An attractive, intelligent young woman asked me, “Why can’t he show me any love, what is wrong with me?”
The two of them have been having a difficult time recently and she was feeling sad about how their relationship had changed in the last several months. She told me that she was in the shower crying about this when her partner came in and got angry with her.
They had a fight. She asked why he couldn’t show any compassion. He said he wasn’t sure that he loved her and ended up going to bed by himself. They never resolved the argument.
I was very concerned that he was unmoved by her sadness.
“Maybe he is not the right person for you to be with,” I wondered out loud. She said she was not ready to break up with him.
We talked some more and I got a bit more of the story.
She had reached out to him earlier in the evening asking him to be close to her and he had not responded as she had hoped. She got upset and went to take a shower and was in the shower for a very long time.
What she didn’t know was the while she was in the shower, he had been cooking a special meal for her and renting a special movie for the two of them to watch after dinner.
He went into the bathroom to ask her to come to dinner, and that is when the conversation took place.
A little background helps to understand what happened that night.
She had been hurt very badly in a past relationship and her parents had had a turbulent divorce when she was growing up. As a result, although she was objectively a very attractive woman, she carried with her a feeling that she might truly not be lovable.
His mother was depressed when he was growing up. As much as he tried to win her love, nothing he could do was enough to make her happy with him. He carried the idea that nothing he could do would ever be enough.
She felt she might be unlovable, even though she was attractive and very successful.
He felt that his love might be inadequate, and that he would never be able to have a happy relationship with a woman.
The standoff seemed to have no solution.
But that was because both of them were immersed in their own private fears. Fears that had relatively little to do with the current situation.
If the relationship ended she would have no trouble finding another man who might be a better match for her.
And although she might ask for lots of reassurance from him sometimes, the truth was that relatively little affection made her very happy, so his was not an impossible task.
But in the moment of conflict neither of them could see that.
I proposed that she take three steps to try to change the situation.
- Recognize moments of overwhelming emotion and take a break. The situation in the shower was such a charged experience for both of them that neither one was really paying much attention to the other person’s reactions in the moment. Both of them were immersed in their own private fears. This happens to all of us at times, and in those moments it is best to take a break rather than plunge ahead into another argument. I suggested that she work on noticing when she was feeling powerful sadness and that she take a “time out” if his response to her feelings seemed to be making things worse.
- Notice the ways that your partner shows love. I thought it would help both of them to feel better if she would pay more attention to the ways that he expressed love. He tended to want to do things for her, and that kind of loving was not what she was really looking for, but it was his way of showing his caring, and she needed to notice that more.
- Withdraw from the relationship when your partner is uncaring. Although he would get angry and say he did not love her, his behavior suggested otherwise. He was profoundly affected by her sadness. But she would get so hurt that the two of them would end up angry with each other, both saying things that led to more hurt feelings. I suggested that when she was feeling he was not being caring that she should distance herself from him. If she did that, I thought, he would notice, and end up showing his love (as he was trying to do, in point of fact, in the moments before the argument).
These three steps draw on the experience of working with many people in similar situations.
States of overwhelming emotion need to be mastered before dialog can happen and two people feeling triggered are not going to have a constructive discussion.
One of the most powerful ways of changing a relationship is noticing the small positive changes that someone else is making.
Another powerful way of changing a relationship is simply being uninterested and detached from the other person when that person’s behavior is destructive.
For many people, as for these two, fighting is more harmful than helpful.