Susan and Michael were sitting at the opposite sides of my couch, about as far apart as the arms of the couch would allow.
Each was a mirror of the other, arms and legs crossed tightly, feet bouncing nervously…angrily. Each was looking toward the opposite direction.
It was one chilly moment! I sat for a few moments, hoping one or the other would thaw the situation with a little verbal communication. None was forthcoming.
I asked, “so, what brings you here?”
I suggested, “therapy is tough when done in silence.” (Ah, how astute I am!)
I noted, “you both made the effort to be here. Perhaps we could use the time in some way that would be helpful?” (50 minutes of silence is a LONG time! Trust me on that.)
I was pondering what might actually get us somewhere when Susan said “he doesn’t love me. He never has. I have had enough rejection!”
Anger flashed across Michael’s face, and he responded “Rejected!?! You reject me on a daily basis! Every day, you show me you neither want me around nor need me!”
Susan quickly retorted “I feel the same way!”
I asked, “Michael, is that accurate? Is Susan right that you don’t love her, that you want nothing to do with her?”
He spit back “Of course not! I love Susan with all of my heart, but she is breaking it!”
“Susan,” I asked, “is Michael correct, that you don’t want or need him?”
“No,” said Susan, “but after so many times of being rejected, you finally stop trying! I have learned to get along alone.”
How sad, I thought. Both claim to love the other. And neither feels it from the other.
But they had nailed the symptoms:
1) Feeling unwanted.
2) Feeling unaccepted.
In the next few sessions, I helped Susan and Michael understand how important it is to get a spouse to feel those emotions. Notice, I said “feel.”
If the emotions are there, but not felt, problems still arise.
What I mean is, even if you want your spouse and you accept your spouse, if he or she does not experience that, it is for nothing.
When I say “want,” I mean that in every sense:
“I want you physically.”
“I want you in my life.”
“I want to share my world with you.”
The opposite is to feel either unwanted or needed. When someone feels unwanted, the rejection leads to a process of defensive disconnection. It is simply too painful to feel that level of connection.
To feel needed creates a sense that the other person is needy, and not an equal. It also raises the question of whether someone is wanted or simply needed. That creates an equally yucky (not a clinical term) experience.
As important is the feeling of acceptance. We all have a deep need to be accepted, to have someone love us as we are, in spite of our shortcomings.
“I accept you as you are.”
“I accept you as a growing, changing human being.”
“I accept you are not perfect, and neither am I.”
When someone is trying to get someone else to change, the sense of being accepted quickly vanishes.
Countless times, I have heard comments like:
“If he wasn’t so lazy, maybe he’d have a better job.”
“I am just trying to help my spouse be more stylish.”
“I am only saying that for their own good.”
. . . and many, many other ways of saying “my spouse is not acceptable.”
So, take a few moments and ask:
“What do I do that might make my spouse feel unwanted?”
“What do I do that might make my spouse feel needed?”
“What do I do that might make my spouse feel unaccepted?”
Work on changing those behaviors.
But then go to the next step. Commit to making sure that your spouse feels wanted and accepted.
Then refuse to get sucked in to responding in kind, when you feel unwanted/needed or unaccepted. Don’t decide to match how you perceive your spouse is acting. Instead, act the way you know you should.
Oh, Michael and Susan? They quickly discovered that both deeply loved the other.
Once they could talk about how they wanted each other, and showed acceptance, they discovered a depth of marriage they had never had before!
Powerful emotions, when we feel wanted and accepted. Do that for your spouse!
Lee Baucom, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, therapist, coach and speaker, and has over a quarter of a century of experience helping couples and individuals learn to thrive in their relationships and their lives. He is the creator of the internet marriage program, “Save The Marriage.”