregory when she was a sophomore in high school and he was a senior. Having emigrated to the United States from Budapest only one year earlier, she had few American friends and was grateful for all the support and encouragement he gave her. What started out as a friendship soon turned into a passionate teenage love affair. Valerie's parents were outraged by what they regarded as promiscuous behavior. They sent her away to relatives for the summer, and that autumn Gregory went off to college. Gregory was an unusually mature and solid young man. He was calm and persistent and "talked sense" into Valerie whenshe was so angry at her parents that she seriously contemplated running away. Whenever he was home from college he would visit Valerie, and the respectful way he treated her parents eventually led them to see him as a fine young man.
Over the years Valerie and Gregory sometimes thought that they should each go out with other people simply because they had been each other's first and only love. But after a few weeks apart they always concluded that they were extraordinarily lucky to have found one another and that it was silly to put themselves through a separation just because they had met so young.
Gregory had always wanted to be a physician and went to medical school right after graduating from college. The four years of medical school were difficult ones. Valerie's father became terminally ill during that time and died a few months before Gregory graduated. During his illness Valerie became quite despondent. Gregory did his best to juggle the demands of medical school with his deep concern for how Valerie was feeling. It upset him that Valerie was often angry and irritable with him and accused him of not being there for her. Valerie was an intense person, and though Gregory sometimes found her extreme anger or sadness frightening he always was able to help her overcome whatever bothered her. But ever since her father became ill she seemed mad at him almost all the time. Gregory understood that she was going through a very hard time and believed that eventually she would become her old self again.
They married shortly after Gregory completed medical school. An excellent student, he graduated with honors despite the fact that he frequently went home for the weekend to be with Valerie. Gregory wanted to do his internship and residency out west, and when they first got engaged they both looked forward to the adventure of being newlyweds in parts unknown. But understanding that Valerie needed to be near her bereaved mother, heagreed without resentment to do his internship and residency at a New York hospital instead.
Valerie had complete faith in Gregory's love for her. Though she was often irritated with him for becoming preoccupied with his studies and ambitions and felt sometimes that he didn't pay enough attention to her, she believed that his love for her was absolute and unshakable. He was her best friend, he was completely trustworthy, and he was a deeply moral and spiritual person. Had he not fallen in love with Valerie he might even have considered the priesthood.
I'll never forget my first meeting with Valerie and Gregory. Married fourteen years, they had two children and plenty of money. An internationally known pediatric surgeon, Gregory devoted much of his professional life to working with the Red Cross and the United Nations to provide the best medical care possible to poor children all over the world. A few months before coming to see me, while getting his clothes ready for summer storage at the cleaners Valerie had come across love letters addressed to Gregory. Valerie had so much trust in Gregory that when he told her they were from the mentally disturbed mother of one of his child patients she believed him. Three weeks later when she heard him whispering into the phone late at night she became suspicious. After days of questioning and many denials Gregory finally admitted that he had been having an affair for over two years.
In the next few weeks Valerie lost nearly twenty pounds. She was clinically depressed. She couldn't eat, sleep, or concentrate on her work. And though Gregory swore that he had broken off his relationship with his lover, Valerie was profoundly distrustful and felt that she could never recover from this betrayal. Like many people, Valerie had believed that her partner's love for her was immutable. She had always had 100 percent trust in him andregarded him as the most morally principled person she had ever encountered. She believed that he would never want to hurt her. She couldn't comprehend that he had deceived her all this time and had manipulated and purposely misled her when she asked if something was wrong. Valerie described feeling, prior to this discovery, that Gregory's love for her was as solid as a parent's love. Of course she knew that they had been having problems, and clearly they should have sought couples counseling long ago. Yet she believed that the fights, disappointments, and misunderstandings could not affect their basic love. It was unthinkable.
This was neither the first nor the last time I have heard people say pretty much the same thing.
So how did it happen? The long and short of it is that Gregory and Valerie stopped giving each other the admiration, recognition, and emotional support that nourishes love. Gregory was admired tremendously by almost everyone who came in contact with him. He was a warm, highly competent doctor who really cared about the children on whom he operated. Valerie loved and admired him as well but for years she had felt neglected and taken for granted. Though she tried to support his ambitious career, she felt that the years he spent in training had taken a tremendous toll on the relationship. She didn't work outside the home when the children were young, and with Gregory's long hours she often felt like a single parent. When she went back to work full-time she felt as if she, too, received more admiration from her coworkers. She resented that Gregory seemed more devoted to his patients than to their family. It was hard to criticize him because his work was so important, yet she felt neglected and unappreciated. When Gregory was at home she had trouble warming up to him. She knew that she had a pretty sharp tongue and often spoke to him sarcastically. Valerie became emotionally withholding. She stopped confiding in him and rarely expressedaffection. When he tried to be sexually intimate with her she found that she just wasn't in the mood. Valerie and Gregory became more and more alienated. They no longer made each other feel good about themselves.
How do I explain how a man as basically good as Gregory could have an affair? I'll talk more about affairs in chapter 6, but in essence I believe that the wish to be loved and to feel you add joy to another person's life is one of the most powerful human motivators. People will lie, rationalize, and distort the truth--to themselves and to their partner--to have this need fulfilled. The moral of this story is that you must never forget that any relationship can fall apart. But this knowledge does not have to lead to distrust and anxiety. Instead it can help you make sure that you act upon the basic truths laid out in this chapter.
I often hear people say that the worst part of their marital difficulties is the feeling that they are the primary source of unhappiness in their partner's life. It is terribly disheartening to believe that you cause more upset than pleasure. Letting your partner know the ways in which he is a positive force in your life helps strengthen the bond. In combination with the other suggestions in this chapter, it is the best way to inoculate your relationship against the danger of new loves.
WE LOVE EACH OTHER, BUT ... Copyright © 1999 by Ellen Wachtel. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.