"He Used to Be a Hunk, Now He's Just a Whiner"
The Counselor's Turn
Both Sheila and Glenn were trying so hard to be perfect -- the perfect provider, the perfect dad -- that they weren't expressing their own needs. And both thought they'd get the attention and appreciation they were looking for by working really hard for the family. Instead, they just wound up feeling exhausted and unappreciated.
When Sheila came to me, the first thing she said was, "Glenn's so self-centered! He just wants everything his way." She insisted that her cooking was for the family's benefit. But when I pressed her, she admitted that those gourmet dinners were really a gift to herself. Retreating to the kitchen was a way of de-stressing after her workday. Because she was feeding others, too, no one could accuse her of being selfish. In fact, she hoped it would make them love her more.
But her strategy wasn't working very well. Whatever satisfaction she got from her Julia Child act was undermined by the fact that Glenn wasn't playing along. Meanwhile, Glenn seemed to be hoping that by sacrificing his own needs he'd be magically rewarded in the end. His strategy wasn't working, either.
Like a lot of couples I see, neither Sheila nor Glenn felt they had the right to come out and ask for what they needed in a relationship. Instead, they relied on tricks they'd picked up as children. Sheila was raised in a large family and she'd learned that the surest way to get some positive attention from her folks was to be an overachiever. Becoming a great cook was part of that formula, and when Glenn refused to be pleased, she reacted by lashing out.
Glenn grew up with an abusive dad and a checked-out mom. Like Sheila, he tried to win his parents' love by being super-conscientious and hardworking -- qualities that he applied first to his career and then to full-time parenting. But when Sheila didn't respond the way he'd hoped, he turned his anger inward, becoming depressed and passive. That made her even madder. Where was the vigorous, assertive man she'd married?
In our sessions I helped Sheila and Glenn understand their childhood habits and urged them to bring home the capable adult selves they'd always shown in the workplace. "Regardless of the other person's behavior," I told them, "when you're together I want you to ask yourselves: 'Am I being the person I like being?'"
Of course, they often weren't. So I gave them some rules. First, as soon as Sheila walked into the house, they had to reconnect physically -- to hug, to cuddle, to let their bodies as well as their brains know they were there for each other. I also told them to pay close attention to physical feelings and body language. If you feel tension while your spouse is talking, ask yourself, "Why am I tensing up right now?" Or if your spouse seems upset by something you just said, ask, "What's happening? What did you think I meant?" Instead of feeling hurt or getting angry, take a breath, steady yourself, and investigate the situation. Most important, Sheila and Glenn had to express their needs clearly and directly instead of hoping their spouse would read their mind.
Slowly but surely Sheila and Glenn began to work things out. Sheila agreed to save her fancy recipes for the weekends; every Sunday, she'd make and freeze simpler meals for the rest of the week. On weekdays, while she reheated dinner, she and Glenn could put the kids to bed and hang out together -- or he could go and get some exercise. Glenn bought himself a new bike, realizing that he did half of the family work and had every right to spend the family money. They've still got a few issues to resolve, but they're communicating better, and at our most recent session, Sheila told me, "The hostility and resentment are gone. My husband and I are a team again."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2011.