“We’re just not making each other happy anymore,” I sighed bitterly as I heard my husband leave for work. I was beginning to feel that I was a victim in my marriage. I wasn’t a victim of abuse: it was more like neglect, or so I thought.
I’d sensed a lack of closeness between us for a long time. I may have been wrong, but I felt that I wasn’t really high on my husband’s priority list anymore. To me it seemed that he had quit telling me that he loved me, or that I looked nice, unless I asked.
The last date we’d been on had been months ago, and it was one I had arranged. It was a dance, and since he hadn’t really wanted to go and since the dance hadn’t been very satisfactory, the evening had been almost a loss. I’d resolved after that not even to bring up the subject of dancing or going on another date.
Sometimes I felt as though I was with the children thirty-six hours a day, and the only time I got out of the house was to buy groceries. I’d been dropping rather obvious hints lately about him taking me out, but nothing had happened. If anything, he was getting more stubborn about not doing it. I was beginning to feel that I didn’t have much to look forward to. I would usually let my feelings of presumed neglect build until I would tearfully bring the subject up. By that time I would be quite upset, and he would end up feeling that he was a failure as a husband. Afterward, the only thing changed between us was our deepened sense of having failed each other.
Yet I realized that my husband was probably comfortable in our relationship and therefore didn’t give it much thought. That could be viewed as a great compliment to both of us. But I felt something important was missing from our marriage, and I dwelt upon it. Finally, I realized that I couldn’t go on being so frustrated if I was to be the kind of wife and mother that my family needed. Not long after I came to this realization, we went to visit my parents. I had resolved that I would not run home to my mother with marital concerns, even though she did some family counseling in her job. But during the visit, my mother and I passed a Valentine display in the grocery store and my feelings came spilling out.
“So, Mom,” I concluded, “maybe I shouldn’t expect him to change, because that’s just the way he is. I do love him, and he takes good care of us. It’s just that I’ve been feeling depressed about our relationship, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Mom studied the shelves of canned food in front of us. “I can see that you are pained, and I’ve noticed what some might think is a lack of affection between the two of you when you’ve come to visit. But perhaps you’re going about this the wrong way.” She checked her grocery list and continued.
“What you’ve tried obviously hasn’t worked. In fact, your actions may be self-defeating.” She put some vegetables in the cart and moved on. “How does he show you that he loves you?” she asked.
I thought for a minute, surprised by her question. “He shows me that he loves me by mopping the kitchen floor or cleaning the bathroom.”
“And how do you show your love for him?” Mom pressed.
“Well, by hugs and kisses and being affectionate.”
“Both ways are fine,” Mom said, “but they may not be mutually satisfying. You need to think of ways to express your love that will meet his needs and also respond in ways that will enable him to see how to demonstrate affection that meets your needs.”
I followed her in silence, thinking to myself. Perhaps Mom was onto something. My husband didn’t seem to require physical displays of affection as much as I did. But he loved it when I baked something special for him; that, I reflected with a twinge, was seldom anymore.
I knew my husband responded negatively if he thought he was being pressured or nagged into doing something. I suddenly realized why all of my tears hadn’t helped. Even if he had done exactly as I wanted, our relationship would have changed for the wrong reasons. I realized that what I really needed was for him to take me out and tell me that I looked nice because he loved me and wanted to say those things—not because he felt pushed or nagged into it.
Mom had touched on an important aspect of our relationship. It wasn’t as if I could push myself into thinking that my husband didn’t love me—he did. He just had different ways of showing it.
I went home from our weekend visit with my parents feeling rejuvenated. After my husband left for work on Monday, I curled up on the couch with a pad of paper and wrote down ways that I could make him my number-one priority, since that was what I wanted to be with him. I listed little ways to show him that I loved him. I was quite surprised to find that he was not the culprit in our relationship that I had imagined. And as I jotted down ideas, I was startled to discover that he really hadn’t been number-one in my life.
I decided to list a few things I could do that would demonstrate my affection for my husband. I put serving a balanced meal at the top of my list. Lately I hadn’t been putting much thought into meals. I realized that I had been cleaning our house and baking to satisfy or serve neighbors or near-strangers—but not the person I cared most about. I knew a balanced meal eaten together as a family was something that my husband would truly appreciate.
I added “looking nice” to my list. I decided that I would try to look good for him when he got home from work. Sometimes when days were especially hectic, I either did a haphazard job on my makeup or hair or skipped them completely. I knew this did nothing to stimulate romance. Thinking of my wardrobe, I decided that even though I was doomed to wash-and-wear styles because of our baby’s drooling habits, I could at least change into a clean blouse before he came home.
Next on my paper, I jotted down some ways to help him think of affection on my terms. Among them, I decided to put fun notes in his lunches, send him a card at work for no particular reason, and leave clues about an event that I was planning for him. As I did this, I realized that I’d been unfairly expecting my husband to shoulder most of the dating and romantic responsibility of our relationship. I found that I was enjoying thinking of fun things to do with him.
When I put my ideas to work, my improved attitude affected the whole family. I felt much better about my position as a wife. Trying to look nice each day improved my self-concept, as did actually doing something to improve our relationship.
Our well-established patterns didn’t change overnight, and I became a bit discouraged at the beginning. But I kept at it, and later, on a date for which he had actually asked me out, we reaffirmed our commitment to one another. Both of our needs were being met, and I was the happiest I’d been in months. Holding hands with him over the table during a quiet dinner for two, I realized that any extra effort on my part had benefited us both. And I knew we were worth it.