We Love Each Other, But . . . : A Leading Couples Therapist Shares the Simple Secrets That Will Help Save Your Relationship
We Love Each Other, But...offers simple, practical tips that will help you restore and strengthen a relationship that has gone off track. It lays out the nuts and bolts of building relationships so they continue to be gratifying over the long haul. Dr. Ellen Wachtel shows how, even when you feel like giving up on a relationship or marriage, you can recapture why you fell in love in the first place. Dr. Wachtel promises that there is more and suggests simple ways to keep vitality in relationships. In fact, she shows you and your partner how you can stay interested in each other for the rest of your lives.
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Golden Books Adult Publishing
February 01, 2000
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Excerpt from We Love Each Other, But . . . by Ellen Wachtel
Four Basic Truths About What Makes Love Last
It was a real question. He really wanted to know. "How did we get to this place? How did it get so bad? We started out crazy about each other, and look at us now." John was truly perplexed and sad about what his wife, Lori, had just said. She had described feeling that John wasn't very interested in her anymore. He would rather be with other people and do almost anything other than spend time alone with her. John had no real answer to this. In his heart he knew Lori was right. Deep down he thought he still loved her, but he wasn't 100 percent sure of it. He knew he wanted to love her. It upset him to know that he hurt her, but he didn't know how to fix what had gone wrong.
"What went wrong?" is a question I hear from almost every couple I counsel. And as often as I hear it, I am always saddened by how love can unravel if care isn't taken to preserve it.
This chapter will tell you the four basic truths about what makes relationships work well, and what can lead to the erosion of relationships that started out with solid foundations. Like all basic truths they are obvious, known by almost everyone but all too easily forgotten. Don't be deceived by their simplicity. Asmany of you have come to know, keeping one's eye, mind, and heart on the basics can lead to profound changes in outlook. When I describe these truths to the often very upset and angry couples I work with, the atmosphere in the room changes to one of rapt attention. There are flashes of recognition and a sense of finally understanding what had happened to their relationship.
This chapter lays out the building blocks for a successful relationship. Just as I do with the couples who see me in my office, I will tell you how to translate these basic truths into new ways of interacting so that you and your spouse feel truly loved and appreciated.
Truth #1: We Love Those Who Make Us Feel Good About Ourselves
If you remember this one point, you will get enough out of this book to give your marriage a good shot at success. And in my experience working with couples whose marriages are in trouble, this simple truth is frequently ignored.
Richard and Jackie came to me for counseling after feeling disillusioned with their seven-year marriage. Jackie, a thirty-four-year-old accountant, works long hours "for not enough money." Before work she struggles to get three-year-old Amanda up, dressed, and fed quickly so that she can drop her at nursery school before going to work. Richard, a thirty-five-year-old electrical engineer, works in a distant suburb. He leaves the house before Jackie and Amanda are out of bed. When he gets home at about seven P.M., the baby-sitter leaves and he starts dinner so that they can eat when Jackie gets home at eight or eight-thirty.
In a recent session, Jackie shrugged and said half-apologetically,"It's hard to explain what's bothering me. I know my husband loves me, but at my office and with friends--in fact, just about anywhere else--I feel like I get a more positive response than I do from him. Sometimes I think I'm being childish when I want him to compliment me--Richard certainly thinks I am. I know when you've been together as long as we have it's not realistic to want your husband to go gaga over you, but still I'm worried because I feel better when I'm away from him than when I'm with him. I think the problem may be me. It's not as if I think he doesn't love me. Maybe I just need too much ego-stroking."
"I feel the same way," said Richard. "But I tell myself to grow up. This is real life, not a romance novel. Everyone in my office thinks I'm great, not only because of the work I do but because they think I'm a decent guy. I'm the one everyone tells their problems to. But at home all I hear is how inattentive I am when Jackie's talking, how I don't do my share of the housework, or how I'm not 'nurturant'--whatever that is!"
These are not the only reasons Jackie and Richard have come to see me. This feeling of being unappreciated is just one of the concerns that emerge when I ask them to tell me what has lead them to seek couples counseling. Like so many couples who come to see me, Richard and Jackie are committed to each other and want nothing more than to provide their child with a happy and secure home. They both say with conviction that they love each other. They get along well most of the time, but when a fight erupts it gets out of hand. "Once we get going in an argument," Richard said, "it's scary how much rage seems bottled up, just waiting for a chance to come out."
My response is that they should feel concerned, both about the rage and the underlying feeling of not being sufficiently appreciated.Over time, that feeling can erode the love they still have for each other.
In my first session with a couple I always ask them to think back to how they made each other feel in the beginning of their relationship. Most couples remember feeling admired, appreciated, valued. Think back to the beginning of your own relationship. Perhaps your spouse thought your sense of humor was wonderfully outrageous. Or that you seemed to be able to talk to just about anybody. Or that you were a walking encyclopedia. Perhaps you thought that he was fantastically creative. Or smart. Or nurturant.
You and your partner may have fallen in love slowly and cautiously. Not many people have the head-over-heels movie experience. In fact, you each may have been quite aware of the other's shortcomings and deficiencies. Yet in spite of this, most of the time you made each other feel that some pretty special traits were recognized and valued.
So many people I speak with both professionally and informally wish they could recapture that falling-in-love feeling they had in the beginning of their relationship. There is really nothing quite like it--the high of sensing that someone is crazy about you and appreciates your uniqueness, the exhilaration that comes with knowing that you both feel the same way, the pleasurably charged quality to every interaction.
We all know that we can't expect to have that courtship feeling in our day-to-day lives. Sure, a romantic holiday can reignite the flames somewhat, but it's never quite the same as in the beginning of the relationship. Some couples do occasionally revisit those moments of romantic intensity through fierce fighting and equally passionate reconciliations. But no matter how sweet the reconciliations, riding a roller coaster of this sort dangerously undermines relationships.
Clearly I cannot tell you how to bring back that exquisite feeling of romance you had in the beginning of your relationship. I do believe, however, that you can maintain the fundamental feeling of mutual admiration. In strong relationships, couples continue to give each other ego boosts from time to time, which provide a low voltage charge reminiscent of the early days of the relationship.
Many people tell me that they have become upset about their marriage when they catch a glimpse of couples who seem close, tender, and interested in each other. Simply observing an ordinary interaction sets off feelings of sadness and the awareness that something precious has been lost along the way. Sarah, a woman in her midthirties, described sitting across the aisle from a married couple in their sixties who talked together during an entire hour-and-a-half train ride. The interest they seemed to have in one another left Sarah feeling disturbed about her own marriage. Sarah and her husband didn't argue much, but they sure didn't seem nearly as interested in each other as did this couple, who probably had been together many more years. David, who stated that he loved his wife of twenty-five years, was envious of a young colleague whose wife always had breakfast with him so they would have some quiet time to talk before the kids got up. Observing couples in new relationships often evokes wistful longing, despite the fact that you know the couple is in that special stage of love. One woman came to see me after watching the wonderful interaction between her daughter and her daughter's fiance. It became clear to the woman just how matter-of-fact her own relationship had become. Though pleased for her daughter, she felt sad for herself.
Are couples who continue to admire each other over stretches of time just lucky to have found one another? My work withcouples has taught me that this is not simply a matter of good fortune. Though a lucky few have genuinely found their soul mates, most couples could give each other that feeling of appreciation if they simply thought to do so.
Perhaps this will sound strange, but I have come to the conclusion that many couples just don't know they need to make sure their partner continues to feel admired. Some never thought about it. Others hold the mistaken notion that when you are married you ought to be able to assume that you hold each other in high regard, and that verbalizing it seems superfluous.
Expressing Admiration Goes Beyond Saying I Love You
Scene: A couple in bed at night after spending the evening helping the kids with homework, paying bills, preparing lunches for the next day, and watching a little television.
WIFE: Do you love me?
HUSBAND: (with a bit of annoyance in his voice) Of course.
WIFE: Why do you say it with that tone?
HUSBAND: Because I've told you over and over again and you keep asking.
WIFE: I know you tell me, but it sounds so matter-of-fact, and usually it's after I've said it first.
HUSBAND: But you know I love you. Why would I be here if I didn't love you?
WIFE: Yeah, I guess I know you love me, but why do you love me?
HUSBAND: I just do, that's all. Now can we stop talking about it? I really need to get to sleep.
WIFE: I mean it. I want to know. Why do you love me?
HUSBAND: You're caring. You're nice. I just love you. Now come on, you know I love you.
The wife in my little scenario is not really uncertain of her husband's love. She's not craving an "I love you," but more specific feedback. After a stressful day in the office and a full evening of mommying, she needs a little ego-stroking. She wants someone to pay attention to her, to make her feel good about herself, to give her a pat on the back. She's feeling unnoticed, unknown except in her role as mother and wife. Even when her husband reaches out to her she experiences his desire for sexual contact as not about her, but simply about his physical needs. She just happens to be the body in bed next to him.
Ironically her husband probably feels the same way. People at work think of him as clever, funny, warm, and a lovable nut when it comes to his passion for hockey. Like his wife, he feels unknown at home, unnoticed. And like his wife he knows he is loved but that love doesn't translate into anything that strokes his ego. He tries to connect to his wife through sexual contact but often she seems tired, indifferent, and distracted. She doesn't seem overwhelmed by his skill as a lover--to say the least! The husband who feels this way might not ask "Do you love me?" It is not really the right question, anyway. Instead he might complain that his wife doesn't seem interested at all in his work. Or he might withdraw. Or he might be irritable. He might not be able to put his finger on what is bothering him. All he knows is that somehow he doesn't feel so great when he's at home.
How to make your partner feel good about himself/herself even when a lot of what he/she does is annoying and disappointing. Many of the couples who come to see me have felt negativelytoward their spouse for quite some time. They feel disappointed, frustrated, and certainly in no frame of mind to admire their partner. Often they feel more like the foreman of a jury that is recommending a guilty verdict than they do the president of their partner's fan club. By the time couples find themselves in a therapist's office, their ability or willingness to make each other feel good about themselves has greatly diminished. Yet with a little direction, even these couples can soon begin giving each other some of the admiration that they so desperately desire.
How is that possible? I'm going to tell you what you can easily do at home, but first I'd like to show you a scene from my office.
When counseling couples, I begin the first session by asking each person to tell me what concerns him about their marriage. I ask for details so that I can get a sense of the type of interactions that upset them. Then I tell the couple that I'd like to put these concerns on the back burner for a while so that I can see these problems in the larger context of their relationship. I want to know what, if anything, still goes right despite these difficulties. I want to know if there are times when they can still have some fun together. And perhaps most important of all, I want to know what made them fall in love with each other in the first place--and if they can still see any signs of these qualities.
This conversation takes place in response to my asking Vicki what made her fall in love with her husband.
VICKI: I was temping for the advertising agency where he was an account manager. I noticed him in the cafeteria with a group of people and frankly, I liked his looks. He was cute, kind of boyish-looking. I'm not the type to go over to someone and probably nothing would have happened if he hadn't started talking to me on the elevator one day. One thing led to another and we moved in with each other about six months after we met.
THERAPIST: So you were initially attracted to him because he was cute. As you got to know him better, what was it about him that drew you to him, that led you to grow closer and closer?
VICKI: Hmm ... I haven't thought about that for a long time. Let me think. Well, I know I liked how many friends he had and that he seemed to go out of his way for them. He really cared about them, and he was eager for me to meet them. He had an easy manner with people, and I liked that. I'm not that way at all.
THERAPIST: Was there anything else about him that drew you to him besides his friendly and caring way with people?
VICKI: Well, we liked the same things and had fun together doing a lot of crazy stuff. And we seemed to have the same values. I felt like I could just have fun hanging out with him. We didn't need to be doing anything special to have fun with each other.
THERAPIST: Anything else? What made him seem like a good person to marry?
VICKI: I felt that he really liked kids and wanted to have a family as much as I did.
THERAPIST: Here's what I want you to think about. I know that the two of you have had quite a bad time with each other for several years now. Despite all the trouble you've been having, do you ever see any of the things you just described? Do they still exist at all? Like his caring way with people, or the ability to have fun just spending time together. Or the same values.
VICKI: Sure I do. He's still awfully good with people. Everybody loves him. He has a million friends.
THERAPIST: Is anything else still there?
VICKI: I think we have basically the same values and oncein a while, if we manage to avoid a power struggle, we can have some fun together.
THERAPIST: Can you say a little more about your husband's way with people? It sounds as if you think he's especially good at it. What does he actually do that you admire?
VICKI: He has a way of warmly and affectionately teasing friends that makes each person feel special. I'm not good at that and he's a master at it.
As Vicki and I talk about what she still admires and sees positively despite all the tension, her husband's posture relaxes. He turns toward her with a slight smile on his face. Clearly it's been years since he's heard any of this.
The session proceeds as I ask the husband the same questions. And as he admiringly describes Vicki's great capacity to enjoy life and the enthusiastic and energetic way that she approached change, Vicki's face softens as she shyly grins.
Obviously this brief exchange has not solved the couple's problems. But they have walked out of my office feeling a bit closer and more optimistic than they had an hour before.
How does this apply to you? Understanding that you don't have to totally approve of or admire your partner to be able to share your feelings about what you do admire can help you avoid getting to the point where you have to seek couples counseling. Even couples who have negative feelings about one another can usually recognize that they still truly admire some of their partner's qualities.
For example, let's say that as you and your wife approach your parked car you see a police officer standing there, pad in hand, about to write out a ticket for an expired meter. Your wife racesup and uses all of her social know-how to convince the police officer to put his ticket pad away.
Even if you and your wife have been angry at one another, you can still admire her for this ability. A comment about how she can charm the pants off anybody can help create an atmosphere that encourages the resolution of conflicts, anger, and hurt feelings. I find that it is sometimes helpful for couples to think about how they interact with their children as compared to how they interact with each other. Most people recognize that even though children may do many annoying things, parents still need to praise and recognize their children's positive attributes. Too often couples withhold positive feedback because they think it has been canceled out by disappointments. But withholding admiration and praise because you are angry at your partner is just plain destructive. The more that each of you withholds praise, the more alienated from each other you will become.
How to convey admiration year after year without getting repetitive. What happens after you've told your partner what you admire about him? You can't keep saying the same things over and over again, because it would become meaningless and lose the power to give that little ego boost that brings you and your partner closer. Here's the trick to giving positive feedback year after year after year.
First, practice noticing interactions and behaviors that you like and admire. Most of us do not do this naturally. We tend to focus on what's going wrong rather than on what's going right. But this does not mean that we cannot learn to do so. No more than a handful of many hundreds of clients have not been able to greatly increase their ability to notice positives when they make a conscious effort in that direction. With practice you can easilydevelop a keen eye for such behaviors. This is much easier to do than you realize. When you stop reading this, if you consciously try to observe positives in your partner you will see a lot more than you thought was there.
Second, use specific observations to give credibility and power to general statements of admiration. Perhaps you noticed that in my therapy room scenario, Vicki broke down her general admiration into a specific observation. She stated that her husband is good at affectionate teasing. Your spouse will find your feedback fresh and meaningful if you provide details. For example, perhaps you feel your husband has a good sense of humor. A statement such as "It was great the way you got Jimmy to try something new by joking with him--you really have a terrific sense of humor" will mean a lot more to him than simply saying "I think you have a good sense of humor." Or perhaps you notice how your wife spoke to one of her close friends about something that annoyed her, rather than brushing it under the rug the way you tend to do. A statement like "I'm impressed with the way you handled that situation with Sandra. You really know how to be forceful without alienating people" means a lot more than "You're good with people."
Let's return to our bedtime scenario. If the husband had mentioned something earlier in the evening about his wife's knack for handling their difficult child--specifically, how well she handled a situation that evening that could have lead to a tantrum--I guarantee that the wife would not have been asking "Do you love me?"
So if your spouse is generally good at getting conversations going, telling jokes, keeping confidences, or sticking to an exercise regime, notice instances of these traits and let her know that you've noticed. Or if you are impressed with your partner's ability to stay calm in a crisis, or his creative solutions for tacklingdifficult problems, or her confidence in cooking without a recipe, or his knack of finding good buys, or his taste in clothes, or her ability to remember what she read in the newspaper, let him or her know that you admire these abilities.
You may wonder why you should admire your partner when he doesn't admire you. The short answer is that the saying "What goes around comes around" is usually true. When one person in a relationship starts to be more positive, the vicious cycle of hurt and withholding begins to break. But if this is a sticking point, and you just can't see yourself giving this kind of feedback, then I suggest you skip to chapter 6, which deals with what to do when things have gotten very bad between you and your spouse.
Truth #2: Most of Us Know What Will Warm Our Partner's Heart
The first counseling session with Kathy and Bob was nearing the end. Kathy had spoken with anger and bitterness about Bob's selfishness. She felt that he had never adjusted to being part of a family, and made decisions on the basis of what was best for him individually. She had become deeply disappointed in the marriage. It hurt her that Bob's career always came first. And though she knew he did love their two kids, he participated very little in family life. "I assume he loves me, too," she had said earlier, "but I don't feel it."
Bob was fed up. "I break my butt trying to make a good living and all I get is complaints. The moment I come home she starts in with the list of things I should do or didn't do. She gets on a roll about how irresponsible I am for coming home late. She just doesn't get it ... I work these hours because I need to. All I ever get is criticism."