As a couples counselor, I've heard a lot of reasons why relationships slowly come apart.
One of the most common problems I see is when a female partner starts to feel unloved. Across all kinds of relationships: gay, straight or queer, women seem to be stuck with doing the majority of the emotional labor when it comes to keeping intimacy strong. Heterosexual men tend to be caught off guard when they hear their partners talk about feeling unloved. Women's feeling of being unloved and neglected doesn't always resonate with their male partners, who may not place as much value on feeling loved as they might on stability, sex or achievement.
Men tend to neglect emotional work out of ignorance because that's how we're raised. We're taught to feel valued by our success, not necessarily our family lives. So it's a struggle for us to put work away and be present in our relationships.
So this blog is for anyone who may be scratching their heads trying to figure out what the hell they're doing wrong when their wives or partners tell them (possibly for the millionth time) that they're feeling unloved.
Keep in mind that I'm speaking in stereotypes right now. I don't usually like to do that, but in this case, it's a common theme. There are plenty of relationships where this concern isn't gendered at all - meaning both women and men alike can be attuned to feeling unloved. So really, if you find this useful, then forge ahead.
1. You're treating your relationship like a ledger.
If you've ever told your partner that you can't know how to please her unless she tells you what she wants, you may be in danger of treating your relationship like a ledger. This happens when we get so caught up in trying to do "enough" to keep ourselves out of the red that we forget that love is not measured by checks and balances.
While it's true that she needs to be clear about what she wants, she doesn't want to be in a relationship where she has to educate you on how to love her.
If you feel confused about how to make her happy, I'll give you a hint that may sound strange.
Stop thinking about what makes her happy.
Let's do a little thought exercise. Think about the earliest parts of your relationship. Do you remember the things you did, without any input from her, that brought her the most joy? If you're musically inclined - did you write her a song? If you're the techie/analytical type, did you create an exhaustive excel file of all the reasons you loved her ranked in order of their significance? Did you buy her gifts just because?
All of these actions have something in common: they happened because it brought you pleasure to do them. They came from you, not from what you thought she wanted. If you're strategic about trying to show love, your partner will always know you're TRYING. If, however, you think about what brings you the most pleasure when you show love, you'll most often hit the mark. If you miss, you'll miss on the side of "it's the thought that counts" and you'll adapt for the future.
The secret is that loving well comes from a deep knowledge of yourself, not your partner.
Do you love to cook? Cook her a meal. Make it elaborate. Put your heart into it. Even if it sucks, she's going to get the picture. Do you love to read, hike, talk politics or go to live music events? Start a lover's book club that's meant only for you two. Find three hiking trails and let her choose - touch her while you walk. Go listen to the live music she likes. Love her from the passionate place within you - stop trying to predict what she wants.
2. You're working too much.
I have my own business. I know what it's like to carry my professional world around with me everywhere I go. Funny though, that doesn't seem to work the other way around. I'm pretty good at not letting home distract me while I'm at work.
Why doesn't it work both ways?
One of the things men have been taught to believe is that our sole value comes from what we produce, conquer, achieve or build. And all of these verbs apply exclusively to our professional lives. We sometimes struggle to feel the same kind of reward that we experience when we achieve something at work.
Don't change this by punishing yourself every time you take a phone call or by fighting about how much time you need to spend working at home. That won't work. The answer is not to devalue work, but to recognize the value in your home life.
Plan something amazing and totally unexpected for you and your partner. Make sure it's out of character for you. If you're an introvert and she's an extrovert, plan something social. Plan something you know you'll both enjoy and instead of focusing on her, focus on how you feel. Focus on the joy it brings you to know you made her happy. Focus on how it feels to let work go for a while. You'll feel anxious. Your thoughts will want to pull you back. That's okay. Don't judge; just be mindful. Then, in few days, tell your partner about what you were feeling and have a conversation about what it's like to intentionally put work away.
She'll feel valued because you're sharing. You'll feel productive because you're starting to work through a challenge that you've probably known about for a while.
3. You're not speaking/acting/feeling from the heart.
Oh, get over it. I know you want practical advice that makes rational sense, but sometimes it's a healthy exercise to reflect on something that may sound cheesy or pejorative. If there's one thing I've learned as a couples therapist, it's that I can deal with almost any clinical issue except unwillingness.
I can't teach or coach people to care more. If you're struggling to try and care more - if the only reason you're going to a counselor is because she's dragged you there or if the only reason you're reading this is because she surprised you with it in your inbox, then you might be in a place where you're not really being honest about how you feel.
If you're in that place, there's a good chance that you're working against the very thing you want. We all need to be heard, even if what we have to say could be hurtful.
Usually, when we feel pestered by our partners, they have the perception we're not listening. And I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but they're usually right. Apathy - the emotion of not caring - is not a passive state. Despite what you may think, it's not her fault you don't give a shit.
Apathy exists to protect us from feeling like a failure.
I learned this by working with teenage boys in a juvenile detention facility. It was easier for them not to care than it was to try and risk failure or embarrassment. If you try to show love and you're still met with ridicule or criticism, then that's not on you. That's on her. But don't use that as an excuse to stop trying. You're only going to make things worse. Go to therapy. Write love notes. Try differently. Talk to her about feeling powerless at a time when you aren't fighting.
Change things up, but don't stop caring; because that's the beginning of the end.
If she's told you that she's not happy or that she feels like you don't love her, try not to respond defensively. Chances are she feels that way for good reason. In our culture, we tend to devalue and diminish women's experiences as being too emotional or not rational enough.
Don't do that.
That's just sexism masquerading as frustration. Trust her emotional intellect. Maybe you'll learn something about yourself that'll surprise you.