You love each other. Your marriage has been a good one for the most part. However, as the years click by, you are keenly aware that something is missing – the spark, the passion, and the intensity that was there so powerfully in the beginning. As Valentine’s Day rolls around, you buy the obligatory card – yawn. Sometimes you find yourself yearning for the magic that once was. You also find yourself attracted to one of your co-workers – just an innocent flirtation, you tell yourself. You make love maybe once a month – twice on a good month, but even that isn’t nearly what it used to be. You don’t miss each other when you are apart; it used to kill you to not be together. You rarely hold hands, you vacation separately more and more frequently, you rarely look at each other deeply in the eyes, and your sexual fantasies are not about your spouse more often then not. You are sort of bored. Is this scenario sounding familiar to anyone? While you tend to minimize it, you have got a serious problem on your hands my friend – one that will do nothing but worsen if you don’t do something proactive to repair it.
The state of the marriage described above is actually quite normal for anyone who has been married for longer than 5 to 7 years. It is what we therapist types call “Emotional Cutoff”. It is the extremely rare marriage that does not eventually veer into the sluggish misconnection of emotional cutoff due to all the competing pressures of kids, work, bills, TV, the Internet, stress, etc. Marriages are like houses and cars; if you don’t maintain them properly and frequently, they WILL break down and fall down around you. They can be more complicated to repair then a house or a car, though.
The American Heritage dictionary defines the term “life-blood” as “an essential or life-giving force”. Life cannot be sustained without the blood. The life-blood of a fulfilling marriage is healthy neediness. The process of “falling in love” happens when a man and woman begin to detect and then consistently meet important unmet emotional needs in each other. In order to re-create love and romance in a marriage, a couple needs to become very good at understanding their own individual needs, communicating those needs pleasantly and assertively and then standing back as their partners lovingly meet those needs. Marriages desperately need this healthy neediness life giving force that can keep husband and wife focused and fixated on each other instead of the million other people, places or things that one can become fixated upon. In order to understand how the process of healthy neediness works, what blocks it from flowing freely, and how to tap into it in order to jump-start your marriage, we will need to go back to the beginning, and I mean all the way back to the beginning.
When I see a grown man and a grown woman walk into my office for the first time, what I actually see is a little boy and a little girl walking in. We learn how to love and be loved in our childhoods. The first order of business in understanding how to get the life-blood flowing again is gaining an understanding of what actually occurred as you and your spouse were growing up. What was your father like? What would an honest assessment of his strengths and weaknesses be? How about your mother? What was their marriage like? Little kids are like cups that need to be filled up with the “water” of all that kids desperately need – attention, nurturing, time, touch, protection, boundaries, affection, food, support, encouragement, direction, etc. They need all this from both a mother and a father. In order to grow up to be really healthy, they also need to see a loving connected relationship between mom and dad. The hard truth is that very few people grow up in homes where their needs are adequately and consistently met by parents who are wonderful role models for marital love. Few of us get through childhood without our fair share of emotional bumps and bruises. Another hard truth is this – in marriage we will be equally as good at loving and being loved as we were as children. That is an immutable law of nature; there is no getting around it. Sure, during the addictive thrill of new love (or what therapists call enmeshment) we can all skate free and easy for a while. However, without a great deal of hard, very intentional work, life and years turn the joy of enmeshment into the boredom of emotional cutoff. The problem isn’t that we married the wrong person. In fact, it is my belief that no one has ever, EVER married the wrong person. What makes them so right for us is that they are so very good at being wrong for us. Put your psychobabble crap detectors away and stop looking so skeptical and confused; this is actually good stuff. The wounded children in us (who unfortunately actually make all of our major relationship decisions) all have an itch that only lovers who are psychologically put together very much like mom and/or dad can itch. What makes building a vibrant mature love so difficult is that we instinctively select people whose main qualification for the job of spouse is that they are uniquely UNqualified to actually consistently meet our most important emotional needs and if that isn’t enough, we learned in childhood to either not give our needs a voice at all or we voice them in completely inappropriate and ineffective ways.
My definition of a healthy, happy spouse is someone who #1 is keenly in touch with their most important emotional needs, who #2 have a strong, firm, pleasant, non-reactive voice which they use to ask, request and otherwise beseech that their needs be met, and who #3 have trained their loving spouse to ably and willingly meet those needs. The end result is a very happy spouse who frequently gets their needs met and who then has a great deal to give back. In my opinion, these fortunate individuals are few and far between. Most of us are extremely ill equipped by our childhood experiences to have the skills required to develop a fulfilling marriage. Let me describe in more depth exactly how our childhood wounds cause pitfalls, which basically self-eliminate any possibility of our needs actually getting met in the context of our marriages.
1. Being Completely Clueless About and Out of Touch With Our Most Important Emotional Needs: If you were never hungry, would you remember to eat? We consistently make time and effort to eat because our bodies scream at us and tell us that it is time to eat. However, if your emotional needs were not met as a child, you may rarely if ever be in touch with the need for affection, or the need for affirmation and praise, or the need for touch; you have an under-developed or buried appetite for those important emotional goodies. The scripture says that we have not, because we ask not. You won’t ask for stuff that you don’t even know that you need. To be honest, the concept of emotional neediness seemed sort of fuzzy for me until fairly recently. However, I read a book that some say is the best book ever written on marriage in which the mysteries of relational neediness were explained in a very practical and simple manner. In his book, His Needs, Her Needs: Building An Affair-Proof Marriage, Willard F. Harley, Jr. indicates that for many (not all) men, the top five include sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship, physical attractiveness, domestic support, and admiration. For many (but not all) women, the list includes affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support, and family commitment. Certainly not all men or all women have the same needs. However, for most men and for most women, there is a great deal of truth in the above categories. Every married person should read His Needs, Her Needs. It does a fantastic job of describing in great detail the nature of most people’s most important emotional needs. You may very well also need some therapy to gain more insight into the nature of your emotional wounds as well as to help you reach and release the needy little kid inside of you.
2. Knowing Your Needs, But Having a Weak or Non-Existent Voice: It can be scary to ask our spouses to meet our most important emotional needs; what if they rage and refuse? If their emotional bank account with us is empty and they have their own childhood wounds, our spouses might not be the safest persons to go to in our time of need. Since, remember, they are likely put together like the most painful characteristics of our parents as we were growing up, giving voice to the little kid in us is a brave and courageous expression of our growth, health and emotional maturity on our parts. This is the work that we therapists spend a great deal of time on with our clients – gaining a voice not only with the parents who originally wounded us, but with their replacements, our well-meaning but equally wounded spouses. Some of our spouses need an extremely firm voice in order to reach them. We will teach you to walk softly but carry a big stick when it comes to non-reactively reaching the nearly unreachable spouse.
3. Having a Victimy, Whiney Voice: Uh, this isn’t going to work either. When we hear our spouses vulnerably ask that we address a deep emotional need in a sweet, pleasant, non-reactive voice, it melts us. It disarms us. It stirs our compassion and it brings up the nurturing parent in us. However, a victimy, whiney voice is going to leave us cold; it is much too demanding. We want to tap into the child within, not the “inner brat”. An overly needy, victimy voice will chase our partner away and nauseate them, especially if you happen to be begging for sex. You will need the assistance of a good therapist with this. You are coming across like a victim because you think that you are a victim. You have not been, nor will you ever be victimized by your spouse. You need a significant paradigm shift. The whiney overly entitled attitude of a spouse locked into a victim role will kill a marriage. You need this victimy stuff strongly confronted and then cut out like a cancer before it chokes your marriage and for that matter your whole life. Nobody put a gun to your head and made you pick your ill-equipped spouse and put them solely in charge of meeting your most important emotional needs; you did that to yourself. It is all good and all fair. I respectfully encourage you to stop your whining and then direct your focus to #1 your unresolved childhood issues and #2 the ways in which you are communicating your needs ineffectually or inappropriately, and #3 how you could do a better job of hearing and meeting the needs of your spouse.
4. Having a Critical or Rage Filled Voice: Obviously, this won’t work. When the wounded little kid in many of us doesn’t feel heard, they instinctively turn the volume way up. In their efforts to be heard, they actually abuse the very one that they would like to love and nurture them. They make huge withdrawals from the emotional love bank and they create an environment where their spouse can do nothing but protect themselves, run and hide, or lash back rather than responding positively. If you were brought up exposed to rage, you will probably rage in your relationship. You too will need some time on the therapy couch. Your rage springs from some pretty deep and primitive places. You too are stuck in a victimy place. While it is great that you are in touch with your needs, you need to stop sabotaging yourself when it comes to engaging your spouse in the prospect of addressing your needs.
Locating your healthy neediness, giving it a powerful non-reactive voice, training your spouse to meet your most important emotional needs while doing the same for them WILL work like magic in recreating the passion and love that you have been longing for. That healthy neediness is the glue that holds marriages together and makes them both affair-proof and divorce-proof. Don’t kid yourself; you are going to need a great deal of help on this journey. What is the old saying – an attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client. When the car or the house needs repaired, we don’t hesitate to go out and hire skilled help to assist us in making the needed repairs that we can’t make on our own. Most of us can’t successfully read a “how to” manual and then rebuild an engine. But when it comes to fixing something that is much more dear and important than a house or a car, many people make the mistake of not getting the help that they need and deserve. Don’t make that mistake; give us a call today at 844-2442 and we will get busy helping you and your spouse get an infusion of the life-blood that your marriage so desperately needs right now. A more connected, more intimate, and much more fulfilling relationship awaits.
Mark E. Smith, LCSW (317)507-8866 firstname.lastname@example.org