"He's Too Needy!"
The Counselor's Turn
"It's rare to find a couple that wants the exact same amount of affection and intimacy from each other. In most marriages, it's a delicate balancing act. Mallory and Robert don't have that balance, although they're unusual because it's typically the woman who craves more affection.
"In their first session it became apparent just how much they were both suffering. In almost 30 years of marriage, neither of them had found a way to express their emotional and sexual needs. It was like they had an unspoken pact of silence that was tearing them apart. But aside from the emotional detachment, they did actually have a solid foundation for their relationship -- they genuinely liked each other, were a good parenting team, and were great partners when it came to sharing money and the daily responsibilities of the family and household. As I delved into their childhoods, however, it became apparent why they were so bad at discussing their emotions.
"Mallory lost her father at a young age, and the message she got from her mother was, 'Don't get too close to anybody, because see what can happen?' As a result, Mallory learned to distance herself in relationships to keep from getting hurt. She put up barriers, making up excuses (like Robert's weight gain) to avoid emotional and physical intimacy. Mallory tolerated sex without ever enjoying it, and didn't have a clue what she liked and didn't like.
"Robert grew up with a cold and unaffectionate mother. It was like he had this emotional hole that he just couldn't fill, so he pursued and pursued his wife and lavished her with affection only to be rejected time and again.
"The turning point in their relationship began in a one-on-one session I had with Robert. He had always been so available to Mallory over the years that he had nearly lost sight of who he was. I encouraged him to spend time alone, doing hobbies and activities that he really enjoyed -- even if it was just going to a movie by himself. Once Robert committed to solo time, Mallory started to get anxious about where he was and what he was doing without her. Slowly, she realized how much she'd been taking him for granted.
"Of course, this didn't solve everything, but it made Robert feel wanted instead of rejected, and we were able to then focus on the couple's communications skills. In therapy I teach all couples a simple 1, 2, 3 technique. When you're talking to your spouse you each need to say: 1. What you are experiencing. 2. How you feel about it. 3. What you want. For example, Robert could say something like: 'I feel like we're not spending enough time together. I miss you and feel lonely. Let's make a plan to hang out sometime this week, just the two of us.' The technique also helped Mallory speak to Robert in a more respectful, less critical way.
"After I worked on getting them to really talk to each other, it was time to tackle their sex life. Mallory needed to stop seeing sex as a chore. I asked her to think about what gave her pleasure in bed, and then share her thoughts with Robert, because a good sex life depends on a couple's ability to communicate with each other. The key is to keep it positive. Instead of saying, 'I hate when you do xyz,' you should say 'I love when you ... can you do more of ... that was really great when you ...'
"Finally, we talked about how important it is for them to check in with each other. They needed to recognize the negative patterns in their relationship and monitor them so that they didn't get too far off track. For Robert that meant letting Mallory know when she was being distant. For Mallory it meant speaking up when she felt overwhelmed or suffocated.
"While their relationship is still a work in progress, Robert and Mallory have been able to slowly reconnect. I think Robert will always feel some kind of neglect and Mallory may not ever be comfortable with the level of emotional attention that Robert wants, but they've come a long way. 'It was hard to accept that I was part of our problem,' Mallory told me in our last session. 'I was used to just blaming Robert for everything.' And once she relaxed, it lifted a burden off Robert's shoulders. 'It's so much easier to talk to her,' he said. The bonus? 'Mallory is much more receptive to me when I touch her now,' he said. 'She even initiates sex now and then.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. Debra Castaldo, PhD, is the author of Relationship Reboot and director of the Center for Couples and Family Solutions in New Jersey.