“Be sensitive to the needs of your spouse.”
Ending the call on her cell phone, Raquel rolls over and slowly places it on the bedside table.
In a voice muffled by the bed covers, her husband, Tom, asks, “What was that?”
In a voice devoid of expression, Raquel says, “It’s over.”
Shifting until he is facing her, Tom, says, “What? What’s over?”
“It was mother. Dad just died.”
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry Roqie. He sure fought it for a long time. What time is it?”
“Wow. It’s time for me to get up any way. Karl and Matt will be here pretty soon.”
Sitting up in bed, Raquel switches on the bedside lamp. “You can’t be serious. Are you still going on your golf trip?”
Tom gets out of bed and begins looking for his clothes. “Look Raquel, the guys have had this trip planned for months. I’ll lose my money if I don’t go. Besides, it’s not like your dad’s death was unexpected. Do you really want me to stay?”
Raquel sits with her mouth open. Finally, she shakes her head and gets out of bed. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. It’s not like you’ve ever been there for me before. I keep thinking you’re going to wake up and change, but it never happens.”
“Oh come on,” Tom says. “You can’t believe that.”
Putting her hands on her hips, Raquel continues, “What happened when I had a miscarriage three years ago?”
“Huh?” Tom replies. “What are you talking about?”
“Do you even remember me having a miscarriage?”
Hesitantly, Tom says, “Well sure I do.”
“And where were you when I was in the hospital?”
Tom stares at her blankly. He opens his mouth to speak, then closes it in silence.
“Uh, let’s see,” Raquel says sarcastically. “I believe you were at a Steelers’ football game. You left that morning even though you knew there was a possibility I was going into labor.”
“Yeah, but I called and checked on you, didn’t I?” Tom asks defensively.
Dropping her hands from her hips and looking defeated, Raquel replies, “Yes you did Tom. And on the last call, when I told you it was a miscarriage, you said, ‘Well it’s not like it was a real baby.’”
Walking towards the bathroom, she adds, “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over that.”
Six months later Raquel is in my office and has just finished describing the above scene. With mascara running down her cheeks, her plaintive cry and commentary is, “He’s just never there when I need him.”
“So you feel all alone?” I ask.
“I’m so lonely I think my heart will break at times. I don’t have any family that I can lean on. I’m not from here and it’s hard for me to make friends. Tom is all I have. Or maybe I should say, all I had, because I don’t feel like I’ve had him in years.”
She continues, “Don’t get me wrong. Tom is not a bad person. As a matter of fact, everyone likes Tom. But it seems like he’s more eager to do things for other people, including himself, than he is for me.
“To be honest with you, I think I’m ready to leave him.”
Those last seven words are ones that marriage and family therapists hate to hear. They come from a heart that is empty and cold.
Tom has unconsciously bankrupted his account in Raquel’s love bank. He hasn’t made enough deposits (positive emotional strokes) to cover his blundering withdrawals (negative emotional strokes).
I ask Raquel if she’s willing to give marital therapy a try. Although there is no positive energy in her response, she does agree.
As I come to meet and know Tom, I concur with Raquel’s statement that he is not a bad person. He’s just oblivious because he has a nonfunctioning emotional radar system.
Partly contributing to his living in oblivion to the emotional needs of Raquel is that he grew up in a home that was devoid of emotion. His father was a quiet, introverted man. His mother was a closet alcoholic. Tom never saw any affection between his parents and he never received affection from them.
So, for Tom, learning to be sensitive to Raquel’s needs will be equivalent to him learning to speak a new language.
Fortunately I find Tom to be an eager learner. He does not want to lose Raquel.
The first suggestion I make to Tom and Raquel is that they try doing what I call “The Two List Exercise.” This is how it goes.
You and your spouse make two lists at the end of each day, independently from each other.
The first list is: Things my spouse did for me today that made me feel appreciated.
The second list is: What I did for my spouse today to show them that I value them.
Then compare your lists with each other.
Here is what will happen. First of all, if you are to make a list of things your spouse has done that made you feel appreciated, you’ll start looking for those things. (In life we often find what we are looking for!)
Secondly, if you have to make a list of things you have done to show your spouse that you value them, you’ll start trying to think of things to do. (No one wants a blank list!)
But here’s the third thing that can happen. Let’s say my wife and I do this exercise. On my list of things I’ve done to show her that I value her, I put four things. On her list of things I’ve done that made her feel appreciated she only puts one thing, and it’s not even one of the four things on my list.
I would look at her in astonishment, show her my list and say, “What about these things? Look what I did!”
She would then look at my list and say, “Those things don’t mean anything to me.”
At that point I have two choices. I can become indignant that she didn’t like what I did. Or I can say to myself, “Quit wasting your time doing things that don’t get you any return for your investment. Figure out what she likes and do those things.”
In addition to this simple exercise I recommended two books for this couple. They are the two books that I’ve recommended more often than any others for struggling marriages: His Needs, Her Needs by Willard Harley, and The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.
Six months after first meeting Raquel and Tom, I sit and listen to them talk about the positive changes in their marriage.
“I finally feel like he understands me,” Raquel says. “I feel closer to him than I ever have before.”
“I love how eager she is to be with me,” Tom says. “She is much more responsive to me. We are actually happy.”
“That’s a good way to put it,” Raquel adds. “There was never any doubt that we loved each other. But love isn’t always enough. What’s happened is we’ve learned about ourselves and each other. And we’ve created an atmosphere of happiness in our home.”
(For more articles to help improve your relationships, click on “categories” and choose “Family Helps.”)